Tuesday 23 February 2016

Mr Selfridge

When Wolf Hall was broadcasted on the German-French channel belonging to the public service, another - private this time - channel started showing « Mr Selfridge ».

As it is a private channel, and as the audience does not have to pay to have access to it, there are of course, a great number of adverts slicing the show. And I find this very appropriate to the main topic of this series. Mr Selfridge is an American businessman come to take London by surprise and to create the first modern department store in Britain. As a businessman always searching for new events making a “buzz” around its merchandise in order to sell them more and more, Mr Selfridge could have understood that “his” series be cut thrice an episode to leave space for adverts!

I was not impressed by the first episodes. Mr Selfridge was loud. Mr Selfridge was always beaming. Mr Selfridge was talking money. Mr Selfridge was vulgar – even according to my French and twenty-first century standards.

Mr Selfridge was arriving in London having concluded a partnership that was destroyed in the first minutes of the first episode. Meanwhile, he was advertising his presence, his “store”, his methods, being photographed by the press from which he curried favours, drawing on his cigar that Frenchmen would have called a “barreau de chaise” as it was so big and ostentatious, puffing the smoke, beaming with jocundity, and all there was behind the fence was a mighty hole and no money in the bank. Tsssss! Bad American capitalist juggling with no money or others’ money.

Of course, he realised what he had come to make: he found British patrons, made his way in the demi-monde and the monde, found investors, built his department store, found employees devoted to him (I wondered why: I would have hated the guy, his methods and his culture d’entreprise avant la lettre - a corporate culture before its time –, his sense of team while he clearly remained the boss), department managers even more devoted, had an impeccable family (his devoted mother, his devoted wife, his loving children – three girls and an heir), a music-hall singer and actress who was the coqueluche of London (the toast of London) to represent the esprit (the essence) of his store, becoming his mistress. In a few words, he was a wonderful character that I hated.

It did not help that the channel that broadcasted the series was showing four episodes at a time. One comes from such a sitting with a vague sense of indigestion. Too much chocolate is too much, even if you like chocolate. What if you DON’T like chocolate?

Therefore, I hesitated to go through this half ordeal the next Friday evening, a week later, but the French TV was not showing anything suitable for The Girls and interesting for me. I resigned myself to watch Mr Selfridge again with the proviso that if I did not like it, we would switch off the TV set long before the end of the fourth episode.

I had thought about the series during the week and remembered what had been said in English-speaking newspapers and magazine: it was directed by Andrew Davies, and Andrew Davies is la crème de la crème for series; it was in direct competition with “The Paradise”, which is based upon Zola’s novel “Au Bonheur des Dames”, the founding of a department store for ladies, during the Second Empire and under the reign of Napoleon III, in Paris, based in turn upon facts, as aways with Zola: the creation of Le Bon Marché. The novel belongs to the long sequence of novels called “Les Rougon-Macquart”, which is so ill understood by English speakers who read it without, or out of, context.

And there were vague similarities with the French novel in this series as well. Mr Selfridge was as self-assured as Octave Mouret. There was a young lady seller who might have passed for Denise Baudu, were not Mr Selfridge already married. The music hall singer was not without reminding me of “Nana”. The whole department store with its déballez-moi ça, its wealth of tempting goods and its play upon the “natural wish” of “ladies” to buy, was close to the Bonheur des Dames. It seemed as frankly and openly anti-feminist and capitalist, although Zola was anti-capitalist and did not allow Octave Mouret to go through his venture unscathed. What would happen then to our Mr Selfridge?

A little research on the internet told me that he was a real person and not a fictional character (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Gordon_Selfridge), and that his family was also well known (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Selfridge). Therefore, Andrew Davies had to cling to facts. He usually clings to the plot of novels but here was no novel. Instead, there was a fictionalised biography by Lindy Woodhead called ”Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge”. It was not a drifting scenario as “Downton Abbey” that was written to cater to the tastes of its audience and made a sort of soap opera after the first season. Unlike Fellowes, Davies had a spine for his story: the life and deeds of Henry Gordon Selfridge. Then he could embroider the facts but Davies is usually true to the periods he describes and well documented. From then onwards, it might – might, just – be less of an ordeal to watch.

 And it WAS good.

For all I know, it is still good as we entered the second season last Friday and shall be well into it this evening as I write on a Friday. The main facts are true. Then the plot has been fleshed in by “secondary” characters or fictional characters in real life who are protagonists in the series.

Yes, compared with short biographies of Harry Gordon Selfridge and Rose Selfridge, the main lines of their lives are respected. Yes, there are reminiscences of Zola in the system of the department store and in some characters or development of the plot, but they are not overwhelming. And it proves right that department stores and capitalism develop according to recurring facts and events that may be considered as patterns and axioms. One may disapprove capitalism, paternalism, corporate culture, but they existed and still exist. They are even expanding with the emergent countries such as China or the converted Russia. To demonstrate how they are born, they grow and develop, is also a way to recognise them, and to fight them if and when they go too far. Yes, there is anti-feminism: Rose and Harry are not treated equally when they are thought to have had, at least, wishful adulterous passions or consummated ones. And the music hall singer, Ellen Love, is treated as a Nana, and as a hero straight out of a play by Oscar Wilde. Yes, the suffragettes are within the store with Miss Ravilious and outside, demonstrating, and nothing shocking about their treatment is shown: the movement is less fierce than it was, the police forces and the repression are non - existent, but there is something of Marcuse’s thought in the treatment of the recuperation of the feminist movement to the benefit of both Selfridge and the store. It is unpleasant for women today and for feminists, but it did exist. Yes, the private soirée where la Pavlova danced before the Selfridges is true, but the story of Miss Towler clearly looks very much alike that of Denise Baudu.

But there are distinctive elements as well, and some are looking towards the new fashion in the English speaking series – mostly the British ones but that are loved by the Americans, Canadians and other ex-colonies or members of the British Empire. I mean the “upstairs-downstairs” trend.

There was the old “Upstairs-Downstairs”, the “Forsyte Saga”, which has undertones of the same period drama. There has been the new “Upstairs-Downstairs” that did not work well. There has been all Fellowes’ work up to “Downton Abbey”. There are now these new series that look up to the rich (and sometimes aristocratic and in any case upper-class) caste and the poor one (servants, shop sellers, secretaries, clerks, you-name-them - in any case lower class). There are your glamour and compassion for your average audience. “Gorgeous” (this is the epithet that comes again and again in the comments) costumes, lavish parties, grand houses and castles to make you dream, and male and female Cinderellas who either are allowed to grow into middle class (at least) or who stay contented with their positions. The audience is kept happy, dreaming, nostalgic, and most of the time identifying with the “upstairs” characters rather than with the “downstairs” ones, unless they are allowed to evolve socially to higher sphere. Well, there is a partial identification with the last category: they were never the “true” upper-classes”.

This is puzzling for a French person. First of all, we do not have that many costume dramas on TV, and we do not adapt our beloved authors as the English speaking countries do. There is no Balzac or Zola idolatry as there are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope on pedestals with super fans. There is no real nostalgia towards the past. The past is almost always a place where the French people rebels against tyranny, not only the kings’ tyranny but also the money and the capitalist tyranny. “Germinal” (another novel by Zola) makes a large audience: it is the story of the rebellion of coal miners against employers. Aristocrats are not exalted, although the French are happy to have some sort of royal family with the Princes of Monaco – but Monaco is allowed to live because it is useful for financial reasons; it is somewhat French but not entirely; the princely family does not rule over the country and the French people; they are glamorous but slightly ridiculous as they seem to be straight out of an operetta as Ellen Love seemed to be straight out of “Nana” or an Oscar Wilde play. The French and Anglo-Saxon cultures are radically different.

Downton Abbey


There is something more in Mr Selfridge.

It is the first British TV series I see where a Northern American character takes over the British. And a male character as that. It has made me think and look for novels by Henry James, Edith Wharton, Frances Compton-Burnett, and Constance Fennimore Coulson who is the last fashion in gender studies. Even Louisa May Alcott sends one of her “Little Women”, Amy, and her hero, Laurie, to Europe. But mostly, only women and heiresses stay in Europe to be married – rather unhappily most of the time: look at “The Buccaneers”, “The Portrait of a Lady”, “The Shuttle”, for instance. The list is not limited, there are several more titles.

Rose Selfridge is not happy in her marriage and with her life in Britain. She goes back and forth between Chicago and London. Her daughters are educated in the United States. But her son goes to an English public school from which he is seen leaving at sixteen to walk in the footsteps of his father, and come to work with him in the department store, beginning with the most menial tasks, and facing the budding trade-unions. The father, Mr Selfridge, stays in Britain and suffers the ups and downs of his own life AND those of his adopted country that he has taken by surprise.

I draw no conclusion from this: after all, I shall watch part of the second season only this evening, therefore a lot may happen. Or I shall draw a provisional conclusion. This is costume drama with a twist. There is the nostalgia of a past world but the vision of the coming end of the British Empire, its last glowing lights across the world. Soon, so soon, other countries will rise and take its place in what the British thought as the epitome of culture and civilisation. Post colonialism is here. The Barbarians are at the doors.

First of them, the Americans who will take charge. Soon, very soon.

So soon.

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