Tell us about your character, Harry Gordon Selfridge…
He was a pioneer in every sense of the word. You have this American at the turn of the century coming over here and having a real sense of what he wants to do – even though it hasn’t been done before. He was a showman. He loved to rely on publicity. The windows were very much his stage with a little play going on in each one. So his store was always in a constant state of creative transformation. He loves his workers and motivates them through that personal connection and through inspiration as opposed to intimidation. It’s infectious. It’s a great role and a story many people won’t know.
But his path to retail success doesn’t always run smoothly, does it?
The money falls through. But instead of taking a moment and regrouping, he doubles his efforts and willed the whole thing to happen. Failure is not an option. That’s a very American thing to do. The people around him at first were incredibly doubtful, then intrigued and they all rallied behind him.
Despite being happily married to his wife, Rose, we’ve heard rumours he was quite the ladies man – especially when it came to glamorous starlet Ellen Love?
He loved, honoured, respected and celebrated women and wanted them to come and feel empowered. Because of his love for the arts and for women he falls for Ellen. He’s so enamoured with her, the way she carries herself and her as an artist. I’m not saying you’ll understand it morally but the writer, Andrew Davies, has done it so beautifully that you could possibly understand why he would take the path that he does. And yet it’s still surprising…
You’re also an American who has travelled to British shores to play the role – are there any similarities between you and Harry?
There are so many parallels. I’m an American, also from Chicago, making my way in unchartered territory. Harry Selfridge is a showman and likes to be the centre of attention, whereas I like to disappear in a room and watch everyone else. So in some ways I’m different and in others I can find parallels that I can use.
Give us an insight into your character…
Rose is not the first person you’d notice when you walk in a room but if you did actually happen to talk to her you’d probably end up having a great conversation. She has a kind of quiet beauty and strength to her.
But while Harry’s off flourishing amongst British society, Rose doesn’t make the transition as smoothly…
Moving thousands of miles to a new life with your husband and family is no easy feat for any woman. She does struggle. You might not realise it at first but she is quite a strong character underneath it all. When push comes to shove she stands her ground and fights for what she needs in her life.
Rumour has it Harry is susceptible to the charms of London’s female socialites, especially glamorous poster girl, Ellen Love?
Rose is no fool. She knows her husband has dabbled in affairs before and she knows what’s going on with Ellen Love.
But she’s given up many of her own aspirations for her husband to establish his career…
At the start she’s put away a lot of her dreams of what she wanted to do with her life so that Harry could achieve his. When they get to London he becomes so entrenched in pursuing his dreams that he forgets about Rose. And Rose, left to her own devices, ends up going on her own own journey which is about self-fulfillment and realising her dreams. That’s fun to play, especially a character that’s introverted and a little shy.
What was it like working with Jeremy?
Jeremy is a lot like his character in some ways. He is very effervescent and full of life and energy. It was great to have the contrast of the American with the British. The mix of that created a good atmosphere on set.
Lastly, why should we watch Mr Selfridge?
It’s escapist in some ways, very glamorous looking and it does have a champagne feel. Very bubbly and fun to watch with a genuine charm to the characters. Also it doesn’t feel like a period piece. It just feels like you’re watching people, like you’re peering into a real world and not a television show.
Your character, Ellen, is more complex than she first appears…
Ellen Love is a two-sided character. She reminds me a little bit of Holly Golightly and is Marilyn Monroe-esque. She’s got this vivacious, sexy, wide-eyed side to her. She lives the dream of the showgirl. And then on the other hand she’s also got these inner demons that lurk underneath and a fragility that can rear its head at any given time. She’s a lovely social butterfly but sometimes allows herself to get a little bit too close to the fire, has her wings singed and gets herself hurt. But she’s ultimately a survivor and can always claw her way back.
How does her relationship with Harry come about?
Ellen underestimates Harry at first. She’s quite used to the attention of men and perhaps uses them for their spoils. But Harry comes along and is quite similar to Ellen in a way. He also shines too brightly and they’re both massively drawn to one another. It takes her by surprise that she actually ends up falling in love with him. Her barriers go down.
But the path of romance doesn’t exactly run smoothly for the pair…
Harry thinks that when he’s finished with her that will be it and he can go on to the next woman. But Ellen has other ideas. He can’t get rid of her that easily.
Ellen was living in a time of great change for women – how much is that depicted in Mr Selfridge?
The suffragette movement was beginning to get into its stride and certainly in Andrew Davies’ adaptation Harry Selfridge is in favour of this and actively supports it. It was a great time for the emancipation of women and in a funny sort of way the whole shopping experience that Harry Selfridge created almost aided that. It suddenly became a respectable pastime for women to go shopping. Andrew has written some fabulous, really strong female roles for this drama.
You had the chance to film at London’s Theatre Royal on Drury Lane – that must have been quite an experience?
I was absolutely terrified beforehand. I’ve not performed on stage before and it felt like we were actually playing a live show because of all the extras in the audience. It was definitely nerve-wracking but I got a real adrenaline rush from it as well. We were intruding on Shrek which is playing there at the moment. I think I had the donkey’s dressing room!
Tell us about your character, Lady Mae Loxley…
She was the woman of the time at the top of the ladder. The party that you wanted to go to. And as a socialite she knows everybody. She obviously married for money. We never see Lord Loxley. He’s in the country and she’s in the town and that’s the way they both seem to like it. She also has younger lovers.
She becomes Harry’s knight in shining armour, doesn’t she?
Harry has lost his financial backing and people think he’s an American who has lost the plot. So his journalist friend Frank [Edwards] brings him to meet Lady Mae. If there’s anybody that can get Harry the money it’s her because she’s the richest and most influential woman at that monent.
Mr Selfridge follows a long string of successful historical dramas – Downton Abbey, The Paradise – what sets it apart from the rest?
It’s not just another period drama. It’s a story about shopping and the man that brought shopping to the UK. And it just happens to be set in 1909. It’s about shopping, so women are going to love that. Boys will love it because Jeremy is awesome and he’s absolutely the businessman that you want to be in life. There really is something for everybody in Mr Selfridge and it’s such a great cast with so many lovely stories.
Did you enjoy working with Jeremy Piven?
The first time I met him was when I was in She Stoops To Conquer. I got a call saying, “Jeremy is going to come and watch the show tonight.” So he came to see it and we had a drink in the bar afterwards and I just thought, “How lovely of him to do that.” He’s a great leading man. He makes everybody feel at ease and when the lead is like that it filters down and makes for a very happy set, which is what we’ve got.
And lastly, what did you make of the impressive headgear you’ve been sporting to play Lady May?
Watch out for the hats. They can cause an eclipse. Lady Mae has to have the biggest and the best. They have to completely change the camera angles to shoot round my hats.
Agnes first meets Harry Selfridge when he strolls into the old-fashioned shop she works in – what makes him stand out?
An American in London in 1909 is an exotic creature anyway and his charisma, charm and showmanship takes her aback. Especially in an establishment like that where it’s very proper and people are expected to speak in a certain way to a shop girl. He’s like a whirlwind going through the store.
Despite her success at Selfridges, Agnes has a pretty tough life back home with a drunk father and financially dependent brother to contend with…
She’s at the helm of her family and has a difficult time of it. Financially she’s the backbone but she’s also the fibre of the family. I think she shoulders that very well. Agnes is a survivor. She makes the best of her circumstances and is one of the modern women of that time who has a growing sense of identity, ambition and self.
Her ambition catches the eye of a prominent male member of staff, doesn’t it?
Henri Leclair, who is head of the creative department, sees something in her and really encourages it. She takes that encouragement and runs with it. She has an eye for things. She’s on a journey to better herself despite the things at home which might hold her back.
Can we still see Harry Selfridge’s influence in present day retail?
Some of the initiatives that Harry set up are still there today – restaurants within the store, shoppers being able to touch things. He even started up food halls and had the seed of that idea. And window displays. I love looking at the window displays in Selfridge’s. They’re just so beautiful and often funny and so creative. And it was Harry that started it.
Also look out for…
Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), Selfridge’s dashing creative director, Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington), the beguiling head of accessories, Kitty (Amy Beth Hayes) and Doris (Lauren Crace), best friends also work in the store, Frank Edwards (Samuel West), the seasoned London newspaper editor who takes Harry under his wing and introduces him to London society, Lois Selfridge (Kika Markham), Harry’s mother who moves to Britain with the Selfridge family, Mr Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), Selfridge’s authoritative chief of staff, romantically linked to Miss Mardle, George (Callum Callaghan) and Reg Towler (Nick Moran), Agnes’s younger brother and violent alcoholic father, and Mr Crabb (Ron Cook) – Harry’s loyal and reliable chief accountant.