Chief of Staff: Interview with Mr. Selfridge's Tom Goodman-Hill

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ITV

Tom Goodman-Hill as Mr. Roger Grove in Mr. Selfridge

Any good businessperson will tell you that one of the keys to success is making sure to surround yourself with the most loyal, trusted and hardest working team of people possible. Such is the case in the British drama Mr. Selfridge, currently airing Sunday nights in the States on PBS’s MASTERPIECE Classic. When American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge crosses the pond and comes to London in the early 1900s to build what becomes the world-renowned department store Selfridges, he wants only the cream of the crop working for him.

Among those who Selfridge seeks out to fill these coveted positions is Roger Grove, who he appoints as his chief of staff. While the character is a fictional one, it has its roots in the real world, as actor Tom Goodman-Hill, who plays Mr. Grove, reveals.

“The source material for the Grove character in Mr. Selfridge is based loosely on a man called Percy Best, who in real life was the store director,” explains Goodman-Hill. “However, In order to continue the show’s storyline, it was impossible to call Grove by the same name because we didn’t know enough about Percy Best’s private life to properly dramatize it. So [series creator/head writer/executive producer] Andrew Davies gave him a new name and was able to then fictionalize the character.

“My character was part of this concept relating to the mechanics of the store’s staff and how the employees all interact with one another. That idea was one of central management, something Harry Selfridge brought with him when he opened the store. Grove would be someone who staff members could approach with their grievances and complain to if they had any problems with their working conditions.

“That was a whole new idea in how the British store was managed. Up to that point, everyone was answerable to their immediate boss, or to a buyer or head buyer, but Harry Selfridge set things up so that if you had an issue, you could take it right to the top. Grove was that ear for anyone with a problem, if you know what I mean. So you had this kind of hard-line disciplinarian who was also able to be a shoulder to cry on and sympathetic to the staff. As an actor, that was the main thing for me to remember and try to embody when playing the character.”

No stranger to the actor’s prior work, it was casting director Kate Rhodes James who initially brought him in to read for the role of Grove. “Mr. Selfridge was a project I’d heard about mainly because I was very familiar with the work of Andrew Davies and had always wanted to be in something he’d written, so it was terrific just to go in for the audition,” he says. “At that time, they were being quite secretive about the script and only had a few scenes to show me, so I only knew a limited amount about Mr. Grove himself.

“Honestly, I thought I hadn’t gotten the role, but then three or four weeks later I found out I’d been cast as Mr. Grove. It was a total shock to me. When I got the call, I was actually in Selfridges with my girlfriend. We were about to go on holiday and she was buying a couple of last-minute things before we left the next day. They [the producers] wanted me to do a script read-through the following week, but I explained that I was about to leave on holiday. I figured if I was going to work for the next six months, I should at least take my holiday first.

“When I returned home, I left the airport and headed straight to rehearsals. That’s where I first met Jeremy Piven [Harry Selfridge], who was equally jet lagged, having just flown in from the States. Before long, filming began, and the thing that first comes to mind about that is the scale and beauty of the [Selfridges] set. On the UK mainland you certainly don’t get TV sets that fabulous, and it was a huge surprise where we were shooting because it’s this huge carpet warehouse that had been converted into a studio.

“So it was a shock, albeit a very pleasant one, walking onto that stunning set and seeing everyone in costume after spending a week of rehearsing around a table in a small office. It was just phenomenal. Also, because the set was such an exact replica of the real Selfridges back in the day, you really didn’t have to do too much as an actor in the way of imagining things around you. It was all pretty much there, which is a great thing to experience.”

In the premiere of Mr. Selfridge, Harry Selfridge arrives in London with a grand business plan to open a department store unlike anything European shoppers have ever seen, especially women. He was originally partnered with a British businessman, but the gentleman then pulled out of the deal when plans became much too flamboyant for his liking. Undeterred, Harry forged on alone, and while the store was being built, he recruited his senior staff, all of whom, including Mr. Grove, had to adjust to doing business Harry’s way.

“They’re like chalk and cheese, really, Harry and Grove,” notes Goodman-Hill. “They couldn’t be more different because Grove comes from a whole set of different working practices, and all of a sudden this showman comes in and changes things up. The main sort of touchstone for Jeremy Piven with his character is that Harry Selfridge worshiped P.T. Barnum. The idea of bringing showmanship into shopping was a big deal for Jeremy as well as Selfridge, and that could not be further removed from the working practices that Grove was accustomed to.

“The kind of disciplinary style that Grove is used to within a working environment is something that Selfridge himself worked very hard to kick against. The idea of we’re all in it together was something very new to the working practices, and yet there’s this thing about Grove in that he’s kind of a Selfridge want-to-be as well. He looks at Harry and can’t help but admire the way that he runs the store as well as how he takes everyone’s concerns on board and then feeds those concerns back into the staff. If anything happens within the store that affects everyone, Selfridge wants to make sure everyone knows about it so the same problems don’t keep happening. This is all new to Grove, so he’s hugely admiring of the way that Selfridge does things, but at the same time he’s constantly fighting his own personal inclinations.

“Although Grove is emotionally rather soft-centered, he has to, again, be quite a hard-lined disciplinarian. As an actor, it’s been quite exciting to explore that, and really enjoyable when Grove and Harry are onscreen together, because you can see how free Selfridge is personally and emotionally, and how buttoned-up my character is.”

As chief of staff, Mr. Grove is responsible for helping enforce all the rules set down by his boss. In the show’s second episode, he accompanies Harry Selfridge down to the store floor to confront an employee about theft. Like those around him, Mr. Grove must also adhere to store policies, which is easier said than done.

“I’ve already talked about Grove being a disciplinarian and a man who’s carrying a great emotional weight. Well, that’s complicated by the fact that he’s in a relationship with Miss Mardle [Amanda Abbington],” says Goodman-Hill. “That, of course, sets him up as a prize hypocrite because of the scene in the first episode involving the lecture about Selfridge’s employees not having inter-staff relationships, whilst he’s in the throes of a full-blown affair with Miss Mardle.

“Needless to say he has to tread extremely carefully, and it would be easy to paint him as a stock villain or, again, your classic hypocrite. However, there’s the matter of Grove having an invalid wife at home. So this relationship is something that has been very important to both him and Miss Mardle as a means of having an emotional outlet, and you kind of have to justify everything that Grove does in relation to and balancing it with his personal life.

“As the series goes on, Grove’s and Miss Mardle’s relationship really develops, and you begin to see what a slow burn that relationship is, how much history there is between them, the level of emotional support they give one another, and how crucial that is to their existence. It’s been quite something allowing that to grow as its own storyline and treat it in such a way that it’s not too much of a potboiler of an affair, but rather something with a genuine emotional ring to it. There are a few surprises with regard to things between Grove and Miss Mardle, so viewers should keep an eye on them,” he teases.

When Goodman-Hill is asked if he has a favorite scene from Mr. Selfridge’s first season, he wastes no time in answering. “It would be so very easy to choose any scene with Amanda Abbington as they’re all an absolute joy to play,” enthuses the actor, “but there’s a scene in episode three that I especially love. It was this really big and truly sumptuous day on set because we had [real-life ballerina] Natalia Kreman coming in to play legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. In this scene, Anna visits Selfridge’s and the customers as well as staff are kind of swooning as she walks around the store.

“Amanda and I had this tiny but glorious moment standing near a display case where Miss Mardle is desperate to see Roger. They’ve both been so busy at work and haven’t seen one another for a few days, and she just wants to know that their Tuesday night get-together is going to happen. They’re quietly and furiously whispering to each other about how they want to see one another. It was the first time within the store environment that they had that type of incredibly secretive, intimate opportunity to talk with each other.

“It was a great scene to do because we suddenly realized what a big deal it is for these two characters and how difficult it is for them to conduct any type of relationship in a place where they’re not allowed to express their feelings for the other. Tiny though it is, that scene is incredibly intense and a good sort of benchmark for the relationship between Grove and Miss Mardle for the rest of the series.”

An experienced stage, TV, radio and feature film actor, Goodman-Hill originally trained as a primary school teacher in his native England. After graduating from the University of Warwick with a Bachelor of Arts in drama and English with a teaching qualification, he spent a year working in the educational field before opting for a career change.

“There were two people, in particular, who taught me at Warwick and who also made me decide that I wanted to become an actor, which is massively paradoxical,” recalls Goodman-Hill with a chuckle. “Andrew Davies was a visiting teacher and already well on his way to becoming a successful TV writer and producer when I was training to be a teacher, so it was fantastic having him  speak to us about drama and education. All I could think was, ‘Wow, I want to be in one of your projects.’

“The other person was Ken Robinson. He works in the States now and is an amazing tutor and was an extraordinary figure to me. Ken was also the man who I thought would be the one to say to me, ‘You have to be a teacher.’ Truthfully, I was a terrible administrator but a great teacher in the classroom. When Ken found out how many plays I was doing whilst at university, he said to me, ‘You know, you’re a really good teacher, but you really should be an actor.’ It was strange that that happened during my time at Warwick, but it helped me form my decision to go into acting rather than teach.”

The actor spent much of his early time in the profession honing his craft onstage. Among Goodman-Hill’s theatre credits is the London production of Spamalot, for which he received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical. On the big screen, he has appeared in such movies as Charlotte Gray and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. His TV credits include a number of made-for-TV movies and miniseries as well as regular, recurring or guest star roles in such shows as Heartbeat, Spooks, Hustle, Inspector George Gently, Case Histories, Call the Midwife, Ideal and Spy. Audiences in North America have likely seen his performances in Doctor Who, Foyle’s War and Doc Martin.

“I grew up watching Doctor Who, so working on that show was never going to be anything but incredible,” says the actor. “I finished training at drama school at the same time as David Tennant [the Tenth Doctor]; he went to the Royal Scottish Academy and I went to the Bristol Royal Vic, so we’ve known each other ever since we left school. When a friend is cast as The Doctor, it’s wonderful to be then asked to guest star in an episode of his.

“The one I worked on ["The Unicorn and the Wasp"] was directed by Graeme Harper, who was one of the great directors of the original Doctor Who, so it was a thrill for me having him behind the camera.

“With Foyle’s War, I hadn’t watched much of that series before I went to do it, although I really enjoy [series creator/executive producer] Anthony Horowitz’s work. However, the main reason I was excited about this job was because of Michael Kitchen [Christopher Foyle]. I grew up watching him perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I vividly remember him in Henry IV and Richard II playing Bolybrook, while his Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet was just an extraordinary moment onstage. Talk about an amazing screen actor; Michael Kitchen is a man who does it all with his eyes. So it was a real treat to guest star on Foyle’s War.

“As far as Doc Martin, by the time I came to do that series I had already worked three or four times before with Martin Clunes [Dr. Martin Ellingham]. We did Tartuffe at the National Theatre; he was Tartuffe and I played Dorine. We also did a TV adaptation of Fungus the Bogeyman, where Martin played the good guy and I was the villain, which was a lot of fun. So by the time we did Doc Martin it was very easy because Martin Clunes always makes me laugh. It was a joy shooting that episode and spending time on the coast and in a sunny little fishing village having lots of laughs and a great time working again with Martin.”

No matter what medium he is performing in, the most important thing to Goodman-Hill is the written word. “It always comes down to the writing for me,” he says. “I’m very lucky to have been able to work with some fantastic writers and amazing scripts, and the reward always comes with feeling like you’re interpreting those writers as best as you possibly can. So whether it’s in film, TV or the theatre or on the radio, I always look to the writing first.

“There’s a radio show in the UK called Desert Island Discs where guests come on and choose the eight records that they would take to a desert island with them. Sir Derek Jacobi did the show once, and the first thing that the presenter, Sue Lawley, said to him was, ‘Derek, you’ve had a wonderful career…,’ and Derek said, ‘Can I just stop you there. I haven’t had a career; I’ve had a series of jobs.’

“That’s something I’ve held in the back of my head. It’s such a wonderful thing to hear because you have to be very grateful for each job that comes along. You have to be even more grateful if you’re lucky enough to work on a good script every time that next job comes along. I feel like I’ve had that kind of luck where, again, I’ve been able to work with incredible writers and enjoy playing characters that jump off the page at me.”

Please note, all Mr. Selfridge photos copyright of ITV.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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