While everyone got caught up in the characters, costumes, and bon mots of Maggie Smith on ‘Downton Abbey’, another entertaining British series, ‘Mr. Selfridge’, was also appearing on PBS Sunday evenings. ‘Mr. Selfridge’ has just ended its wonderful fourth and final season. The series tells the story of American businessman Harry Gordon Selfridge, who came to London in 1908 determined to open the best department store London had ever seen. Since Selfridges is still operating at its original location on Oxford Street, his vision and innovative efforts surpassed even his expectations.
Because each story line expanded and deepened as time went on, it’s hard to pick my favorite season of ‘Mr. Selfridge’. However I could probably watch Season One a few more times. There is a palpable excitement as Harry defies expectations – and the British disdain for his brash American ways – to build a spectacular store that implements his modern ideas.
Harry, played by Jeremy Pivens, is at his most grandiose and enthusiastic in the premier season. Indeed, his weakness for showgirls and the gaming tables won’t be seen again to this extent until the final season when the Dolly Sisters exploit a much older Harry.
My favorite part of the first season was being introduced to the people that Harry Selfridge hires to run his business. Some clear favorites are the loyal Mr. Crabbe, stern Mr. Grove, long-suffering Miss Mardle, effervescent Kitty Hawkins presiding over the perfume and cosmetics counter, Victor Colleano, the ambitious headwaiter of the store’s Palm Court restaurant, and that lovely window designing romantic duo Agnes Towler and Henri Leclair.
But the star is arguably Lady Mae Loxley, a former showgirl who has married a wealthy, but quite despicable, man. In any other series, her story alone could carry the show, but here she is just one of many fascinating characters who continued to surprise and entertain us for four seasons.
As ‘Downton Abbey’ did, the second season of Mr. Selfridge was set during the First World War. Many of the male characters are off to the battlefield, some to return injured in body and soul. Tragically, others do not return at all.
Back on the home front, the female employees at the department store take on more responsibility in both their personal and professional lives. For example, the all male bastion known as the Shipping Department now includes women pushing trolleys and loading boxes.
By 1918, Selfridges has become famous for its eye-catching window displays and savvy promotional ventures. Harry’s store attracts huge crowds, who are as thrilled by the celebrated aviators and movie stars who appear there for special events, as they are by the sales items and staff of the store itself. Selfridges has truly become the most successful retail emporium in London.
Although Lady Mae’s jealous husband, Lord Loxley, works mightily to bring Harry down, it’s hard for him to outmaneuver both Harry Selfridge and the brave Mae. By the end of the second season, the war has drawn to a close, and the position of women in society will never be the same again. Harry has changed forever as well after he suffers a deep personal loss.
The third season opens in 1919 with a seemingly more mature Harry. His children are now adults, knee deep in their own personal follies and adventures. A family marriage brings an opportunistic Russian prince and his scheming mother into their fold. The villainous Lord Loxley is back, determined to once again destroy Harry, whom he blames for his divorce to Lady Mae.
When Harry loses his heart to a female con artist, he almost loses his fortune too. And of course the employees of Selfridges find themselves caught up in their own whirl of marriages, heartbreak, thwarted love, and new beginnings.
The final season of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ gives us a visibly older Harry Selfridge, whose love of pretty young girls and gambling returns . . . with often ruinous results. Taking advantage of his weaknesses are the Dolly Sisters, a notorious pair of theatrical gold diggers. Also looking to benefit from Harry’s wealth and standing is Anglo-Indian businessman Jimmy.
Viewers cheered at the reappearance of Lady Mae, who launches a fashion line at Selfridges. Harry’s son Charles takes on increasing responsibility for the family’s retail empire, and Mr. Grove’s headstrong daughter Meryl now works at the department store, where she makes friends with a young seamstress being bullied by the other staff.
The look and feel of this final season is pure Roaring Twenties: reckless, daring people living for the moment, with no thought as to what might lie ahead. Beloved characters die from both natural and unnatural causes, old flames are rekindled, and scores will be settled, no matter the cost.
For my money, the plots of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ were more believable than most of what transpired on ‘Downton Abbey’. Unlike the often quickly resolved problems of the Crawley family and their staff, ‘Mr. Selfridge’ took years to finish a story arc, which made it far more rewarding.
If you love British dramas on PBS and haven’t yet watched ‘Mr. Selfridge’, please settle in for some delightful binge watching. The characters are multi-layered, the sets and costumes accurate to the last button and perfume bottle, and the plotlines are complex, entertaining, and unpredictable. Harry Gordon Selfridge believed “The customer is always right”. Luckily for us, the four seasons of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ gets it right from beginning to end.