Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mr. Selfridge

Mr. selfridgeLast month, Americans finished watching the first season of Mr. Selfridge, another British import series featured on the PBS ‘Masterpiece’ program. Even though many in the UK deride their offerings as fancy soap operas, over here, PBS is high class.
Mr. Selfridge is about the founder of the famous store in London, an American who took his experience in Chicago’s famed Marshal Field’s department store and transported it across the Atlantic, offering a completely new shopping experience to Londoners. Not only was the methods and layout of the store very different from usual, the philosophy was as well. We’ve all seen documentaries on the so called titans of industry; Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc. but Selfridge is more relatable, or at least about a more familiar activity. After all, everyone has shopped at some point.
Jeremy Pivens plays the title character. Viewers remember him best from the HBO male fantasy series Entourage, but Harry Selfridge is a far cry from the aggressive celebrity agent Ari Gold. Selfridge uses charm and persuasion to advance his ideas and his store as a stage.
The first couple episodes were about Harry Selfridge building the store, even after financing fell through and impressing his novel service ideas upon his new employees. As the season went on, we came to know some of those employees as individuals and began to care about them. There’s plucky Agnes, who remains pleasant and determined, despite she and her brother, George (who also works at the store)having had to flee from their violently alcoholic father.She is attracted to both Victor, the ambitious waiter and the extremely charming Henri, the designer for the large display windows. Book Fox Hilary drew my attention to this debonaire Frenchman and he is certainly worth watching. Miss Ravillious, who also helps with the store’s displays is another favorite. She’s a feminist, adventurous and confident, the opposite of most women at the time. If there is a villain of the piece, it’s Mr. Grove, the employee manager who has a sick wife but has had a long affair with Miss Mardle, the supervisor of accessories. A young saleslady has also caught his eye, which doesn’t bode well for the middle-aged Miss Mardle.mr_selfridge cast
We also learn more about Harry Selfridge’s background and his family. Along with his wife, Rose, there are several children and Harry’s mother also residing in London with him. Harry, who is quite a showman himself, cannot resist other women, especially the most popular showgirl of the time, Miss Ellen Love. But when he discovers his wife has been flirting with a young painter, Roddy Temple, he is outraged, but certainly doesn’t see the double standard he’s applied. It’s easy to see why Roddy is attracted to Rose,who looks like a young Sally Field, but the artist turns out to be a darker character than he first appears, unfortunately.
There were several mentions in American publications claiming a similarity with Downton Abbey, which baffled me. Other than being produced by ITV and aired on PBS ‘Masterpiece’, there’s no similarity. Downton is about an aristocratic English family trying to hang on to their ancestral home and keeping the family viable into the future. Mr. Selfridge is about an American businessman starting a new venture in another country and the challenges of making it profitable. The only thing they have in common is a lot of regular people doing the work to make things comfortable for the people at the top. In fact, Selfridge’s story begins in 1908, well before the events in the first episode of Downton in 1912, after the Titanic sinks.
One of my favorite things about the show is the way it comes on, setting the tone with the Louis Prima swing music and kaleidoscope images of women with large hats coming through a revolving door. It’s interesting to see the history of department stores portrayed and the changes over a century. The female sales clerks all wore black, which must’ve felt awfully formal and the large display cases have dark wooden frames, which is so different from today’s all glass ones. I’d actually prefer the older style, since the glass ones are nearly invisible to me and I’ve run into them more than once.
I have no idea how accurate this program is biography wise, since I know nothing at all about the person or the store. But it does provide an enjoyable viewing experience and as shoppers, we might have more consideration for the people behind the counters asking “May I help you?”

ITV Studios 2013 aired in the U.S. in late spring on PBS ‘Masterpiece’ Season 2 begins in early 2014

6 comments on “Mr. Selfridge

  1. Elaine
    June 19, 2013

    What a wonderful review. Cannot wait for the second series.

  2. Maggie Dwyer
    June 19, 2013

    Jackie, I didn’t watch the series. I suppose it is available for streaming via PBS or on Netflix?

  3. Kate
    June 19, 2013

    I used to work across the road from Selfridge’s, in the English Heritage editorial offices, and looked out from my second floor office directly across to that gorgeous clock. Have a great fondness for the place, and its food hall.

    A book that is very good on British shop floor politics of this period is George Gissing’s The Odd Women, which shows you the kind of shops that Selfridge was moving away from. And for the 1950s-1970s version, you must watch reruns of Are You Being Served? !

  4. Stevie Carroll
    June 19, 2013

    Dad has the book of the series and is impressed by the sources cited, which bodes well. I’ll have to report back when he’s read it (he knows a fair amount of retail history, but mainly in the furniture sphere, so his opinions could be interesting).

  5. Hilary
    June 21, 2013

    I aim to please, Jackie 😀 Thanks for an enjoyable review of a very pleasant series. I’m glad it has found some favour across the Atlantic, and the extravagant US character Selfridge doesn’t strike a false note over there.

    I think the comparisons with Downton Abbey have more to do with that elusive thing ‘production values’ – look and feel and format – than characters and situations.

    One thing that really did tickle me pink is that Mr Selfridge and his family lived in the extravagantly decorated former Royal College of Organists in South Kensington – very handy for the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a great building and an inspired choice for such a showman. Happily, no organists were harmed etc etc, as the RCO moved out some years ago.

  6. sshaver
    June 21, 2013

    It’s very different from Downton Abbey, where we’re expected to sympathize with people agonizing over the possibility of having to move from a giant house to a slightly less giant house.

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