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When TV Deviates More Than Usual: Comparing ITV’s Mr Selfridge And Lindy Woodhead’s Book

The cast of Mr Selfridge

I decided to read Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge because I am quite the fan of the ITV series. I find myself really enjoying learning about and watching the emergence of modern retail and wanted to know more about the man from the ‘source’ (the source being the book that is secondary rather than primary material).

Whilst I knew the book would be different as television and film makers always change things when adapting, it surprised me just how big a difference there is between Woodhead’s biography and the ITV show. In brief, there is very little similarity beyond the shop itself and a few elements of Selfridge’s life.

Of course as a person who prefers accuracy lest she learn falsehood, the discovery that I was watching an entirely inaccurate portrayal of a real person and family shocked me, because the show is far more different to its source material than any other I have come across. (This excludes programs that are simply based on characters, of course.) However, I was utterly compelled by the comparison, because in reading the book it is easy to see why ITV changed the story so much.

When you think of a show like The Tudors, you wonder why the makers couldn’t have just used the real history. There is no reason why TV Henry couldn’t have had real Henry’s two sisters; there is no reason TV Catherine of Aragon couldn’t have had real Catherine of Aragon’s hair colour, and so forth. This is because no matter what you think about Henry, tyrant or virtuous prince (as David Starkey calls the young Henry), there is plenty of excitement to be found within the pages of any well-written book about the king. As my eight year old self discovered, all those wives make for a lot of interesting stories, and as my teenage self discovered, when the wives are added to the Reformation and the murders and the affairs, you’ve one fascinating era in store to find out about.

This isn’t the case with Harry Gordon Selfridge. TV Harry helps the war effort for Britain, real Harry’s application was dismissed. TV Harry is a family man for all his affairs, real Harry wasn’t particularly interested in his children. TV Harry has good relationships with his staff and women have good jobs, real Harry was aloof from his staff and the women weren’t as high up.

For myself I think it’s interesting that even though I value accuracy, in ITV’s case I understand and value the changes they have made. It may be interesting to read about Harry Selfridge, even if Woodhead’s writing is a bit dry, but put that man on screen unaltered and few would be tuning in to watch. Is it sad? Yes, in a way, because Selfridge’s career ended so badly that it’s a double blow – but at the same time ITV have created a show about a man more likely to be revered in general for the extras of family and staff interest. And thus remembered.

Mr Selfridge may be a show that is completely inaccurate except for its basis in the department store (even the labelling is inaccurate – the real Selfridge never put the name of the store on windows or doors) but it introduces viewers to a man they are far more likely to go looking for more information about, versus if television had shown the straight-forward truth.

For once this stickler for accuracy has to say she’s happily admitting defeat.

What do you think about accuracy on screen and have you ever found a show or film that changed your view (be it for or against accuracy)?

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April 28, 2014, 6:34 am

Now I want to watch the show ;)
But yes things do bother me, I try to forget but still


April 28, 2014, 8:40 am

My frustration with changes varies, I hated the changes to Harry Potter, but the Game of Thrones changes have made it a sort of different entity. Same with Sherlock or Elementary, their changes don’t bother me as I find the Sherlock Holmes stories rather dull (bar HotB).

It also depends on how much I love whatever the show is adapted from, because if I love a book to see it performed in a way I never imagined will probably be a disappointment.

I guess it’s subjective, some changes will make some people happy and some changes will enrage others.

Jenny @ Reading the End

April 28, 2014, 12:54 pm

I’m with Alice, I think — the more I love the source material, the more antsy I get about changes. I mind plot changes less, though, than character changes. It sounds like they changed Mr. Selfridge for the better, but for instance, I was always deeply annoyed at how dumb and incompetent the Harry Potter movies made Ron be. They didn’t let him be as brave as he is, or as knowledgeable about the wizarding world. Hrmph.

Audra (Unabridged Chick)

April 28, 2014, 3:54 pm

oh, interesting! Been dying to start this series but am grateful you highlighted some of the major differences. I suppose they wanted to make Selfridge more palatable to modern audiences? In some ways, those situations make me wish they’d just done something original then, rather than tweak the history so much.

LuAnn Braley

April 28, 2014, 9:03 pm

I love the Tudor & Elizabethan periods of history. As to your question…well, I read the book “Star Wars” after I saw the movie (on a big screen) and was glad I had not read the book first. I would not have enjoyed the movie as much if I had done so.

Literary Feline

April 29, 2014, 12:33 am

I find if a show is well done, I don’t mind changes so much from the original source, even if the book is one I loved. If it’s not so well done, then I start to nitpick and take issue with the way things were changed.

When it comes to history, however, even something well done, I care a bit more. That is where I most value accuracy, I think. I often wonder why changes are made, and, if they make sense, I tend to be more forgiving. If they don’t, well, then I get annoyed.

Robert Parker

May 21, 2014, 1:12 pm

I do enjoy the show but shudder at every inaccuracy. So often people who are unaware of the true history take these portrayals as actual truths.


June 12, 2014, 4:50 am

I agree with Audra. I think that if the true man and his life were not exciting or appealing enough, they should have made a fiction all together.
Now people will believe and remember a lie.



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