Mr Selfridge

ITV’s other recently concluded period drama was not perfect but was much more fulfilling than the stilted Downton Abbey.

We all shop and lots of people enjoy period dramas especially those based on fact so the potential of Mr Selfridge was clear from the start. It ticks a lot of boxes being based (rather loosely as it turned out) on a true story, involved an American who created a big business from a literal hole in the ground and changed the way people shop. It also had a large cast of characters with their lives and loves. Chuck in some financial dabblings, themes of loyalty, family versus work plus a smidgeon of good old gangster chic and you have the makings of something good. So why did the series fail to wow the critics?  It was hardly the `tired` show that Radio Times described yet equally it never quite soared as much as it might. Instead it was the nothing –much- happens trundle of Downton Abbey that took the plaudits, the higher ratings and the transatlantic interest leaving Mr Selfridge as ITV’s `other` big drama. 
The store's dance routines needed more work

There’s a lot of history in Mr Selfridge and I’m not just talking about the scenario. The show had an old fashioned leaning towards the likes of The Onedin Line where the business side was put on an equal footing to the relationship side. Maybe this is why it didn’t reach the commercial heights of Downton whose characters didn’t really need to work. While hardly gritty, Mr Selfridge did offer more than the two tier ensemble of Downton’s masters and servants. The show’s characters ran the gamut of social life and each was treated with attention epitomised by series one’s storyline involving a character who was found to be stealing from the store, was fired and later killed herself. It was the first indication that the series could touch a level beyond the frippery of gowns, glamour and affairs. Later storylines involved such topics as illegitimate babies, wartime conscription, wife beating, shellshock, rape and business betrayal. All subjects tackled well albeit slightly carefully, nonetheless hardly the flimsy show that some critics chose to label Mr Selfridge as.

At its core the show boldly presented a difficult, egotistical character in its interpretation of Harry Selfridge. Overcoming initial opposition and lack of support, Selfridge built the store from nothing yet it was this same zest that also compelled him to gamble and take risks with his hard earned money. Almost every other character in the series had more common sense than Harry who was almost like a child sulking away when things went badly. Yet his public persona was the inspirational speaker who rallied his staff, encouraged enterprise and women’s rights while using the rich and famous to promote the store into which he later drafted more affordable products.  Harry was a character hard to like but easy to admire. Descendants have claimed this portrayal was less than accurate but if you read the facts about him, while particular incidents in the series may have been exaggerated or invented, the drama appears to capture the nature of the man and his drive.

The series cast was large – probably too large- meaning shorter scenes and multiple storylines. This was frustrating at times when you could sense the deliberate delays in developments of stories. At other times though this brevity enabled clever, powerful or poignant scenes to shine. There were some standout performances across the series none more so than Ron Cook who played Mr Crabb the store’s accountant. The epitome of company loyalty Crabb struggled to maintain the financial stability of Selfridges despite his boss’ extravagances. Cook gave a supremely subtle performance, full of nuances and gestures together with a quiet tone that is a masterclass to watch. Equally good was Amanda Abbington’s Miss Mardle whose relationship with deputy manager Mr Grove was the real centrepiece of the personal side of the series and this was often summarised by a couple of lines or an awkward look. Tom Goodman Hill as Groves was also impressive; his strict exterior occasionally peeling back to reveal the real man underneath. The fourth key character Aisling Loftus’ Agnes Towler unfortunately left after two seasons. She seemed to be the heart of the show- the first character we met and the one who was first to be inspired by Harry’s dreams. The series definitely missed her after she went early in season 3. As for Harry himself Jeremy Piven had a tricky job which he managed very well even if the viewer might have tired of his perpetual grin and booming voice during the first series. The character and performance inevitably become more interesting the worse mess Harry got himself into.

The series was created by veteran scripter Andrew Davies and though he only wrote a handful of episodes his rigour was carried through to the other pool of writers. All four seasons certainly offered variety and well placed hooks to keep people watching. To its credit the show never got too bogged down in business minutiae and managed to give those scenes a drama that would probably be missing from real board rooms. In its depiction of the store there was always sufficient bustle. One of the features of the earlier series was a showpiece appearance by some celebrity of the time involving a special display on the shop floor and you’d be surprised by how much melodrama you can get from the design of a shop window display! It wasn’t afraid to try unusual things either- for example when a character suffering from post war trauma we saw what he was seeing- dead soldiers materialising in his house.
Sometimes Mr Selfridge could be clichéd or simplistic and some plotlines proved uninvolving notably the whole nightclub strand involving Victor Colleano and season three’s bizarre Russian mother (even though this actually did happen). That season’s plot which saw Harry hoodwinked by a female con artist into giving away thousands on homes for ex soldiers sounds odd but in the end worked as a demonstration of how easily the man and his money could be parted.
Yet sometimes in its straightforward way Mr Selfridge could be, as soaps sometimes are, powerfully rendered. For example Kitty’s rape and its ramifications not only produced some strong acting but also touched on the wider issue of soldiers who returned from the war to find a lack of opportunities. In fact it was the ominous presence of the first World War that made season 2 the best of the four. While nothing is likely to come close to the way 70s series Upstairs Downstairs used the war to reflect aspects of its regular characters, Mr Selfridge’s take was a dignified and interesting.

There are lots of shows that exist on the level of Mr Selfridge- popular yet not critically acclaimed- and they may not be everyone’s cup of tea yet if they are attracting 7 or 8 million people across four years there must be something worthwhile about them.

Get Selfridged!

  • Everyone assumed Jeremy Piven’s beard was there because the real Mr S sported one but it turns out he didn’t! Instead he had a moustache.
  • The series was originally supposed to start a year earlier but was held back due to similarities with the BBC’s Paradise series.
  • Jeremy Piven was a producer of Mr Selfridge as well as it’s star.
    Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge
  • Descendants of Harry Selfridge have said he never had any affairs while his wife was alive whereas in the series he does.
  • The expansive store interior in the series was a set built in North London.
  • The scene where Harry visits the newly acquired Whiteleys store in season 4 was filmed in the real place which is now a shopping centre.
  • Apart from Harry and his family most of the other characters were invented from scratch as the researchers were unable to unearth enough detail about the store’s staff.
  • Most of the celebrities depicted were however real including John Logie- Baird, Louis Bleriot and the notorious Dolly Sisters
  • In the final episode Harry and store part company in difficult circumstances as Selfridges is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. In real life this happened after 30 years.
  • Harry was aged down considerably for the show. In real life he was already 51 when the store opened.
    The real Mr Selfridge
  • The incident were Harry has a fall when unveiling the Queen of Time statue didn’t actually happen but it is believed the inspiration for this came from an actual public fall he had in the store’s food hall,
  • Harry Selfridge lived until he was 90 but died in poverty in 1947 having lost all his money gambling and over spending.
  • Selfridges pioneered the idea of shopping as a leisure activity by having goods on display rather than as previously customers had to ask a counter assistant to view items. This concept forms the basis of one of the early scenes in the first season.
  • Harry Selfridge is widely credited with the saying “the customer is always right” which lives on to this day except when dealing with banks.  
  • The flagship London Selfridges store in Oxford Street remains to this day but it has been sold several times. In 1951 it was bought by Lewis’s a department chain based in Liverpool. In 1965 both stores were taken over the Sears Group. In 2003 it was acquired by the Galen Wilson group from Canada.
  • Selfridges shop window displays are still something worth seeing if you’re ever in the area.

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