Mr Selfridge -staring Jeremy Piven, of Entourage fame- has just returned for a second season on ITV. Centring on the real-life story of the flamboyant American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened its eponymous London department store in 1909, the successful TV drama is based on the bestselling biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge. Chic-Londres met with its author, Lindy Woodhead, who also worked as a consultant on the series, to talk about the larger-than-life character whose life inspired her book and who revolutionised London shopping.
Why is Harry Gordon Selfridge considered such a visionary? He was way ahead of his time, bringing to London ideas that are still influential to this day. At a time when department stores were built to be dark, Selfridge flooded his with light, with electricity -unused by most shops at the time- and huge windows. A shrine to modernity, it offered its customers luxuries unseen before, such as access to 56 phones in its restaurant, when only 8% of London homes had a phone. He also opened a travel agency, a bank and a bureau de change, which enabled Selfridge’s to become a tourist attraction.
Which notable selling techniques did he introduce? He was the first to really understand the necessity to engage with customers through marketing, employing from the start an in-house PR team and a photographer. He also introduced the (then) innovative practice of celebrity appearances, with Louis Bleriot, Anna Pavlova, Douglas Fairbanks or Arthur Conan Doyle being invited alongside the press to visit the store. Until then, department stores were very old fashioned, very formal and very class-divided: Harry changed all that.
Do you think of Harry Gordon Selfridge as an endearing character? He was deeply flawed, being serially unfaithful, very vain, addicted to gambling and highly controlling. But that doesn’t mean that he was not highly likeable. To a certain degree, this level of charisma and extravagant entrepreneurship always goes with its own set of related flaws. But there was no happy ending for Harry, who squandered his fortune and died in poverty.
Before being Mr Selfridge on screen, Jeremy Piven was mostly famous for his role in Entourage, where he played ruthless Hollywood agent Ari Gold. Are Ari and Harry similar in any way? I don’t think they are, because Ari Gold is such a brutal character, while Harry Gordon Selfridge wasn’t. But Jeremy Piven is just as good in both series, and doing a fantastic job at bringing Selfridge to life. Like Harry, Jeremy comes from Chicago and is astonishingly charismatic: we’re lucky to have him.