Leon Ockenden shares his thoughts on playing a Russian prince in Mr Selfridge

Leon Ockenden is Serge De Bolotoff

Leon Ockenden is Serge De Bolotoff. Photo: BBC

CURRENTLY showing on BBC First (DStv channel 119) is the popular costume drama, Mr Selfridge. Starring Emmy award-winning American actor, Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Mr Selfridge is inspired by the life of charismatic American entrepreneur, Harry Gordon Selfridge, whose business in London’s Oxford Street has become a much-loved institution.

Series 3 picks up in 1919 just after the end of World War I and sees Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter films) joins the cast to play Russian Princess, Marie de Bolotoff, whose handsome son Serge, played by Leon Ockenden (Casualty) marries Harry’s eldest daughter, Rosalie (Kara Tointon, EastEnders).

Kara’s real-life sister, Hannah Tointon, plays her rebellious sister, Violette, which sees the sisters acting together for the first time. And Sacha Parkinson (Coronation Street, The Mill) joins the cast to play Kitty Hawkins’ ambitious younger sister, along with Kelly Adams (Holby City) who plays Harry’s new love interest, Nancy Webb.

TheLuvvie.com spoke Leon Ockenden about playing Serge De Bolotoff.

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When Leon Ockenden was cast in the new series of Mr Selfridge, the first thing he chose to do was visit the iconic Selfridges store on Oxford Street.

“I went in Selfridges on a pilgrimage after I got the job,” says Leon, who is well known for his previous roles in hit TV dramas such as Waterloo Road and Heartbeat.  “I just wanted to stand there, feel the walls and get a sense of the place and how it’s evolved over time.  It’s an amazing place.

“The great thing about Harry Selfridge is that he was a pioneer. He came from nothing.  I came into this series a s genuine fan, after watching the first two series.

“I love that it shows the history and the birth of how we shop today. We take it for granted that we go into shops and see the displays, pick things out we want. What’s brilliant about watching the show is seeing that it wasn’t always so.

“Harry Selfridge put the customer front and centre, valuing each and every one.  And he made shopping an experience. Going in Selfridge’s today it’s still like that, and quite and exciting place to be.”

Speaking about his character he says: “I’ve been having lots of fun. I was ecstatic from the moment the phone call came in saying, “Do you fancy playing a Russian prince?” My whole family, including my wife Vanessa and my mother-in-law are really pleased for me.  My stock has never been higher!,” laughs Leon.

“Serge is quite a character! He’s very To the Manor Born, a real playboy aristocrat who’s been indulged by his mother all of his life.  I think it’s wonderful to play someone who has such a high opinion of himself.  It’s a great starting point with a character because you know they’re going to have to do some learning in order to get on in life.

“What’s interesting is that Serge is a real life person. He’s a Russian prince but there is some argument as to how authentic their lineage is, especially with his mother’s claims and the break-up of Russia.  His real loves are flying, champagne and women, and he doesn’t love many things, really.

“When it comes to Rosalie and their marriage, I don’t think he knows how much he’s being steered by his mother. His mother probably knew that it was time to get married because he’s of the right age and as a family they’re at the height of their prestige.

“It’s a match that works both ways, Rosalie is a very attractive woman and she’s from good breeding. But I think their marriage is also motivated by money.  It becomes apparent quite early on that Serge and his mother have money problems although they wish to hide it.”

Not long after Harry Selfridge proudly walks his daughter Rosalie down the aisle in lavish ceremony, cracks being to appear. It is clear Harry has reservations, and knows little about the new additions to his family.

Says Leon: “The Selfridge family have been in mourning following the death of Rose. The marriage between Serge and Rosalie has happened very quickly, in a whirlwind. But very quickly Harry starts to think, ‘who have I let my daughter marry? I didn’t vet this man properly.’

“Serge definitely has an inflated sense of self. He is so in love with his ideas, and can’t understand why Harry, as his father-in-law, wouldn’t want to back him when he tries to forge ahead with his business proposition – to invest in land for an aerodrome and build a plane for commercial use.”

“Commercial air flights were definitely the future, so Serge’s at the forefront, the vanguard, of modern technology at that time. He’s definitely got big ambitions.  Even at nineteen he announced that he wanted to be the first person to fly over the channel, before Louis Bleriot.

“Harry is quick to stymie Serge, which causes on-going friction. Because as far as Serge’s concerned he’s sharing in the future.  And for all intents and purposes, Serge is definitely right.

“Serge and Rosalie end up living under Harry’s rood in the Selfridge home. It’s bound to be tricky for any newly married couple living with their in-laws.  But to make things more difficult, Serge crosses paths with Harry’s old rival, Lord Loxley… and that leads to more trouble!”

Playing Harry Selfridge’s son-in-law meant Leon had many scenes with co-star Jeremy Piven, who plays the American entrepreneur and owner of the iconic London store.

“My first scene was head to head with Jeremy, in Harry’s office,” reveals Leon. “I’ve known lots of Jeremy’s work from long before he was a star in films, and in Entourage.  I’ve always been a fan of his.

“There’s a quote by Plato which is, ‘you learn more in an hour’s play with someone that you do in a year’s worth of conversation’, and I tell you that summed up my first experience working with Jeremy. He is mesmeric to work with, so organic.”

As a Russian prince, you might expect Serge to have a Russian accent like his mother, Princess Marie. However, this prince went to Eton and speaks perfect English. But this didn’t stop Leon from deciding to study the complex language and injecting a few Russian phases in the dialogue for authenticity.

“Serge doesn’t have an accent – he went to Eton,” explains Leon. “He was educated in England and would have been totally bilingual.

“We first meet Serge in Mr Selfridge at his wedding. At the wedding there would obviously be other Russian people.  Therefore, I thought it would work well to address certain people trying out Russian words. So I started to learn Russian!”

“It’s a brilliant language to learn. The great thing about the alphabet is that it’s entirely phonetic, but you’ve got a lot of false friends; letter that look similar but are a completely different sound.  It’s a challenge, particularly as the placement is so far back – I guess this is because it’s cold and you don’t want to speak too much or put too much moisture on your lips or they’re going to freeze together!”

Leon did some of his Russian work with co-star Zoë Wanamaker, who plays his on-screen mother, Princess Marie.

“Zoë’s character does have an accent in the show so we often practiced Russian dialect work together. We also use some words when our characters are together, exchanged between mother and son.  The way we use Russian is at moments of heightened emotion.  There’s a really good word in Russian that basically means ‘little brat’. In one scene Serge is being disrespectful to Harry and she uses it to call him into line.”

So, having starred in series 3 of Mr Selfridge, would Leon like to come back for a fourth series? “Hell yeah! The thing I’ve enjoyed so much about being on the show is you’re around all these top actors and you get to learn so much.

“I’d happily work with Zoë every day for the rest of my life until I die. She’s amazing, wonderfully detailed and very precise. She’s also really fun, and always has such a naughty gleam in her eye! And then there’s Kara and Hannah, who I adore. I want to propose to their mum and dad that they adopt me, and we form a pop band, the Tointettes!”

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