It’s one of the most glamorous series on television – so what’s it like to star in Mr Selfridge? I signed up as an extra to find out…
It’s 6am and I’m bound in a corset and wrapped in a furtrimmed velvet coat, which possibly weighs more than I do, in a very cold warehouse in London’s Willesden district; not quite how one imagines the set of ITV’s glamorous costume drama Mr Selfridge to be.
The new series of the colourful dramatisation of the life of Harry Selfridge (founder of Selfridges department store in London) is set to attract millions of viewers every week. Filming for the 10-episode series began in April 2013 and continued until October, and I was fortunate enough to work as one of the (on average) 50 extras used daily.
My primetime appearance (blink and you’ll miss it) airs on Sunday in the first episode of the new series. I play a bit of a, ahem, floozy, in Delphine’s Club – a new set created for this series – which has a distinctive bohemian feel to it. The two main sets – Delphine’s Club and the Selfridges store – are hidden inside a veritable maze of an industrial unit.
Arriving at the site in north London, only a car park packed with white trailers and some pink and black signs emblazoned with ‘MS’ hint at the TV magic being created inside the bleak units. My day started spectacularly early – my ‘call’ was 7am, but as I live in Essex, I had to set a 4am alarm, because driving the M25 is never good at any time of day.
I got there a little before 6am to a frenetic hive of activity. Crew members walking about with clipboards in hand were busy ushering the extras, officially known as SAs (supporting artists), to our holding area. Once checked in, my first stop was the costume department.
Even though I was an extra and only likely to be seen on screen for a second – if that – I was still fitted out from head to toe in authentic clothing, including a 1914-style corset. Worn underneath a slip, a dress and (for a short period) a coat, this corset would never be seen. But, I was told, it would mean that I would hold myself in just the right way, which meant being unable to bend, slouch, or even breathe.
The attention to detail was just as thorough when it came to the hair and make-up. A team of 12 stylists whipped through a queue of us. Indeed, my waist-length hair was tonged and tied into an elaborate up-do within 15 minutes. All jewellery had to be removed. Then, having grabbed a bacon roll from the SAs’ food trailer, we were ushered towards the set.
While waiting to be called into Delphine’s, we sat outside the front doors of ‘Selfridges’. A fraction of the size of the actual store, it was still a little disconcerting to see it inside a dusty warehouse.
Over the course of the day, I was on set for three scenes – all filmed inside Delphine’s Club. On screen it looks impossibly glamorous. There we all are, sipping champagne, laughing gaily and chattering. But this is all a bit of an illusion. The champagne was actually very weak ginger ale or ginger beer. And the brandy in the men’s glasses was brown-sugar water, while the shot of absinthe downed in one by a very shabby-looking Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi) was actually lime cordial.
Each frame was shot about 12 times, often needing another take because of disturbances such as aeroplanes flying overhead. Indeed, that night in bed I could still hear Rose Selfridge (Frances O’Connor) and newcomer to the series Delphine Day (Polly Walker) repeating their lines.
Much of an SA’s day is spent waiting around. In fact, being an SA is a great way to improve your skill at crosswords or catch up on some reading. But it’s surprisingly exhausting being part of the background, despite the rather fabulous lunch.
Even on a show as beautiful as this, it’s truly not very glamorous. But while, 10 hours later, I was more than a little glad to finally remove my corset, I did rather long to take that coat home with me.
Series 2 of Mr Selfridge will be broadcast on ITV on Sundays at 9pm.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LADY MAGAZINE ON JANUARY 18, 2013