Mr Selfridge: Season 1 TV Series [Blu-ray]
Delightful, charming, entertaining and educational. Most period dramas take place in the countryside: large estates, gardens, horses, hedgerows, foxes and fields. The landed gentry live in style, their wealth made by privilege and inheritance. They generally mix with their own kind but maintain formal, polite, paternal relations with those whom they employ.
This drama is different. It’s modern, urban, cosmopolitan. The city buzzes with the spirit of modernity while the countryside dozes in the distant past. Unlike the country estate — quiet, tranquil, sedate — the department store is noisy, edgy, energetic. It is, as they say, where the action is.
Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947) knew where the action was. In fact, he epitomised it and put himself at the centre of it. The grand gesture was his public signature: brass bands, slogans, grandiloquent speeches. Half retailer, half showman, he showed the world what happens when retail meets entertainment. With him shopping becomes adventure and event, the masses freed from the menial and mundane by it.
His fortune was built on the idea of fun. He gambled that people, given a chance, would indulge themselves in frivolity. His department store — dazzling, thrilling and enthralling — offered them this chance. Shopping was no longer a chore. It became a social event, just like attending the theatre or visiting a fun fair.
Harry was shrewd. He knew a secret, both profound and simple, about human psychology. He saw that people are happiest when carefree, when worries, troubles and problems subside and for a time can be forgotten. Escapism. The word didn’t exist then but the condition did, and he helped to create it. Free from negativities, people tend also to become free and generous with their time and money, rewarding themselves (and Harry) with their purchases. He could conjure this trick because he made them feel special, part of an experience, not just a purchase. In fact, making others feel important and special was his own special talent, as he had perfected the very same thought about himself. It worked with everyone: staff, customers, contacts, investors, friends. When Harry was with them they felt like royalty. Showman, promoter, huckster and gambler, Harry comes alive in this beautiful and lavish production, played to perfection by the amazing Jeremy Piven (another conjurer), who in no time becomes Selfridge while Piven ceases to be. How impressive this magic trick is!
The series ran for four years (2013-16) covering the years 1908 to 1929. This boxset here includes the first three seasons, running from start-up in 1908 through The First World War and ending at the time of the signing of The Treaty of Versailles in 1919. To say these were tumultuous years is an understatement. It’s a sort of historical cliché to talk about old worlds dying and new ones being born, but it really does seem true as the Victorian and Edwardian worlds were fading and the modern world was coming into being. War and politics, technological advances, social change, the world in upheaval. Harry was in the middle of it and took full advantage of the times. On the surface fashion may not appear to have much to do with revolution, but Harry thought differently. It was women who shopped, rather than men, though he knew men could be persuaded to do so too if he threw in the extras — the brass bands, dancing girls, celebrities, whatever it took. Yet women were and remained in the vanguard and Harry knew it. If they were marching for the vote and for more social equality, they still wanted to be beautiful and Harry was there for them. The latest styles, fashions, perfumes and accessories were not just on display. They were there to be touched, felt, tried on, engaged with. Mirrors were mounted in the store everywhere to remind the women how beautiful they looked. A mirror never lies, isn’t that so? Staff were on hand too, ever ready to make recommendations and compliment customers for their good taste and fashion sense. This seems so automatic and natural now because it is. But it was Harry who started it. He was the beginning.
Did it matter that he was American? You bet it did and he knew it too. He loved London. As a buyer with Marshall Field in Chicago (a large department store later bought out by Macy’s) he had made many trips to Europe. He knew the city well and felt at home in it, even though he was an outsider. How could he play the American card there? Easy: just by being himself. Among Harry’s numerous gifts was his for the spirit of American equality. Whether this spirit is generally true or not is neither here nor there; Harry believed it was and treated those he met as if it was. The doors of Selfridges were open to all, everyone made to feel welcome as though invited and privileged guests. He was often on the shop floor as well to personally drive home the point, using his trademark charm and guile to flatter customers. It worked. There was no class system inside Selfridges, no high-born and low-born worlds anymore. His commercial revolution demolished this, if only for hours at a time. His genius, if it can be called that, and I think it can, was to create the first Disneyland before Disney existed. Fantasyland was what you entered when you walked through the doors of Selfridges. Like Cinderella or Tinkerbell or any other would-be princess, women entered this lavish new world. Here their dreams were not only acceptable: they were actively encouraged. This applied to anyone, men as well. Lover, adventurer, prince or princess. You choose, or, if you need help, staff are on hand to help you decide. Brilliant, it must be said. Shopping at Selfridges required imagination.
Was he a huckster and con artist? What does it matter if on one reading, partial or not, the answer must be yes? The magic worked. The conjurer was successful. He made people happy and they made him rich. He also employed, at the height of the store’s success, thousands of employees. We see in the series how kind he is to them. He isn’t cruel and browbeating. He doesn’t lord his authority over others, or only ever does in a lighthearted, self-mocking sort of way to let the mask slip to remind everyone that he’s human and fallible too. Mostly he’s a strong, able and decisive leader and everybody knows it. He wins the respect and trust of his employees and they demonstrate it through company loyalty and devotion. There are some thieves within the company ranks, but these will be caught and dismissed (leading in one case to tragedy). He’s relentlessly positive and upbeat, believing or pretending to believe that everything he tells them is true. He’s larger than life and they love him for it. You get the feeling they’d follow him to the ends of the earth.
But the main Selfridge refrain is forever the same: “The customer is always right.” Harry himself reputedly coined the phrase. If not, he lives by it anyway and the staff understand the principle. Get inside the mind of the customer. Find out what she thinks and needs even if she doesn’t know what she needs. In such a case supply her needs and make her think she has discovered them herself. In this way the staff are all minor psychologists, trained by the chief himself, who is a major one.
If you’ve got an outsized personality as large as his, of course you dream. But you do more than that: you gamble. Harry was a risk taker and had to be to succeed. He came up the hard way from scratch, from nothing. At age 10 he delivered newspapers. By 12 he was working in a dry-goods store. At 14 he left school to work in a bank. By 18 or 19 he was finally with Marshall Field, initially as a stock boy. But over the next 25 years he would work his way up the corporate ladder and become a junior partner in the firm, amassing a considerable personal fortune and marrying well (Rose was a Buckingham, a member of one of the richest families in Chicago. The U.S. may not have an established class system per se, but money still divided people then, as ever).
A gambler’s heart is difficult to quell. It goes on beating no matter what. Harry’s never stopped in life. He was not risk averse and lived on the edge. The bigger the risk, the greater the challenge. He seemed to court it, want it. He retired early in his mid-‘40s from Marshall Field and could have stayed retired. He bought a yacht which he seldom sailed and went golfing with buddies but was bored by the whole scene. He needed something else, some magnificent dream, some new drug. London calling? Why not? If anyone could pull off the impossible it had to be him, right? Who can doubt it? — though many in London would.
Most people sensibly prefer the comfort and security of the mass and middle. There they feel protected. Harry was different. He loved the edge. He loved to buck convention and do things his way. Like a daredevil, he had outrageous courage and confidence. Houdini and Lindbergh were people he admired. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. He did it alone at night — flew through all that darkness solo. He had no radio and, at the very last, left his cat behind instead of taking her with him. Why? — he was later asked in Paris. Because he said the flight would have been too dangerous for her. How cool is that? — too dangerous for a cat but not for him. In another incarnation Harry would have swallowed fire. He would have been a trapeze artist or high-wire walker in a circus. As for the wire, the higher the better. More tension, gasps, thrills. That was Harry. He loved the spotlight.
Of course for those who went along with him the ride was wild. We meet many of them here in this wonderful series: his family, friends, employees, contacts, business associates and investors. They people his world with colour and variety, lavishly bringing it to life. Nearest to the centre of everything, meaning to Harry himself, was Rose, his long-suffering wife. What did she suffer? Everything. His infidelities with showgirls, of whom there were many; his nights at the gaming tables, where he won more than he lost; his risky ventures; the scandals and imbroglios with lawyers, journalists, politicians. He was never an easy man and never would be. What genius ever is?
Was he suicidal? The question remains open because we can’t be sure. But we see the pressure of the risks he takes and their psychic toll on him. Early on in the drama he’s on the verge of bankruptcy even before the store has been fully built. He needs backers and he needs them fast or all will be lost, as most of the money sunk into the project is his own. The public and his staff see nothing of his anxieties because he is ever cheerful and smiling, but, unlike them, we see his face when he’s alone in his office or elsewhere and there are other emotions in it: fear, doubt, uncertainty, even panic. In one scene at home he sits morosely with his mother on the staircase. She asks him if he’s all right. He says he isn’t, that he’s in over his head. She tells him that he’s been there before and will endure. He will find a solution, she assures him. He’ll overcome obstacles and outwit his adversaries. Eventually he does, but in another early scene we see him talking to Frank Edwards, a journalist friend who has done well to promote Selfridges by writing positively about the venture and also about the man behind it (almost alone among journalists in London, it must be said). Apropos of nothing, Harry says to Frank:
“Sometimes I feel like hurling myself before an oncoming train. Have you ever thought like that?”
Frank’s response, so very British:
“Can’t say that I have, old boy. Are you feeling all right?”
In other words, dangerous emotion. Don’t go near. Don’t examine it. Leave well enough alone. Chin up, chest out, stiff upper lip. Soldier on. It’s how the Empire was built.
Harry does. He soldiers on. He doesn’t kill himself. His business becomes a roaring success and roars right through the Roaring ‘20s. But the exchange with Frank Edwards shows the price and toll Harry’s dreams have on him (and will have on others around him).
It’s a series of course: many episodes, characters, situations, thus far too complex to detail in a review. Just as well, the object being to watch the series, not read about it. Other reviews here and elsewhere praise the actors, costumes, sets, and cinematography, as they should. I have a few minor quibbles about some of the scripts but they add up to nothing compared to the overall quality of the production.
“The Paradise” (BBC), which many people inevitably compare to “Mr. Selfridge”, is much smaller in scale and ambition. It also takes place in the north, possibly in York, and is therefore more provincial. Also, it’s a fictional tale based on an Emile Zola novel. “Mr. Selfridge”, by contrast, is based on a non-fiction book about Harry Selfridge, his world and times. Naturally, Selfridges is an important cultural landmark in London, now more than 100 years old. If Harry were alive today, he’d still love to go there.
I was once doing research in a library of the British Museum while attending University College London on Gower Street. I forget now what books I was looking for but I remember finding the reference cards to them in a card catalogue there. The books must have been shelved together because on each of the cards this thoroughly depressing message was written:
“Destroyed and lost during the war.”
Not The Great War, mind you. That other terrible one.
How awful, I thought, and still think so now. But how wonderful to also rejoice that all those mad and pointless German bombs could not destroy Selfridges.