Katherine Kelly on her return to Mr Selfridge

The actress who plays Lady Mae in ITV's drama is back in London's finest department store just as the show is beginning its last ever series. Why did she come back — and is this the right time to shut the doors on Mr Selfridge?

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Katherine Kelly has returned to Mr Selfridge just at the right moment.

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For one thing, the titular “Earl of Oxford Street”, played in the ITV series by American actor Jeremy Piven, is in need of some salvation. It’s 1929, the Jazz Age is in full swing, and the ever-tempted Harry Selfridge might be indulging in the roaring decade with just a little too much gusto.

“Lady Mae comes back but only ’cause she’s got nowhere else to go. But she stays to save Harry,” says Kelly of her character, a key cast member again after missing the third series. “Onscreen”, society fixer Lady Mae Loxley was off in Paris, running a fashion house; offscreen, Kelly was having her first child.

“She’s known Harry since the day he arrived in England,” continues the former Corrie stalwart. “No one else can talk to him the way that she can. She’s there to save him from himself. And he knows that. Whether she succeeds or not is another matter.”

The timing of the Barnsley-born actress – back to a primetime drama that’s as comforting as a spot of retail therapy – is spot-on in another way. The new, fourth series of Mr Selfridge is the last. “We all knew there was going to be four series. That was the whole point,” says the 36-year-old, aware that series creator Andrew Davies always conceived a four-series narrative arc. “I really like that, I think it’s classy. Things just go on and on and on till they’re bled dry, don’t they?” she notes of the memo that Julian Fellowes also recently received.

And there’s a final reason that Kelly has aced her comeback. For much of the four series, the gorgeous, dawn-of-the-modern-age world of London’s finest department store has been recreated in the improbable surroundings of a former carpet warehouse in Neasden, northwest London. In this season, however, key cast members are enjoying a moment in the sun.

So it is there RT catches up with Kelly onset in June, by a beach… somewhere. Lest we spoil some plot points, let’s just say that we’re not in the Côte de Blackpool. Think the staff of Are You Being Served? go to the seaside, with added cigars and cocktails. OK, maybe not.

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Kelly’s daughter Orla was born in March 2014, just before filming began on the third series. Kelly was firm on taking proper maternity leave, not least because she “blasted it” since leaving drama school Rada, working constantly from the age of 21, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Coronation Street, where she played Becky McDonald between 2006 and 2012. Her portrayal of the (shall we say) feisty Becky won a National Television Award (Best Serial Drama Performance) and two British Soap Awards (Best Actress, Best Exit).

“If you’d have told me I’d have been on Corrie for five years I wouldn’t have believed you, ’cause I only went in for three months,” she recalls with palpable affection of a show on which she made a bevvy of firm friends. “But that was just due to the writers, really. Becky was kind of like seven different characters in one. The way she started and the way she finished was absolutely unrecognisable. They kept morphing her and changing her. Then it was the 50th anniversary, so I stayed for that. I didn’t want to leave the longest running TV show in the world when it was about to have its 50th birthday!”

She was, though, happy to leave Mr Selfridge, whether temporarily or, if it worked out that way, permanently.

“Every actress that I’ve ever spoke to – I’m a good talker but I’m a very good listener – about having children has always said they went back to work too early. Some people have to,” she shrugs, “But I was just in a very privileged position that I could take the time off. I went back to work when Orla was seven months. And that felt right for me. I don’t know if I’d do it with a second child particularly, but I just wanted that time with her.”

Her departure threw the producers a curveball, but Kelly is full of praise.

“Kate Lewis, who’s the executive producer, she has three little girls, and she said: ‘Well, professionally I’m absolutely devastated. But on a personal level I just congratulate you. You’ll never regret it.’

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Did she watch last year’s third series?

“Yeah… Well, not every Sunday – with the baby crying it was hard.” She insists that she didn’t miss being on the shop floor. “I have no ego, so I can separate myself from something. I don’t sit watching a play thinking, ‘oh, I wish I was up there.’ So, no, I really enjoyed watching it, sitting there feeding Orla,” Kelly smiles, “which seems a bit bizarre. And sometimes coming back to it, it feels like a brand new job. And other days it’s like I’ve never been away.”

Does Kelly think this is the right time to finally to shut the doors on Mr Selfridge?

“I think so. I like they way they’ve balanced it. And also it’s really nice to know you’re ending something. ’Cause you don’t want to hold anything back. You can kill who you want, get someone as drunk as you want. You don’t have to think, ‘oh, if we have a green-light for series five, we’ll have no one left…’ You can just go out with all guns blazing,” she concludes with a perfectly cool, perfectly tantalising Lady Mae smile. 

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Mr Selfridge is on ITV tonight at 9pm