Interview: Mr. Selfridge Creator Andrew Davies
Dubbed King of the Adapters, screenwriter Andrew Davies has
won the hearts and minds of audiences with his beloved costume drama
adaptations of, to name a few, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charles Dickens, as well as contemporary
productions including Bridget Jones'
In an interview with MASTERPIECE's Barrett Brountas, Mr. Selfridge creator Davies talks about the women of Mr. Selfridge with his trademark
insight...and a touch of mischief. (Mr. Selfridge,
starring Jeremey Piven, airs Sundays, March 31-May 19, 2013 on PBS' MASTERPIECE
Lady Mae: Inventing the Character
She's a kind of amalgam of various people who were bold enough to make friends with Harry. It was fun inventing her as a character because it meant we could be relatively free with her. We thought that…it would be interesting if their relationship never became a sexual one but was always one of friendship, and a little bit of a power struggle, between them all the time. Because she's got a little bit of an agenda, she likes to control things, and that's how she came about.
Lady Mae's Relationship with Harry Selfridge
They have got a lot in common, and she's very steely and very witty and she uses her brain and rarely lets her emotions show. Harry finds her quite disconcerting. That's nice because in general, he's so confident and knows exactly what he's doing. But she really plays around with him. She's very, sort of, feline.
Lady Mae: In the Style of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, or Bridget Jones?
Oh, she could fit into a Jane Austen novel very easily, I think. There are a number of bitchy aristocratic women in Jane Austen and she would fit in. In fact, she appears to be a bitch at first and then we find we actually get quite fond of Lady Mae. It occasionally works like that in Jane Austen.
Lady Mae & Shopping
At first, she thinks of herself as someone who would never go shopping at all. But she's somebody I think who wants to be tempted with something completely out of the ordinary, something unique. She certainly doesn't follow fashion -- she creates fashion. So she'd be a fashion leader, and other women will notice what she gets and will try to imitate her look.
Creating Ellen Love
Getting the name was quite a good step. I found I could see her quite clearly once I'd named her. And that she's somebody who seems entirely self-possessed and confident when we meet her, but in fact, as we gradually see, she's very insecure, she's very needy, she falls in love perhaps more deeply than is good for her…I find Ellen a very appealing character. She's living in a way a difficult sort of life because she's got to please a lot of men professionally.
Ellen Love & Harry
She really thinks when Harry comes into her life that this is where things change, and she's really going places in a big way. But she takes too much advantage of it. She upsets Harry, she embarrasses him, she has all these rows with Henri about design, and so on. Although Harry takes her side, he kind of knows he's wrong and she's wrong, and eventually it all comes to a head. I feel very sorry for her. It's very sad.
Ellen Love: In the Style of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, or Bridget Jones?
I would say it's more kind of Dickens or Bridget Jones. Dickens had a lot of characters from the theater and he would have found [Ellen's] kind of impulsiveness and neediness rather appealing in a character. And I suppose Bridget Jones is impulsive and needy as well, isn't she? So Ellen Love could have fitted in a way. You could imagine her certainly, as a friend of Bridget Jones.
Ellen Love & Shopping
She would always go for the most expensive and the flashiest kind of things. She'd be attracted by diamonds and furs and all the trappings of luxury because she's somebody who's grown up without them, and sees the things you can get in shops as almost trophies that say she belongs in the world of the rich and the privileged. So that's what kind of shopper she is. Impulsive. Greedy.
Creating Agnes Towler: Agnes & Harry
Right from the beginning, I thought that we should have somebody who starts off the story in a really lowly position. She's downtrodden, she's poor, but she's someone who's determined to try to do well for herself in the world, somebody in whom Harry could recognize her kind of ambition and her talent, and see something of himself when he was young in her. At the beginning I was wondering will he ever have an affair with Agnes. And I thought: no, he won't, he won't. He'll just kind of watch over her career in a kind of benign sort of way.
Creating Agnes Towler: Agnes & Family
So then I thought, well, let's make it extra difficult for Agnes. Not only is she poor and downtrodden, but she's got an abusive alcoholic father and a brother who she really has to look after a lot, because he's not really very good at looking after himself, poor old George…So it was fun doing that.
On Actress Aisling Loftus
It was absolutely delightful once we cast the actress because she's very much what you see is what you get. She's like that: she's got that sincerity, that straightness about her, and that simplicity about her, so that it was a real pleasure writing her. And certainly a pleasure watching her work.
Agnes: In the Style of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, or Bridget Jones?
Dickens wrote a lot about that sort of person, but Dickens would always sentimentalize them. So [Agnes is] a kind of Dickensian, but not, character. And certainly in the times that I've adapted Dickens, I always had the urge to, oh I don't know, take the softness and the soppiness out of those Dickensian heroines and give them a bit more backbone than he did. So she's somebody who's in a way come out of a Dickensian world but she's-- there's something tough and modern about her.
Rose & the Real Mrs. Selfridge
We don't know an awful lot about what she did, but there's certainly no record of her ever having any other relationships with any other man, so we thought it would be wrong of us to push this one any further than we did. Even then, maybe we shouldn't have. But it made for a good story and, of course, it's very nice to see Harry's jealousy being piqued and that he feels rattled and insecure, thinking that his wife knows another man that he knows nothing about, and he's desperate to know what's going on, but he doesn't want to know what's been going on.
Rose's Relationship with Harry
I think that like quite a few men, [Harry] wants it all. [Rose is] his main woman, and she's his refuge and his strength when he's had a hard time -- that's where he kind of likes to curl up in his den, with his mate. But he likes to sally forth and have adventures, and when he does that, it would always be with quite different sorts of women, much more overtly sexy women. Women he can play with, I guess.
Rose: In the Style of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, or Bridget Jones?
I think she'd fit into a novel by George Eliot -- I think George would be very interested in that marriage, in Rose's struggle to define herself as an individual within that marriage and be Harry's wife and also to be herself. Which is a difficult thing to do when you're involved with such a powerful character as Harry.
Rose, Suffrage, and 1909 Women's History
It's quite complicated because [Rose is] very American and she was, in fact, a Daughter of the American Revolution. She joined that society, and I think in her day it was a much less stuffy organization than it is today, in a sense. The DAR originally believed themselves quite revolutionary people who believe in women's emancipation and so on. So she does see herself as an emancipated woman, but in a very private sort of way. She's not somebody who would go out and demonstrate for the votes for women even though she believes in it.
Creating Miss Mardle
Miss Mardle. She's a character who evolved. Because to start with, I didn't think she'd become a very important character, and just saw her as a very demanding head of department who would make Agnes' life a bit difficult. And then Siobhan Finnegan, who's the script executive on it, we were chatting one day and she said to me, just in the way that you gossip about somebody in the television world, "Did you know Miss Mardle and Mr. Grove are having an affair?" I said, "What? Miss Mardle?" She said "Yes. She's absolutely devoted to him. She's followed him from store to store. She's hoping of course that he'll leave his wife or she'll die or something." And I said, "Is she an invalid wife?" and she said "Yes, yes, she probably is an invalid wife." And so we thought "My God! Isn't it sordid, because there's Mr. Grove, the chief of staff, who's always laying down the law that no hanky-panky amongst members of the staff and there he is?"
On Actress Amanda Abbington
Amanda Abbington is such fun, you wouldn't believe it, she's actually very funny. But when she's playing the straight scenes, she really sort of brings a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye.
Miss Mardle: In the Style of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, or Bridget Jones?
She could be in any of them. The thing is, she's a working woman. So Jane Austen didn't really deal with them very much, and her job and her position in the store is such an important part of her. George Eliot would find her very interesting, and I think Dickens, too. And yes, you could see her in the publishing house where Bridget Jones works. Certainly, yes.