The secrets of MR SELFRIDGE
Thursday, 27 December 2012

The secrets of MR SELFRIDGE

He was the brilliant but self-destructive pioneer who founded Selfridges and got us hooked on shopping. Now, as his colourful story is dramatised in a new TV series, Richard Barber talks to the stars about…

Written by Richard Barber
When celebrated screenwriter Andrew Davies was sent a copy of Lindy Woodhead’s book, Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge, he was, he says, a little taken aback. ‘Like most men, shopping holds no thrills for me. But then I started reading about Harry Gordon Selfridge and I was hooked. Here was a flawed hero for our times, a genius in business with a fatal self-destructive streak. Selfridge liked to live on the edge. He was addicted to risk and enjoyed being in debt. And, despite being a dedicated family man, deeply in love with his wife and devoted to his four children, he was fatally drawn to other women, wildly attractive, high maintenance and unstable women. A rich mix indeed.’
 


So it took very little persuasion for Andrew to accept Executive Producer Kate Lewis’s offer to head up the writing team of Mr Selfridge, a 10-part costume drama for anyone suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms and which starts on ITV1 in January. ‘Andrew was quite clear,’ says Kate, ‘that he wanted creative freedom to dream up his own characters, too. So we decided to keep the broad strokes of Harry and his family’s real lives but that the other characters would be Andrew’s.’

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The project green-lit, the first and most obvious challenge was to find the actor who could bring Harry Selfridge’s blend of bravado and lust for life to the role. An American casting director was hired for the task and, in time, the name of Jeremy Piven came to the top of the pile. The Golden Globe and three times Emmy Award winning actor for his portrayal of the coarse-tongued Hollywood agent Ari Gold in Entourage, had another, compelling attribute in his favour.

Harry Selfridge had been raised in Chicago, cutting his teeth on the family department store, Marshall Field’s. Jeremy Piven was raised in Evanston, a northern suburb of that city, and, with his family, a regular visitor to the store. When producer Chrissy Skinns and director Jon Jones flew to Los Angeles to meet him, they were quickly bowled over by his enthusiasm for the project, his understanding of the character and his sheer energy.

‘I remember exactly where I was when my agent told me about Mr Selfridge,’ says Jeremy, 47. ‘I was fascinated by the story. It’s a role rare to come by whether on stage, ‘film or television. Harry was a true pioneer. Here was an American who came to England at the turn of the century with a real sense of what he wanted to achieve.’

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Piven believes Harry was also something of a visionary. ‘There’s one episode in which we see him deciding  to put the beauty products at the front of the store, something that had never been tried in London, although they were dabbling with it in Paris. Now, make-up, powder, rouge and lipstick would be the first products people would see when they entered the shop. This was 1909 and they were regarded by many as being the province of the stage, or prostitutes. And yet, a century later, they are still the merchandise that confronts you when you first walk into a department store.’

Mr Selfridge illustrates the battle Harry fought to ensure his vision became a reality. ‘The initial money [from Samuel Waring of Waring & Gillow] fell through but, instead of taking a moment and regrouping, he doubled his efforts and willed the whole thing to happen. Failure wasn’t an option. That’s a very American thing to do. The people around him were incredibly doubtful at first, then intrigued and finally all supported him.’

THE EARL OF OXFORD STREET
Clearly, Harry was a stranger to self-doubt. ‘He was a showman,’ says Jeremy. ‘He put a lot of time, money and effort into publicising his store – like you would a play. The windows of Selfridges were very much his stage, with a little play going on in each one.’

In one episode, we see Harry persuading aviator Louis Blériot to display his monoplane in the store following his successful, first flight across the English Channel. It was a masterstroke of popular marketing and typical of the man nicknamed the Earl of Oxford Street.

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Frances O’Connor plays Harry’s sometimes long suffering wife, Rose. ‘Moving thousands of miles to a new life with your husband and family is no easy feat for any woman,’ she says. ‘And she struggled. But, when push came to shove, she stood her ground and fought for what she needed in her life.’

Harry was a family man but with a wandering eye, which alighted in time on pretty London stage star Ellen Love (played by Zoë Tapper). ‘Rose was no fool,’ says Frances. ‘She knew her husband had dabbled in affairs before and she also knew what was going on with Ellen.’

In time, Rose won the respect of former gaiety girl, Lady Mae, whose rapid ascent up the social ladder via her marriage to Lord Loxley allowed her to create one of London’s most fashionable salons. The role is embraced with relish by Katherine Kelly, still best known for playing Becky McDonald in Coronation Street. ‘If you’ve only seen me in Corrie and think I’m going to waltz into Selfridges with a bottle of cider and smash it up,’ says Katherine, ‘then you’re going to be really disappointed.’

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She has no doubt, though, that the show is going to appeal equally to women and men. ‘Girls are going to love it because it’s about shopping, and boys will love it because Jeremy is the businessman they’d want to be.’

In a strong cast, Amanda Abbington – memorable for her unrequited love of private investigator Jackson Brodie in Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories – plays Josie Mardle, meticulous manager of the accessories department. ‘But she’s secretly having an a‡ffair with the married chief of staff, Mr Grove. She’s got a staid and stern exterior,’ says Amanda, ‘but underneath she’s a hopeless romantic.’

In real life, Amanda is the partner of actor Martin Freeman, well known from The O­ffice, Sherlock and for playing Bilbo Baggins in the new Hobbit film. He was delighted when Amanda joined the cast of Mr Selfridge. ‘He’s a professional shopper. He loves tailoring and Savile Row. And he also loves buying clothes for me. He has a very good eye. It’s so nice to have a partner who likes to come shopping with me.

Mr-Selfridge-03-382Tom Goodman-Hill, who plays Miss Mardle’s clandestine lover, won’t forget the day he was offered the role of Mr Grove. ‘Believe it or not,’ says Tom, ‘I was standing in Selfridges. I’d been told three weeks previously that I hadn’t got the job. It’s why I’d decided to go on holiday with my girlfriend. She needed a bikini so we went to Oxford Street. I was next to the All Saints franchise when my mobile rang. I’d got the part; please could I attend the first read-through next Thursday?’ In the event, he was told he could miss that as long as he was there by the second day of rehearsals. ‘So I flew back from Thailand and went straight into work the day I landed. Incredible. And it was a six-month job.’

An additional charm of Mr Selfridge is that we are let into the domestic lives of members of staff and none more so than troubled shopgirl Agnes Towler, played by a scene-stealing Aisling Loftus. As soon as she heard she’d won the role, she went straight to Selfridges. ‘I bought jelly beans,’ says Aisling, ‘just so that I’d have a bag with the store’s name on it. I’d been to Selfridges many times before but had never thought about its history. Harrods and the like took their cue from Harry Selfridge and his decision to put the customer at the centre of the shopping experience.

‘It was Harry who placed restaurants within the store, and Harry who dreamt up food halls and beautiful window displays.’

The last word goes to Andrew Davies. ‘The more I contemplated the idea of Mr Selfridge,’ he says, ‘the more I saw parallels with my favourite TV show, The Sopranos. Here was a charismatic hero with self-destructive tendencies at the centre of a drama that explores the world of business and the emotional joys and traumas of family life. The big difference, of course, is that Harry Selfridge’s business was entirely legitimate but just as full of secrets, rivalries and betrayals as any maƒfia crew.

‘I also like the idea that, although this is a period piece, it’s not about country houses and traditional values. It’s a big city story about innovation, progress, ambition and glamour. Harry Gordon Selfridge was right at the cutting edge of a changing world.’ 

Mr Selfridge begins on ITV1 in January.


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