The fact and the fiction behind Mr Selfridge
With the fourth and final season of Mr Selfridge under way, Stephen Benton has been doing some digging behind the scenes into some of the colourful characters of the TV version in an attempt to separate the historical facts from the dramatic licence. Stephen shares his findings below:
In the opening credits of the ITV series Mr Selfridge it states it is based on Lindy Woodhead’s book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge.
Now clearly “based on” can cover a multitude of sins and, whilst a degree of licence in the name of entertainment is standard fare (and understandably so) for many TV dramas based on real people’s lives, we guides prefer to deal in the facts.
So, I set myself the mission to establish quite how “loosely” it is based on Lindy’s excellent book.
The central character, Harry Selfridge, is clearly factual and did indeed live during the period in which the television series is set. He also had a mother called Lois, a wife called Rose and a number of children, so that’s a pretty good start.
But it’s when we get into some of the supporting cast that feature in the TV series that we discover that many of them do not get a mention in Ms Woodhead’s book and can therefore only assume they are fictional creations.
Many of the store staff that have captured the public imagination – the loyal Mr Crabb, dashing Henri LeClair, Mr Grove, Miss Mardle and Miss Towler – appear nowhere in the book. The enterprising Victor Corleone and the nasty Lord Loxley and his attractive wife Lady Mae are nowhere to be seen either.
And whilst it is true that Selfridge did fund the building of some “houses for heroes” (in Acton) after the First World War, there is no indication in Ms Woodhead’s book that the architect was a women who had a dalliance with old Harry but was planning to defraud him.
And then there is the little matter of ages and dates.
Harry was 51 when he opened shop in 1909, but the TV series gives the impression he was much younger when he made his first steps towards building his great retail empire. Whilst they have aged him by series 4 (which is set in 1928), he is still looking like a remarkably well-preserved man for 70.
But not nearly so well-preserved as his mother, Lois, who, despite dying in 1924, managed still to be around for the first couple of episodes of series 4!
His son Gordon did go into the business as suggested in the show, but this was not until 1921. He only left school in 1918 and was at University until 1921.
Then there is the little matter of Gordon’s dalliance with Grace who is mother to his children and has started to turn up as part of the Selfridge family in Series 4. However, the paramour in question was in real life called Charlotte and Selfridge senior never publicly acknowledged her existence.
We also have the incident featured in the TV series of Selfridge being injured by falling off the scaffolding at the unveiling of the sculpture Queen of Time at the front of the store in 1928.
Unaccountably Ms Woodhead fails to report this calamitous incident in her book (although she does mention that Selfridge fell 12 feet and was injured whilst inspecting the building of his new Food Hall in 1935, so we can at least see where the idea came from).
But the reverse also applies. Just when see something in the TV series and think “that can’t be right…” it turns out to be the truth.
For example, the exterior of the store the production company built for filming purposes at Chatham Dockyard looks like a much smaller frontage than the actual store. This is not (as one might uncharitably think) because they were skimping on the budget and could not afford the “full” version, but is in fact entirely historically accurate.
The facade we see today was only completed in the 1920s and so for series 1, 2 and 3 (set between 1908 and 1919) the store did in fact only consist of the first 9 bays of the building (they have cleverly not shown the whole facade thus far in series four, so maybe the uncharitable budget thought has legs after all…).
And what about his daughter Rosalie marrying a Russian called Serge de Bolotov whose mother claims to be a princess called Marie and yet sponges off everyone? Surely that has to be a dramatic construct? No, all true!
And there are a couple of fascinating items which have not made it into the TV series but might have done.
First, as documented by Lindy Woodhead, there is the “signature window”. We know that Selfridge courted the rich and famous but a fact that has (perhaps surprisingly) not made the cut is that when anyone famous came to the store, he would get them to sign the window using a diamond tipped stylus (sadly the window did not survive wartime bombing).
Finally there is the little matter of the 1917 bet Selfridge had with Sir Woodman Burbidge, Managing Director of Harrods. The bet was that by six years after the end of the Great War, Selfridge’s turnover would exceed Harrods. The bet was called in 1927 and at that point Harrods was still bigger so Selfridge, as the loser, had to pay for a model of the Harrods store. Not any old model, but one made of solid silver.
This model still exists and is on public display (you can find out where by coming on my walk!) but is not something which merits a mention neither by Lindy Woodhead in her book nor in the TV series.
The conclusion in the fact vs. fiction debate? Let’s call it a draw and carry on enjoying the series!
Click here to see when Stephen is next running his Mr Selfridge and his Competitors walk (and it will only contain the facts of the history of this and some of the other West End retail titans!).