When critically acclaimed actress Zoë Wanamaker was a child growing up in London, going into Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street was an everyday occasion. The actress plays Princess Marie in the series which returns to ITV on Sunday night. Here she talks about shopping in the legendary department, getting caught up in the research and the show itself.
“When I was a kid, my mum used to go to Selfridges all the time and I used to go with her,” says Zoë. “I remember it really well. My mum is American so going into department stores was the norm. Selfridges was fairly close to where we lived so it was a place to go.
“Selfridges was a real experience for me. It was massive! It’s changed so much now but it was a very glamorous place, and still is. The architecture is so beautiful. I love the clock and the doors and it still had the wooden floors. It is a beautiful shop.”
Zoë reveals that although she has frequented Selfridges she was unaware of the history behind the store founder, Harry Selfridge.
“I didn’t know anything about Harry Selfridge, but for me that was the fun of doing this job. I enjoy the research. Reading about Harry is quite a revelation. He was a genius. The whole idea of placing items on shop counters was his idea – but then he was surprised when people nicked things!”
Zoë also enjoyed researching the real life history of her character in Mr Selfridge, Princess Marie, mother of Prince Serge De Bolotoff.
“I took a lot of the background research about my character from Lindy Woodhead, who wrote the book Shopping Seduction and Mr Selfridge. I’ve also been reading a lot about Russian history, particularly during that period in which my character lived.”
In the series we learn the extravagant and glamorous Princess Marie Wiasemsky was a direct descendent to a founding father of Russia. She claims to have been later hounded out of the country by the Bolsheviks.
“The fact the aristocracy had to get out of Russia very quickly and take as much wealth as they could carry without being searched was very important to me. You can see the desperation of having to survive and get by in a foreign land.
“To have to run must have been terrifying. Imagine horses chasing you across snow and ice and trying to get on a train and out of there. Apparently the mentality of the aristocracy was extraordinary. In Moscow, before they had to get out, the manicurists were run off their feet because the women had to have their nails done!”
We first meet Princess Marie in all her Russian glory at the high society wedding between Prince Serge De Bolotoff and Harry Selfridge’s eldest daughter, Rosalie.
Says Zoë: “The first time you see her is at the wedding of her son Serge who has married into the Selfridge family. His bride is the beautiful Rosalie Selfridge.
“At the reception afterwards she seems to know everybody! She’s quite a character. In history she’s described as a bombshell.
“One thing that stands out is that she adores her son. She thinks he’s the best thing since the invention of the telephone. She loves that he’s married into money. That makes her very happy. And the excitement of marrying a Selfridge is great.
“Harry Selfridge moves in the same society which she moves in. Princess Marie goes higher because she knows lots of royalty and lots of rich and powerful people in England. She is a great society mover.”
Zoë continues: “Although Harry Selfridge is American, it’s clear he’s done well for himself. He’s powerful, rich and charismatic and interesting. That suits her fine. For her son that is fantastic. Also, as family there’s a possibility Harry might invest in Serge’s aeroplane if Serge plays his cards right.
“I think the match has mutual benefits as the marriage elevates the Selfridge family too. It must have been a huge thing for his daughter to marry Prince Bolotoff.”
The costume designer, James Keast wanted to make a big impact with Princess Marie’s character through her styling. Rich and opulent colours, fabrics and designs were used, and Zoë was pleased get involved in the process right from the beginning of filming.
“At the wedding the hat Princess Marie wears is fantastic. We decided it had to look like a crown. We went on the premise that the hat would be completely eccentric and the look regal and powerful to accentuate her character, particularly as it’s the first time we meet her.
“She had been in Paris before arriving in London so she would have spent a lot of money on clothes of the couture at the time. She would have had the very best clothes and it was very important she looked moneyed.
“The detail is wonderful. The costume designer has been great and very supportive. We talked a lot about what she would wear, the colours, jewellery and make-up. We looked at a lot of pictures and talked about different styles, and that she always had to look up to date.
“The era wasn’t one I was unused to. When I was doing The Cherry Orchard at The National Theatre, the set designer, Bunny Christie found a fantastic book on Coco Chanel. It was a wonderful pictorial book on what Coco was wearing at this period and we based a lot of those costumes on them. Corsets had just started to go, so the shape was different. I now love the style, as I think James and the team on Mr Selfridge have done the most beautiful job.”
Coupled with fantastic costume creations, Zoë also has some of the best one-liners of the series – enough to rival Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” laughs Zoë. “I love her one-liners. She’s arrogantly funny. But she’s got to be witty and sharp – to go through all she has and keep your sense of humour, you have to be funny.”
Speaking further about her character Zoë says: “Princess Marie is a complete aristocrat. It’s not unusual for her to be waited on hand and foot. She never closes doors because someone else is meant to do that. She never picks things up and she expects someone else to clear up. It’s always been that way.
“There is one scene when she gives Serge and Rosalie a samovar as a wedding present. Samovars were considered the most beautiful, expensive piece. In the old days, to give something like that was a big thing as they cost a fortune. When she’s asked how to use it she’s got no idea at all, but that is because it’s always been done by someone else!”
Zoë continues: “When it comes to money she doesn’t think anything of charging everything to Harry Selfridge’s account. As far as she’s concerned it’s totally normal. She’s the mother of his son-in-law and that’s just how things are.
“She was known as a serial spend thrift and that’s how she lived all her life.”
In order to take on the role as Princess Marie, Zoë had to master a Russian accent with the help of voice and dialect coach, Liam Robinson.
“Liam was a godsend. He did a lot of research for me. He has a Russian model as a friend who speaks English in a certain kind of way. He recorded her voice and I spent time listening to her. I didn’t want to make the accent too ‘meerkat’ because that’s going slightly too far. Instead I wanted to give her an aristocratic tone so it wasn’t incomprehensible or laughable.
“During the filming of the wedding reception there were a couple of Russian speakers. I started speaking to them and asked them if my accent was ok. It was good housekeeping, and I got a seal of approval so that was good!”