Downton Abbey has a lot to answer for. Sunday night television has always been of a softer nature than its brash Saturday night sibling, but over the last couple of years it has become such a gentle nostalgia-fest that I’m surprised people on being awoken by their phone alarms aren’t stunned by the monstrous technology. “I don’t think Lady Grantham would be awoken in such a manner” they must think, before realising that we are in 2013 and not some bygone era.

Downton is a ratings behemoth. I pity the programmes that attempt to go up against it. But six-to-eight weeks of 10 million viewers does not a year-round triumph make, so ITV have naturally searched for something similar to launch post-Christmas. Hence the arrival of Mr Selfridge. There is hardly a need to cover the premise, as the title covers it all. Man opens glamorous shop, where soapy goings-on occur amongst the staff as the writers shoehorn major historical events. First man to fly a plane over the channel! Suffragettes! Anna Pavlova! They are all written in as a means of greasing the wheels of the plots.

Mr Selfridge has inherited one of Downton’s most annoying devices- the creation of the problem that gets conveniently solved by unconvincing means. Treasured staff member with an alcoholic, violent Dad? Pay him off. Suffragettes about to turn the store into something reminiscent of Croydon in August 2011? Put up a new window display. Once you’ve seen this trick a few times the episodes lose their tension. You know the problem will be fixed, so why invest in it?

Downton’s saving grace is a smart cast who are aware of the soapy elements and play up to them without it going too tongue-in-cheek. Mr Selfridge isn’t so successful on this front. Jeremy Piven (the eponymous hero) has replaced demonstrating genuine emotion through small facial cues with giant hand gestures and flashing massive teeth. The supporting cast is largely as bad, playing it as so worthy you would have thought that they were staging a new production of The Cherry Orchard. The one cast member who seems to have twigged what is going on is Katherine Kelly, although as a former Coronation Street cast member this is not a surprise. Her Lady Mae is the closest we get to a Dowager; walking around with a stately steeliness (and a giant hat) that steals the attention of the viewer. Her utterances are short but well-placed. Best of all, there is a glint in Kelly’s eye that suggest she is having fun with the part. It would be nice for the rest of the cast to follow suit without falling prey to Piven’s jazz-hands style.

I am not asking for Mr Selfridge to become edgy. We have enough dramas on other nights of the week that try that trick. But if you are going to do a period soap, let the cast enjoy it. And for God sake, give us plots that don’t just come to an end with a click of Mr Selfridge’s fingers. Thank you.

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