Monthly Archives: March 2016

“The Peacocks Have Arrived!”: From Fact To Fiction With ‘Mr Selfridge’

SPOILERS: Mr Selfridge season 1-3

I like TV. And I like books. And I also like lists of things. So imagine my delight when I recently received, as an unbirthday present, a book called ‘1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die’. Challenge accepted!

Obviously, the first thing I did was make a spreadsheet (with each entry broken down by page number, title, year the show premiered, country of production and genre); equally obviously, the next thing I did was scour Netflix to discover just how many of the world’s top 1001 TV programmes I could already get without having to pay any additional money. Quite a few, as it turns out – The Good Wife, Life on Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Danger Mouse and many other classics – but, for no real reason other than possibly a hint of Downton Withdrawal Syndrome, I opted to begin with Mr Selfridge.

I didn’t have particularly high expectations, knowing very little about the premise (other than ‘Rich American man comes to London and opens shop, people buy things, rich American man gets richer, viewers fall in love with rich American man’). I also, sadly, haven’t managed to watch fast enough to be ready to watch the most recent – fourth and final – season, which concludes tonight on ITV. But, given that each season is only ten episodes long, I’ve sped through and am well into season three, and in a worryingly short space of time have become a bit obsessed with it (cue gasps of surprise and cries of ‘But you never get obsessed with anything!’). Reasons for this (completely unprecedented) enamourment include:

  1. Everyone looking incredibly snappy in Edwardian frock coats and bodices
  2. A big cast full of confident, funny, clever women who are there to work, vote and sell you as many pairs of gloves as you can fit in your motorcar
  3. Motorcars
  4. A French guy actually played by a French guy, rather than a Brit sounding like an extra from ‘Allo ‘Allo!
  5. The afore-mentioned French guy also being smokin’ hot
  6. Sudden renditions of music-hall songs with the audience guffawing inexplicably
  7. Amanda Abbington
  8. Katherine Kelly
  9. Mr Crabb, probably the most interesting fictional accountant ever
  10. Those amazing window displays.

But one of the most fascinating things about it is that it is, of course, based on a true story and a real person. Unlike, say, Downton Abbey, in which the writers can (and did) introduce, send away, marry off or do away with characters as and when they please, shows like Mr Selfridge must (one would assume) try to stick to the basic facts, or, at the very least, keep within one hundred yards of the facts at all times.

In Mr Selfridge’s case, the general idea, as I understand it, was to paint broad strokes and invent a cast of fictional characters around the key people and milestones in Selfridge’s life. Hence Rose, Selfridge’s insanely patient wife (and her death somewhere between seasons 1 and 2); his four children, Rosalie, Violette, Gordon and Beatrice (although Beatrice does mysteriously disappear around the same time her mother does); Selfridge’s mother Lois, who lives with them all; and Rosalie’s slightly sinister husband Serge de Bolotoff. But Agnes and Henri, Victor, Mr Grove and Miss Mardle, Kitty and so on and so forth – they are characters of the writers’ and actors’ imaginations, brought to life merely to delight and entrance us.

In fact, a particularly fun game to play while watching the programme is ‘Spot which characters are real historical figures’. For example, I was pretty confident in recognising Edward VII, Ernest Shackleton and Arthur Conan Doyle as real people, and I made the right leap in surmising that Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett were Mack and Mabel of, well, Mack and Mabel; but I was tricked by Alfie Boe’s music-hall singer, who appears to be completely fictitious, and I was also unaware of Louis Blériot, cross-Channel-flier extraordinaire, and Winifred Bonfils, American reporter. I’ll have to read up.

Of course, the problem with all this mixing fact and fiction is that you just don’t know when to stop. As I said earlier, I really only know some very basic facts about Selfridge, so I’ve been taking things pretty much on faith, and Mr Selfridge is so glamorous and dazzling that you want to believe everything it tells you, however preposterous. In some cases, these things turn out to be true – Selfridge really did set up an entire plane as part of a display – so why not believe some of the other stuff too? Selfridge’s staff invented fashion shows and lipstick in a tube, eh? Cool! He generously hired more staff than he needed to make sure people weren’t out of work? Sure! And he was a spy for Britain during WW1? OK!

And all these unlikely elements are so convincing because they’re presented in the same gorgeous and excitable fashion as the facts, with all the same authentic-seeming period trappings. Not knowing a particularly large amount about the Edwardians, I can’t really judge whether the costumes / sets / language / general demeanour of the show are historically appropriate, but the whole thing is certainly chock-full of things that seem distinctly not of our time. Jazz clubs with actual dancing – now there’s something that screams ‘Turn of the century’; likewise, people being able to board moving buses simply by grabbing the rail and leaping on. Oh, and hats. Everyone wears a hat, all the time: smart hats, walking-about hats, working-in-the-loading-bay hats, wedding hats, supporting-women’s-suffrage hats, shopping-for-hats hats…

The question is: does it matter where fact ends and fiction begins? Some would say so – take Selfridge’s great-granddaughter, who is (understandably) a bit peeved about his characterisation as a womaniser both during and after his marriage. Then there’s the show’s creator, Andrew Davies, who seems to feel guilty about suggesting that Mrs Selfridge might have been a bit of a player herself (not to the extent of her husband, but still – some of her choices regarding young cocky painters have been a little poor). On the other hand, it sounds as though the artistic licence of the TV version was a welcome change from the Selfridge in the source material (the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead) – according to one blogger, TV Harry is a lot more charming and a lot less dull than real/book Harry.

It all comes down, in the end, to whether you expect your biographical dramas to be true to the letter or the spirit of the person and time they’re portaying. Personally, I love the spirit of Mr Selfridge and the themes that are woven into its lustrous fabric – family, friendship, fair play, hard graft, gender equality, joy and heartbreak. The way the show handled the period 1914-1918 is a great example. The build-up was a little laboured, perhaps, à la Downton – “Times are changing,” one person intones, and another replies, “Who knows what will happen in the next five years?”, while a third adds sagely, “Trouble’s brewing…” But once England declared war, Mr Selfridge became heart-breaking in its depiction of young men excited about fighting for their country; parents, spouses and siblings terrified to hear the postman knock on the door; women putting aside their own feelings to go to work for the war effort; people of all races and sexes displaced and homeless; the men who never came home; and those who did but were never the same. For that, if for nothing else, Mr Selfridge has been a worthwhile endeavour.

As for the letter of Mr Selfridge’s life and times, well, I don’t know. Did Harry Selfridge really hire peacocks for his daughter’s wedding? Would he really have allowed his staff to hug him, or tell him when he was making a massive cock-up of things? As I come to the final season of the show, will it deal with the dwindling funds and power of the Selfridge estate, with his mother’s death, with the sale of the store? And will I bursting into tears every five minutes the way I have been in season 3?

Perhaps, after this, I’ll have to give the screen a rest for a few days and go back to my books. But now that I’ve finished reading 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, what to read next…?

Selfridge