Co.Create

"Mr. Selfridge" And The Story Of A Revolution In Retail

British screenwriter Andrew Davies talks about making the miniseries, which casts Jeremy Piven as the American founder of iconic London department store Selfridges.

Jeremy Piven in a British period drama?

We can’t say we saw that one coming, but the actor, best known for playing ruthless Hollywood agent Ari Gold on Entourage, is indeed the star—and a producer—of Mr. Selfridge, cast in the role of Harry Selfridge, the American businessman who founded the iconic London department store Selfridges in 1909 and revolutionized the way people shopped.

Premiering on PBS March 31, the eight-part miniseries, which is based on Lindy Woodhead’s book Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, was created by Andrew Davies, a British screenwriter whose work tends to be rooted in the past.

Described as "the king of the period drama" in the British press, the prolific 76-year-old scribe’s credits include television adaptations of the Jane Austen classics Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility as well as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Co.Create recently spoke with Davies, who will get to work penning an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace this summer for BBC, about why he was interested in making Mr. Selfridge, why he thinks Piven was the perfect actor for the title role, and why he likes to mine the past for stories.

Co.Create: I make it a point to visit Selfridges every time I go to London, but I had no idea the store’s founder was so instrumental in changing the way people shop. Why were you interested in telling Harry Selfridge’s story?

Andrew Davies

Davies: I was initially quite reluctant to get involved at all. When Kate Lewis of ITV [Studios] asked me to read the book, I said, "Oh no, not shopping," because I hate shopping. I never go into a shop if I can help it, but I was intrigued by his story, and he seemed such an interesting character, really. Quite charismatic but also conflicted—a family man who couldn’t resist a pretty girl and risked his marriage time after time with various reckless affairs. And he set up this family feeling in his store where his employees also seemed to adore him. That was intriguing for me. I saw this could make a very rich show. It would be a workplace drama and the story of a long marriage and a family story and a kind of American dream story but acted out in London.

Why do you think Jeremy Piven was right for the role of Harry Selfridge?
He’s got that larger-than-life showman feel about him, doesn’t he? We did want a real American, and we were absolutely thrilled when we got Jeremy because Jeremy actually comes from Chicago as Selfridge did. And we thought that was a great omen, and, of course, Entourage has been a kind of cult hit in the U.K. It doesn’t have huge audiences, but people in the know absolutely adore it.

So how did Selfridge change the way people shop?
Rich people didn’t actually go shopping when he first arrived in London. People would go to the shops, and you’d have to know what you wanted because nothing would be on display. So you’d have to ask for it, and they’d bring it out from under the counter, and so there was no sense of going to a store to just see what was on offer or be able to handle the goods and admire them. Harry was the one who made shopping a kind of pastime or entertainment.

The other thing was that he latched onto the idea that women wouldn’t come in from the outlying suburbs to go shopping because the facilities that they had in stores before he came to London, well, they didn’t have any facilities. They didn’t have restrooms, and that was a crucial thing.

I wanted to make a big stink of this in the show, but somehow we never managed to get it in. By putting really luxurious restrooms as good as you get in luxury hotels and putting really nice cafés and restaurants in his store, he made it possible for a woman to spend a whole day there without having to dash home.

Also, I think he saw his store not just as a place to sell people things, but he wanted to make it into a London landmark and a place where people just came to marvel at all the wonderful things in the world. He’d get famous people, and he’d get famous objects like the first plane to fly across the English Channel, and he’d put them all on exhibition in the store just for the hell of it, just to entertain people. He said, "They’ll come and look at that, and then next time they’ll come to buy things."

He was a genius. He really was.

One of my favorite characters in Mr. Selfridge is Miss Ravillious, one of the store’s more modern employees. She shocks the other women by wearing a skirt that doesn’t cover her ankles. I had never heard of the Rational Dress Movement before she mentioned it.
Miss Ravillious is quite an interesting character. She’s a feminist, and she’s a supporter of the suffrage acts and stands up for women in the store, whereas most of the women in the story are a little more traditional in their attitudes.

How much of the series is based on the book by Lindy Woodhead, and how much it sprang from your imagination?
Well, the broad outlines are from the book—all the stuff about how he got the store going and how he got it financed and how he persuaded people to come into partnership with him, how he hired the staff. All that is very much as it happened historically. A lot of the stuff about his family is very accurate. The way that he ran the store is based on the real way that he did it, although not enough was known about actual people who worked there, so we felt free to invent all those characters. Ellen Love, for example, isn’t a real person. She’s based on several girls that he had as mistresses over the years.

Can you take me through your writing process? How did it begin? Did you outline the entire series before you started writing the episodes?
Oh, no. It was a very slow and quite organic process, really. I started off by trying to make plans and talking with the executive producer and the script editor and coming up with characters because I knew we were going to be creating characters like Agnes and Victor, for example, in the store. I was trying to come up with characters who would have plenty of longevity in terms of things that could happen to them and relationships they could have. And then I wrote a first episode and then the second episode and really didn’t have a tremendously clear idea except in very general terms of what the arc of the whole first series—or the first season as you say in the states—was going to be about except that I saw that by the end of episode ten, I would like to see the store absolutely, tremendously successful and Harry’s marriage in crisis. Apart from that, I didn’t have very much of an idea, but things developed very naturally.

And, in fact, I did have a lot of help. Our script editor said to me really quite early on, "Andrew, did you know Miss Mardle and Mr. Grove are having a secret affair?" And she was talking about them as if they were real people, and I said, "No. I never thought of Mardle as having any sex at all. "Yes," she said. "The way I see it, they’ve been together for years, and she’s followed him from store to store," and I thought, wow, this is really interesting. So things developed in those sorts of ways.

Did you write all of the episodes?
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve written all the scripts because I haven’t. After the first two episodes, we brought in two other writers, Kate O’Riordan and Kate Brooke, and so from then on, we had a proper writers’ room, a bit like you do in the states. It’s quite rare in England. Quite often the story-lining would be done by a producer and script editor, and they’d more or less give instructions to the writers.

Did you enjoy running the writers’ room and working in a more collaborative fashion?
It’s the first time I’ve ever worked like this, and I really enjoyed it. It’s enjoyable not to be on one’s own. You’re getting loads of different ideas. The only thing is that sometimes it can seem a bit too much, and you’re getting so many voices coming in from so many angles that it’s hard to keep your head straight about things. But I’d certainly be up for working like this again.

You are a master of the period drama. Why are you drawn to the past?
When it’s the case of adapting novels, I just think that the great 19th-century novels offer so much more. There’s more story to them and more depth to them than you get with more modern fiction. But, in general, I think that often period drama can tell us more about ourselves today sometimes than modern drama can. It offers the opportunity to really think about what it means to be human and bring out bigger themes.

Can you share some advice on how a writer can build a lasting career in television the way you have?
Really be true to yourself, and don’t try to guess what is required of you, and don’t try to satisfy other people’s demands. I think that’s quite important. You need to stand out and be a little different when you’re starting out. At least that’s what I did, and it seemed to work for me.

[Davies Photo: Courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS]

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