MIPCOM 2012: ITV Studios’ ‘Mr. Selfridge’ Bets on Jeremy Piven, Global Appetite for Period Drama

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A group of women and men dressed in turn-of-20th century outfits are standing inside a carpet warehouse in Northwest London. They talk to each other while standing - waiting for a signal - in a fake marble-floor hall that looks very much like an old, high-end shopping store.

A big staircase leads down to a floor full of hats for women, top hats for men, handkerchiefs, gloves, umbrellas, walking sticks and perfumes and many other goodies on offer. And on a table, books from a famous author are stacked up - ready to be signed.

Suddenly another group of people in shorts and T shirts shout instructions. A minute later everyone is ready. And action!

One of the men in early 20th century garb is introduced as the famous author, whose books are being sold, but whose identity is kept secret for now. The other, wearing one of the smartest early 1900s suits in the room, turns out to be Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of London's famous Selfridges Department Store. Someone misses a line, and the production staff in shorts returns. The TV shoot takes a small break.

Jeremy Piven, aka Mr. Selfridge, smiles and talks to some of his cast mates. Welcome to the latest TV costume drama from Britain that has pre-sold to various international markets before it has even started its U.K. run on commercial broadcaster ITV, home of Downton Abbey

The project, expected to start airing by early 2013, hails from ITV Studios, the content production arm of the publicly traded broadcaster that has become one of its big growth engines. By producing and selling abroad TV shows, ITV has been looking to smooth out the traditional ups-and-downs of the TV advertising business - and take advantage of the global appetite for high-quality TV drama.

Mr. Selfridge, which follows the rise and fall of the titular U.S. retail mogul who introduced modern shopping concepts such as customers' ability to interact with merchandise and shopping windows, has already sold to the U.S. where it will air on Downton Abbey home PBS. And the ITV Studios Global Entertainment distribution arm is looking for further international sales at the MIPCOM TV market in Cannes this week.

Created by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice) and executive produced by Kate Lewis, it also pre-sold to Seven Network in Australia, SVT in Sweden and Yes TV in Israel earlier this year. On Monday, ITV Studios announced further sales at MIPCOM, including to Ireland’s TV3, Norwegian public broadcaster NRK and Finland’s YLE.

"Selfridge invented shopping as we know it, and we're all interested in shopping," producer Chrissy Skinns explains why she hopes the project has global appeal. "I loved [Jeremy Piven] in Entourage, and we wanted a modern guy who men like, too. But it is really an ensemble piece. And people love British period drama after Downton Abbey. People think it's an interesting period."

Making the show look old and real is key. Selfridge's office on set features such items as an old lamp, a big desk and a fireplace. A Selfridges sign and such mottos as "Each day counts in building a business" can also be found.

Art director Jo Riddell says she left the general principles of Selfridges and its look at the time in tact. "But the lifts are enhanced and the revolving doors sexed up a bit" to look like they would later in time to make the look more appealing and timely and possibly allow further seasons to be shot without the need for major changes, she says.

Rob Harris, production designer on the show, said that Downton Abbey had the advantage of an existing building. "We can't film at Selfridges, so, we had to create a major player in the show from scratch. And our decision was to make things a tad modern." For example, the show uses early cars instead of horses, which were still common at the time. "That helps to convey his modern thinking" about shopping, Harris said about the Selfridge character.

Costume designer James Keast, who worked on Titanic last year, also said that "we have a little bit of a modern twist." That means that the production team is "trying to tell the story through costumes rather than just the period costumes," he explained. "Jeremy's clothes, for example, are vaguely based on Selfridge, but he plays a quite modern man, so we had to make the clothing that way."

At key moments of the show though, he decided to use clothes strictly in line with the period to remind viewers where they are in history, Keast said.

Mrs. Selfridge was most difficult in terms of costumes, he said. "She is very sophisticated, but simple. But we also wanted to signal she's American and different," he said. "So, we had to make her not blend in too much with the others."

Piven, meanwhile, managed to blend in well, the producers and crew say. "Like Selfridge, he is an American working hard to be successful here in London," Skinns said. "We are really glad to have someone of his stature."

If international sales continue to go well and ratings work out fine, the crew and actors hope to return to set in the future for further seasons of Mr. Selfridge.

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