Tag Archives: Period drama

“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

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Dramatic. Period?

The season finale of Downton Abbey is this evening, and so last week, presumably in preparation for the big day, something finally happened. After six episodes where the only interesting event was someone not cheating on her husband, things started to heat up: one engagement was made; another was announced; the maid saw the pig-farmer with the lady’s illegitimate child; and not only did Branson use a naughty word but he stood up during dinner. Whoa!

Downton is an odd programme. I can’t decide if I love it or hate it. Pretty much everyone in the show is someone you’d go several miles out of your way to avoid (I except two characters from this – the afore-mentioned Branson, and Mrs Hughes, both of whom are hardcore Nice Guys). Nonetheless, most of them are strangely fascinating. Lady Mary is a particularly strong example of this. She’s haughty, condescending, annoyingly beautiful, painfully graceful, indifferent to the point of cruelty, and so, you would think, instantly dislikeable. But for all these reasons I’m weirdly obsessed with her: no dinner, garden party, family crisis or financial decision is complete without a smoothly delivered put-down from the oldest Crawley daughter. At the same time, even though there are virtually no storylines, I’m still anxious to know what happens (or maybe ‘happens’) next. This conundrum is perhaps best summed up by a recent gem of a comment from ‘McScotty’ on the Guardian website, “The whole series is beautifully acted, terribly written, annoyingly addictive and utterly preposterous”.

As a whole, the show is probably interesting (to me and to its many other viewers) because it portrays a world quite unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Enormous house! Servants! Dressing for dinner! Flirting over priceless artwork! Those lovely dresses with beads and feathers! No television! It’s a bit like a fantasy world, allowing us to go, “Huh, so that’s what life would be like if I had to make sure my subjects were correctly maintaining my pig collection.” Which is why I was surprised when I recently read an article complaining that, in general, historical dramas just weren’t historical enough. The gist of the piece (as far as I can remember, since I committed the worst possible research faux pas and didn’t note down where I read it, and have since forgotten where that was) was that all too frequently the characters in period dramas are anachronistically similar to the audience, eliciting sympathy from modern-day viewers by creating characters just like them at the expense of historical accuracy.

I see that this is true in some cases, especially in programmes that aren’t really period dramas but have historical elements. Doctor Who is one of these – a trip to the past is not only likely to take place in England (pretty convenient, given that the entirety of time and space is at the Doctor’s disposal) but is sure to include a group of characters who look like people from ye olden times but who are basically twenty-first century people in crinolines and suits of armour. Take the recent episode Robot of Sherwood: Robin Hood may have been dressed like a medieval bandit but he looked, acted and spoke like any other action hero, down to the obligatory secret despair visible only at quiet moments… TV Tropes has coined the rather pleasing term ‘Purely Aesthetic Era’ for just this kind of happening.

But overall I disagree that period dramas are just dramas with a bit of lace and dirt thrown in, because most of the time you need to make a certain amount of adjustment at the start in order to get involved. One fairly generic example is smoking: a cigarette in a show set post-1980 is a sure sign of a ruffian, petty criminal or sinister puppetmaster controlling not only every major political event in the last fifty years but also all of Earth’s communications with extra-terrestrial life. In a programme set before these modern times, however, a puff of smoke is a mere bagatelle, an everyday occurrence, a sign of the times.

And there’s more. Take, for example, Rome, set in, well, Rome, during the Julius Caesar/Augustus years. The series’ main characters, and thus the two with whom we are presumably supposed to identify, are Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd – LIKE) – and these are not modern, metrosexual, egalitarian gentlemen. The series opens with them in battle, Vorenus blithely ordering crucifixion for traitors and sending messages to “the torture detachment with the third”; then, once they’re on their way back to Rome, they pause to slice open some marauders before bashing a dead man’s jaw apart to steal his gold teeth, all the while sharing their best brothel tips. I think it’s fair to say that such antics would be seriously off-putting in a contemporary drama, but the viewer performs a sort of mental rearrangement and somehow comes to terms with the idea that people in the past did things a bit differently. And that’s not even taking into account the murder, betrayal, prostitution, orgies and incest that pepper the rest of the series (think Game of Thrones in togas).

Less violent is Mad Men (1960s New York), but the same kind of mental adjustment is necessary, primarily for the atrocious gender attitudes. Women are wives or, at best, secretaries, universally referred to as ‘sweetheart’ by the men in charge of them, seen as creatures made entirely of boobs and hair. Having just started watching the second series, I found myself being impressed by how much the main character, Don Draper, had grown since the first series, on the basis that he’d gone all of two episodes without cheating on his wife. What a superhuman! (That’s not even the worst thing about the programme. The worst thing is Pete Campbell, the most infuriatingly pointless character in the history of storytelling. That, and the fact that, again, really not much happens.)

And what’s striking is that the writers of these period dramas are bold enough to give even the nicest, most sympathetic characters at least some elements of attitudes that we now see as sexist/racist/classist etc. Both Downton and Grantchester have recently had storylines concerning gay characters, in which some of our beloved favourites have demonstrated worryingly homophobic tendencies. In Downton, Carson the butler (whose stubborn old-fashionedness is usually endearing) has shown himself to be staunchly immune to the sufferings of poor Thomas, who this season has gone so far as to concoct some kind of hideous intravenous medication to cure him of his Gomorrah-esque ways. Meanwhile, in Grantchester (1950s Cambridgeshire), while the hero-vicar Sidney Chambers is open to people of all faiths, colours, creeds and orientations, two of the his closest friends (the motherly housekeeper and the stalwart police inspector) failed to show even a shred of sympathy for the man whose (male) lover had been murdered because he was his (male) lover. This kind of attitude would hardly be acceptable coming from Inspector Barnaby.

Of course, this leads us to wonder: how far can we change our mental stance before we’re just too disgusted to keep watching? On the one hand, it probably depends on the programme. Rome throws f-bombs out all over the place and seems to think it a wasted episode if at least one character doesn’t get naked, and so a certain level of arseholery is expected. In Downton and Grantchester, on the other hand, the use of the word ‘bastard’ from Branson or Sidney is a damning indictment of the pure evil of their interlocutor, and the most we’ve ever seen of a person’s body is a bare shoulder; in such cases, uncivilised behaviour is more of a shock. Either the filth is everywhere, it seems, or it’s banned outright.

On the other hand, though, I wonder if it’s a case of ‘the bigger, the better’. Programmes where the events and attitudes are so far removed from our reality that they’re barely recognisable – for example, the slavery and gladiator combat and back-stabbing of Rome – are comparatively easy to switch into and then switch out of again; sure, it’s all pretty horrific and brutal, but you feel as though few viewers will accidentally crucify someone because they saw Vorenus do it. But the sexist jokes in Mad Men and the homophobic attitudes in Grantchester are more worrying because they’re not that far removed from the jokes and attitudes that are still ongoing; many otherwise lovely people are inexplicably uncomfortable about women working or men being in love with other men. That makes it much harder, it seems to me, to make a strong differentiation between how the characters behave and how people in general behave. Maybe, then, the problem isn’t that period dramas are too close to modern sensibilities; it’s that, in many cases, modern sensibilities are still too close to those found in period dramas. Perhaps some things never change.

And with those words of wisdom, I’m off to buy three pigs and toga.