Eyebrows were raised when Katherine Kelly, best known as Coronation Street’s troublemaking ex-con Becky McDonald, was cast as formidable socialite Lady Mae Loxley for the first series of Mr Selfridge three years ago.
But as the lavish period drama about the rise and fall of American entrepreneur Harry Selfridge – creator of the London store – pulled in an average of 8 million viewers during that run, Katherine confounded everyone with her star turn as the upper-crust ally of Jeremy Piven’s Harry – and proved to herself she’d been right to leave the Street after seven years.
So it was strange then that after two highly successful series, in which Lady Mae became an integral part of the show as she used her contacts to provide financial backers for Harry’s fledgling store while struggling in a loveless marriage to ruthless businessman Lord Loxley, Katherine took one of the biggest gambles of her professional life by deciding to quit the show for the sake of her newborn daughter.
Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge and Katherine Kelly as Lady Mae Loxley. The relationship between Mae and Harry is key to the final series of Mr Selfridge, which is drawing to a close after four years
‘It could all have gone horribly wrong,’ says Katherine, who’s returned for the fourth and final series having taken a year out to be with her husband Ryan and their daughter Orla, who’s now 22 months.
‘When I left after series two I thought I was leaving Mr Selfridge forever. And there’s been a leap of several years from series three to four, so they could quite easily have decided Mae was no longer part of Harry Selfridge’s increasingly fractured life and written her out. But I knew I wanted to step back from acting even if it was a scary thing to do. I’d never taken more than four weeks off during any year since I became an actress 12 years ago, and even that only happened when I was a regular part of the Coronation Street cast.’
But it was talking to her friends in the business that persuaded her. ‘When I became pregnant with Orla I talked to actress friends of mine who’d had children and they all said they’d gone back to work too early. I decided I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to miss out on my daughter’s early life. I wanted to take a full year off and gamble on there being work at the end of it. Fortunately there was. Mr Selfridge is a very female-run show, from executive producer Kate Lewis downwards, and everyone’s been incredibly supportive and understanding of my situation.
Katherine has returned for the fourth and final series having taken a year out to be with her husband Ryan (pictured) and their daughter Orla, who’s now 22 months
‘There were enough gaps in the schedule filming this last series for me not to have missed anything significant with Orla. There were days when I was out of the house by five in the morning and not back until eight at night and I didn’t even see her with her eyes open, but on other days I was with her all the time. So I’ve been lucky, although I’m not pretending motherhood is easy. It’s a constant juggling act and some weeks it works, others it doesn’t.’
The relationship between Mae and Harry is key to the final series of Mr Selfridge, which is drawing to a close after four years in which it never quite hit the heights of Downton Abbey as its creators had hoped, though it’s regularly attracted audiences of five million viewers even into its third series.
Katherine as Lady Mae in series two, in the new series, she returns from running a Paris fashion house penniless after divorcing her second husband
It’s now 1928, nine years after series three ended, and Harry is at the pinnacle of his success. But the storm clouds of the Great Depression are gathering and with his wife Rose long dead, his children grown up and a growing infatuation with seductive, money-grabbing singing duo the Dolly Sisters, Harry’s life is starting to spiral out of control.
Enter Mae, who’s been running a fashion house in Paris but who’s now penniless after divorcing her second husband. Can she revive both Harry’s and her own fortunes with a ready-to-wear range for Selfridges?
Harry’s got her developing this ready-to-wear range at the store. She’s like the Victoria Beckham of her day – but without the husband!
Barnsley-born Katherine, 36, says she wasn’t prepared to return to the series on any terms – it had to be the right move not just for her, but for Mae too.
‘I had a discussion with the production team and told them I didn’t want her to become a character like Rose, Harry’s meek wife who died at the start of series three, because she absolutely isn’t that. She’s far too independently minded. I wanted the storyline to ring true as to who Mae really was and I certainly didn’t want to return just because it’s what actors do when they’ve been out of a show for a while.
‘I remember when Suranne Jones had been out of Coronation Street for a bit, and one of the scriptwriters there said how great it would be to have her back. But to do what? Just getting somebody back for the sake of it isn’t a good enough reason to return to a show. It certainly wouldn’t have been a good enough reason for me to return to Mr Selfridge.
Katherine first found fame as troublesome barmaid Becky on Coronation Street
But I’m delighted with Mae’s return. She’s been through a couple of divorces, she’s now trying to make it as a designer and businesswoman working with Harry, and he’s got her developing this ready-to-wear range at the store.
‘She’s like the Victoria Beckham of her day – but without the husband! Harry knows he’s on a downward spiral and he wants someone close by who really understands him. Not that Mae keeps him in check because she doesn’t, she’s very similar to him when it boils down to it.’
Katherine’s delighted to be back for the show’s swansong, and says it actually helped knowing that this is definitely the end. ‘It was always intended as a four-series project, so the story of Harry Selfridge could be told from the start of his rise to riches to his very sad fall from grace, almost literally into the gutter.
Filming this series has been such a release, we haven’t held anything back, we haven’t had to manufacture a false cliffhanger ending in the hope that there might be another series next year. So roll on the final episode and stand by for a grand finale!’
Mr Selfridge, Friday, 9pm, ITV.