torsdag 1 maj 2014

Totally made-up costume-drama intrigues - featuring Mr Selfridge (and more villains)

There is a series of humorous books (I’ve not read them, just seen them about, plus I’ve heard the film version highly talked of) about pirates, where each adventure in a more or less strained manner involves some real  historical event or character in the pirates’ derring-do. So we get, for instance, The Pirates! – in an Adventure with Napoleon. I enjoyed the second series of Mr Selfridge even more than the first one, but when it comes to its approach to history it feels rather like those pirate adventures. One real historical personage is set down in a completely fictional context, and you wonder how the series makers have got away with it. Is there no-one left of the Selfridge family who might disapprove? And why didn’t the creators of the series plump for an entirely fictionalised version of events, with a fictional gambling, chorus-girl-chasing but canny store owner to go with the rest of the fictional character crew? The more influence the fictional brigade of characters get on the storylines about Mr Selfridge and his also presumably based-on-fact family, the odder the effect becomes.

Never mind. Its’ fun, and exemplary advertising for the Selfridges store in London. Though the standards the series sets can be daunting. I paid a the store a visit last time I was in London a few weeks ago, and encountered a certain amount of quiet contempt – not directed at me personally, but at fat-bottomed girls generally who dared to enter the lingerie department hoping to find anything remotely glamorous. I left thinking, quite illogically, “I bet Mr Thackeray would have handled that a great deal better”.

Mr Thackeray – played by Cal Macaninch aka Mr Lang – is one of the new villains in the series, a classic Envious Colleague. As new head of the Women’s Fashion department, he resents at first Agnes, who has gone from shop girl to leading creative light but who struggles with her numerous new responsibilities, and then Henri who comes back to the store to help out in a senior, dangerously unspecified role. There’s not much depth to the character of Mr Thackeray, but I can readily sympathise with his irritation. I’ve never been able to warm to Agnes – sheer cattiness on my part, I expect – and in this series Henri is something of a trial as well with his constant sulkiness and Mysterious Past. They are a good choice of victims for a villain to vent his spleen on. The series writers (there are several, and good ones to, which is as well as from what I can see Andrew Davies takes very little part in proceedings nowadays) aren’t above giving him some plausible incentives for villainy, either, such as the good old “villain thinks the hero’s bad-mouthed him when in fact it’s someone else” scenario. I’ll be watching the development of Mr Lang – sorry Thackeray – with interest, but I predict some problems later on. His private life hasn’t been touched on yet, but will have to be at some point, and then the series writers will have to struggle to come up with something original in costume-drama terms. At least he is extremely unlikely to fall for Agnes.

Villain number two – yes, there are two villains here as well, just as in The Paradise! – is, entirely unpredictably, the husband of Lady Loxley who was so fortunately (for her) absent during the whole of series one. Far from being a poor Woosterish booby who’d been had by a clever chorus girl, as one would have thought, Lord Loxley turns out to be a decadent horror of a man. His wife has not been keeping her distance because she wanted time alone with her lovers – well, not entirely – but because she’s afraid of him. Pleasing dramatic consequences follow. Again, Lord Loxley is not the most subtle of villains, but as with The Paradise, you have a feeling that at least someone is trying. And the milky-white perfect complexion is a nice touch.

Mr Selfridge’s charisma remains a mystery to me, but other characters have developed nicely. For instance, there’s the touching friendship between accountant Mr Crabbe and head of Personnel Mr Grove, who’s made some bad romantic choices in the past and now has to live with them. Mr Grove’s ex-mistress Miss Mardle, who’s trying to learn to love again, is also a character one can care about. My favourite is Victor, not as interestingly social-climbing as in series one, but still sharper and more sardonic than the usual heroic love-interest fare (and yes, the manservant-like waiter costume helps). When Agnes or Henri – I forget which – refers to him as “a good man” my heart sank. This is what heroines call the admirer they feel guilty about not fancying. Surely, a catch like Victor deserves better.