Arts & Entertainment News & Reviews

The past haunts us if we don’t confront it…*

Set during the Edwardian era in England, five short years before the outbreak of World War I, the all-new British ITV production Mr Selfridge, documents the stories surrounding the opening of the now well-known department store Selfridges, our London correspondent reports. American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge (1857 – 1947) its founder was not only a retail therapy visionary, but also a dynamo of energy as he set about seducing and selling products to the modern age.

He understood what women wanted before they knew it themselves, and he delivered his products and services with great panache and style.

In preparing for the opening of his now famous store at London, on a wet March day on Oxford Street in 1909, he directs his staff to ‘pile them up’ … “I want Treasure Island, an Aladdin’s Cave in here”.

Improvisation was Harry Selfridge’s catch cry, as he guided his staff, like a father guides his family to ‘dazzle the world’. Don’t read on if you think we might spoil this outstanding ten part Series 1 of Mr Selfridge for you.

“Do you think London is ready for all this?” Mr Grove, one of the senior staff asks? “Ready for it” Selfridge replies, “London is crying out for it. We are giving them style, glamour and razzmatazz and once London sees what we have done here there will be no turning back”

Award winning American film producer and actor Jeremy Piven, displaying enormous energy in a performance of great éclat, plays the role of Mr Selfridge. A team of writers working from Lindy Woodhead’s novel “Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge” has cleverly adapted the book for the silver screen.

Series 1 of Mr Selfridge has a great deal to commend it. It features a great ensemble cast of equally great characters, all of whom are associated with, or work for Mr Selfridge. He viewed all the staff of his famous store as his business family, and they are all at once mesmerized, inspired and dazzled by the sheer force of his energy, enthusiasm and passion for being the very best that he could be.

Jeremy Piven is truly excellent in the lead role. He enjoys and revels in being surrounded by a bevvy of beautiful women, whom he wishes to empower. He understands instinctively the depth of this man’s complex character and the many issues that shaped his adult life and ‘directing’ style.

He brings the extremes of strength and gentleness to a role that could be overplayed, but isn’t.

His relationship with his ‘goodwife’ Rose Selfridge, played with compassionate but steely brilliance by Australian actress Frances O’Connor is indeed heart warming.

Rose Selfridge acknowledges and accepts, to a point the philandering side of Harry Selfridge’s nature, which causes him to have affairs with ‘ladies of the theatre’, one that is far removed from the good husband he endeavours to be.

She forgives him, his indiscretions displaying unqualified unconditional love. Can she sustain it?

Rose’s resolve will be tested however, when she finds herself in a potentially explosive intimate situation.

She meets a young artist when she visits the National Gallery at London – she loves art. She goes with him to his studio to look at his work and requests that he paint her. He not only paints her portrait, but also as the days go as she poses for him and interacts with him, he decides he wants her to become his mistress, despite their age difference, .

She knows she has feelings for him, however wisely declines. She has much more at stake than he has and he’s not happy when she begs him to appreciate her point of view.

This is a series that lays bare the characters of the main players and their humanity, pinpointing poignantly their failures and frailties as well as the strength and weaknesses of the traits that make them who they are. Frances O’Connor is perfectly cast in this role.

22 year old Aisling Loftus plays a Selfridge’s employee Agnes Tower, a young woman whose life to date has meant dealing with a constantly drunken father who she has had to reject, while protecting her brother George and herself from his vicious temper and beatings.

She secures her job at Selfridges and then gets her brother George a job as a porter.

When her father Reg arrives back on the scene because of her compassion, and against her better judgment she allows him back into their lives.

Their mother passed on a long time ago, and so Agnes, since a youthful age, has always had to take responsibility for not only herself, but also her brother Victor and it seems now she’s doing that for her father as well.

He comes to the store and creates a scene, just as Mr Selfridge is masterminding another of his promotional events.

He drunkenly damages a display and Agnes, mortified by his actions is automatically expected by all the store staff to resign, after all she has brought disgrace upon the store and its good name.

So she obliges them all and falls on her sword.

However Harry Selfridge will have none of it, having already recognized that the girl has a talent for commerce.

In true American style, believing in freedom, liberty and justice for all and that the sins of the father should never be visited on the children, he goes after her.

He seeks her out in her humble lodgings where she is alone in her despair, and reassures her and requests her to the return to the store.

When she arrives she is also given a promotion, a transfer from ‘accessories’ to fashion, which ensures friction from the girls of her old department who are jealous of her and her sudden advancement.

Agnes has already caught the eye of Mr Selfridge’s most trusted employee and friend, the enigmatic and sexily smooth window dresser and creative display artist Frenchman Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), whose abilities Selfridge rewards handsomely.

She is eager to get ahead, a young woman of the new age, one who believes she can go further than society and its class structure wants her to go.

Henri encourages her to do so and she finds herself falling in love with him, instead of with Victor (Trystan Gravelle) a waiter in the restaurant who fancies her for himself.

He displays dominating tendencies far too much like her drunken father and while she’s willing to be a friend, she doesn’t want to take their relationship further.

Also, unbeknown to Agnes, Victor has already become the latest fancy and the bed mate of Lady Mae, played by Katherine Kelly. She is an interesting study, an upper class lady with a great deal of style and clout, who revels in having affairs with young men, well boys really, years younger than herself and of the ‘lower class’.

She obviously believes they will never challenge a woman of such power and influence as herself.

Lady Mae was instrumental in introducing Mr Selfridge to those in the London business scene with the ready necessary looking to invest in new ventures.

As a lady in high society she has enormous influence and plays her part well.

Actor Samuel West, who recently played the role of Bertie, King George VI in Hyde Park on Hudson, is Harry Selfridge’s best friend Frank Edwards.

He’s the one who is always watching out for his ‘mile a minute’ friend and endeavouring to secure his well-being. He also introduces him to the showgirl Ellen Love, (Zoe Tapper) when they see the review she is currently starring in a West End theatre.

Ellen becomes Harry’s latest mistress, installed in her own very stylish flat, where for a while she holds Harry completely under her spell. He makes her the ‘spirit of Selfridges’ and features her in his early advertising campaigns.

Ellen loves attention, craves affection and her emotional demands are many. However inevitably her many indiscretions, including a visit to his wife, her habit of cocaine-snorting and other bad judgments catch up with her and he has no choice but to cast her off. A woman scorned is a dangerous thing.

Amanda Abbington plays Miss Mardle, a spinster devoted to the love of her life Mr Selfridge’s right hand man Mr Grove, who enjoys having his wife as his ‘cake’ and her as his mistress.

His regular evening trysts with Miss Mardle are necessary for his survival in life, while ever he is trapped in an  unhappy marraige.

However, when his wife dies he’s thrown into a real dilemma.

The devoted Miss Mardle, who he has helped to make the head of ‘accessories’, now expects so much more. He finds out he is not going to be able to deliver, because he’s enjoying having his freedom too much and she’s thrown into confusion.

There is a lot going on with all the supporting characters in the show.

We learn that Harry Selfridge’s start in life was not easy. His wastrel father was not the hero his mother always made him out to be.

He had treated his wife appallingly and deserted his family when Harry was only five. Then his older brothers got sick and died, leaving only Harry and his mother to fend for themselves and each other.

His stoic mother is played quietly by Kika Markham.

She’s a lady whose spent most of her life feeling ashamed of how her husband treated her and his family and is used to melting into the background.

She is ultimately however, Harry’s rock and has always encouraged him to follow his dreams. She wanted Harry to believe his father was a hero, but truth will always out and when she realizes finally that he knows, and has done so for a long time, he puts her mind at rest as a good son would.

Harry’s first job was in a Chicago department store selling socks, but his amazing abilities and burning ambition saw him rise to the top transforming Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co into a modern department store, installing technology including dozens of phones and lit the window displays at night, a first for a Chicago store.

He also offered flower-arranging classes, saw that ladies were given home-décor advice and introduced the idea of the wedding gift list. He also set up a parcel and coat depositary for customers to leave their belongings while they were shopping.

Harry realises that in London they also need a modern store and decides to build the biggest and finest department store in the world. He leaves his faithful much loved wife Rose and their four children at home at first, but when he purchases land on Oxford Street to open his store and bring his vision to life at London they join him.

Fifteen hundred workmen toiled all winter to build an immense steel-framed structure. The store has a neo-classical façade front and was a modern masterwork, with seven miles of pressurised copper tubing in the fire-alarm system alone.

Nine Otis lifts could carry people in style to any floor. There was a state-of-the-art sprinkler system and thick concrete floors spanned an acre per level.

He had to compromise, because he was not allowed to build eight storeys as he had wanted (planning restrictions didn’t allow it to be taller than St Paul’s) but still its hugely impressive five floors had three basement levels and a roof terrace with a garden. The store also had an in house restaurant, an idea he had already trialled in Chicago to great success.

Harry Gordon Selfridge was innovative, able to see an opportunity in every moment. He turned local and world events into an advantage for promotion in his store. This included bringing the world famoous ballet dancer at the time Anna Pavlova to his store to shop, and dance. She would become just one in his long line of famous mistresses.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also comes to sign copies of his books and Harry has a plane flown by a famous aviator across the Atlantic taken apart and re-assembled on the store’s ground floor.

Harry is frequently tormented with memories of his father causing him to have difficulties sleeping. He then finds the portrait of Rose, who has hidden it until his birthday, and it torments him wondering about her relationship with the artist, who he can see has been very insightful in capturing both her beauty and her inner essence, which is for him very disturbing.

When arranging a display around the latest sporting car on the market in the Rolls Royce range in Selfridge’s window, and  unable to control many of the facets and forces in his life especially that of his former mistress, he unwisely takes the Rolls for a spin.

He’s had too much to drink and he crashes.

While he is down and out for the count in a coma in hospital, the formerly timid accountant Mr Crabb (played by Ron Cook) is determined to honour the spirit and wishes of his mentor when a crisis needs to be averted.

A major march of the suffragette movement is scheduled to come by the store the next day and Crabb disagrees with Mr Grove’s handling of the matter.

He wants to close the store for the day and keep the ‘blinds drawn on the windows’ because the marching ladies have a reputation for smashing windows along the way Unlike other stores in the city, Mr Crabb decides this event should be turned into triumph, as is Mr Selfridge’s way.

So he engineers Mr Grove to leave early and urges the staff to stay behind to help Mr Leclair dress the windows in suffragette bunting, brilliantly averting a disaster and bringing hundreds more potential shoppers in their doors.

It’s all in the spirit of good commerce; makes sound common sense and a creative solution. Mr Selfridge had taught him well.

Harry having only just come out of the coma that left him incapacitated for a few days, emerges out of bed and goes straight to the store because he hears the suffragettes might make trouble.

As he arrives, and when they are deciding what their course of action will be, the store raises its wonderful pink window curtains and reveals its cleverly designed and displayed windows and all is saved, yet again.

Harry Selfridge was without doubt an inspired retailer. believing and inventing the phrase ‘the customer is always right, a catch cry for service from his day to this. He made shopping sexy and Selfridges a significant London landmark.

Great to know that there will be a second series after this one.

What will happen when Harry’s daughter, coming out in society with Lady Mae’s help, meets up with the handsome young artist her mother has rejected?

Harry Selfridge liked to boast that Selfridges was the third biggest tourist attraction in London after Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.

He certainly did his bit to help liberate women giving them the freedom to shop without a chaperone and introducing them to the pleasures of dining out for lunch with a girlfriend in the security of the safe haven that was his store.

It offered countless rare sensual delights and comforts; marvellous music playing and had the scent of perfume in the air. Selfridge & Co also had a library, reading and writing rooms, a first-aid room, and a silence room, which has only recently been re-instated, with soft furnishings, hairdressers and a manicure service.

Harry liked to say: ‘I helped emancipate women. I came along when they wanted to step out on their own. They came to the store and realised some of their dreams.’

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013.

*Mr Selfridge’s mother, Episode 7 Mr Selfridge

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