Thursday, 21 March 2013

Lessons Learned from Mr Selfridge

Oh Harry, Sunday night-ins just haven't been the same without you

I'm referring to the guilty pleasure that is ITV1's recent hit series Mr Selfridge. Gasp if you will, but it's the first costume drama I've watched from start to finish - no, haven't seen Downtown Abbey or Mad Men. The thing about historically-inspired series, with their extended broadcast duration compared to films, can be exceptional educational tools. Especially for youngsters or people who are unfamiliar with the basics of history - which is probably most of the population.

"One day offer only ladies, every item is free!"

Although prone to a bit of over-embellishment (the facts more so than the frocks), a good period drama can effectively inspire untapped generations to wonder how our present is shaped by our past- a priceless effect. And with TV being the most talked about subject on Twitter, it's officially the most entertaining way to get an education, even you might need fact-checking afterwards. While I eagerly await for season two (filming starts in April, as let slip by 'Lady May' Katherine Kelly on Twitter last Sunday), here's what I enlightened.


Harry Selfridge is credited for transforming the way the British shopped in Edwardian times (when the  department store was still a new concept), by introducing retailing 'radical' ideas from the US.  As unthinkable as it now sounds, until then shopping was for necessity rather than pleasure or fashion; the decadent reserve of the upper-class trophy-wives. "It is good to shop, isn't it?" asks a housewife, as if it were some vulgar, blasphemous act. However, the thought of the contemporary saying 'shop-'till-you-drop' might just have had a literal effect on some prudent Edwardians.

Several changes were revolutionary, primarily allowing the customer to conveniently access a wide variety of goods under one roof. To browse, try before you buy items off the rail, for example - versus products sold behind the counter. If you wanted a new dress, it would have taken weeks for multiple fittings and production. Think about that next time ASOS' homepage takes longer than five seconds to load.

We have Selfridge to be thankful for sales - penny sales, early-bird discounts and the all-important mid-season sales. It's the most effective marketing, stock-shifting trick in the book, from Poundland to Harvey Nichols. Realising not everyone could afford the premium price tag, Selfridge introduced sales to attract customers across all markets. In the show staff's jaws literally drop when he decides to cut prices (unheard of for high-end retailers) in a bid to compete against new rival Woolworths, ironically a discount store opened by his old American friend.

Jeremy Piven's Harry Selfridge is an unabashed publicity-loving showman, seizing every opportunity to make headlines. This was crucial because Oxford Street was a then unfashionable shopping district. He knew how to create a spectacle the media would lap up - hosting themed nights, celebrity invitations (including King Edward VII and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and employing beautiful brand ambassadors; using sexual appeal to sell perfume (the fictional Ellen Love as the Spirit of Selfridges). He also realised impact and marketing potential of visual merchandising, Presentation is everything; a lavish store window inspires the public imagination to covet even if they can't afford the real deal. Today Selfridges, Liberty and Harrods' annual festive windows are London attractions in their own right.  

Cast of Mr Selfridge, Left to right from back: Katherine Kelly (Lady 'Mae' Loxley), Jeremy Piven (Harry Selfridge), Rose Selfridge (Frances O'Connor), Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), Ellen Love (Zoe Tpper)


Unlike most corset dramas, Mr Selfridge brings a refreshing  sense of female empowerment and change of thinking when sexism was still the norm. Besides the angry suffragette demonstrations, it's the strong female characters that form the template of the modern woman - working, is financially independent and will not be hindered by their own gender. The fictional character of Miss Ravillious is the perfect example - a suffrage supporter, she arrives as newly appointed  Head of Fashion in a man's world, who cycles to work, wears skirts above the ankles and certainly does not take any sexist nonsense.

The other huge shift is in women embracing their sexuality rather than being ashamed of it. In the series, women are definitely not shy of using their sexual prowess as a bargaining chip to further their career; manipulating men to get what they want - like ambitious gaiety girl Ellen Love. Not to mention Selfridges' formidable investor socialite Lady Mae, the epitome of the Edwardian cougar. When goody-two-shoes female protagonist Agnes Towler and her window dressing French lover part ways in the finale episode, the split is amicable utterly progressive even by today's standards - with her admitting they never agreed to be exclusive in the first place.

That being said in the same episode one EMBARquote (Mr Selfridge is awash with them) undoes all this good work. "Kitty, I'm going to be a kept woman!" squeals a junior shop assistant in delight to her jealous friend. She's just announced her engagement to the chief of staff, who's been having a long affair with the head of accessories - behind his ailing wife. Fiction is always more thrilling than fact, but it does bring to light the social status and the limited choices women at the time.

I could go on forever on the list of things I've gleamed in just eight 45 minute episodes, like the memorable cameos by legends I missed in history class - Louis BlĂ©riot, the first man to fly across the Channel, Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton the and Anna Pavlova, the legendary Russian ballet dancer) Credit should be given to its acting talents, especially fresh faces Aisling Loftus (who plays Agnes), Amy Beth Hayes (the annoyingly brilliant Kitty), actresses to keep an eye on this year. 

Who says television can't be good for you?

Season One of Mr Selfrudge is available to order here

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