Backstage at the world’s best hotels
Richard E. Grant on the secrets of top-drawer service, suites and fine dining
YOUdon’t have to wait long for Richard E. Grant’s innerWithnail to surface. ‘‘Free to those that can afford it,’’ he proclaims in the opening sequence of his new television series, Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets. ‘‘Very expensive to those that can’t.’’
It’s a line he first delivered in character back in 1987, triumphantly flourishing the key to a crumbling cottage in Cumbria (‘‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’’). He has resurrected it to describe some of the world’s most opulent accommodation.
Fans of Withnail and I, the black comedy in which Grant played a dissolute actor of equal parts drunken languor and mischievous devilment, will see shades of that intensity in Hotel Secrets, as he cavorts like a gleeful child around LA’s Chateau Marmont or sweeps, awestruck, through Le Royal Monceau in Paris.
Grant can’t sit still for a moment: playing with remotecontrol loo seats, walking off with dining-room chairs, chomping down haute cuisine.
He snuggles up to the ‘‘living art’’ (a model employed to lounge behind reception) at The Standard in Hollywood. He’s agog as he plonks himself down at Charlie Chaplin’s old table in the Beverly Hills Hotel: ‘‘It feels like the Holy Grail of where you can go as an actor.’’
He gasps with appreciation as he surveys the view from the Ty Warner Penthouse Suite in the Four Seasons New York — at $US40,000 a night, one of the world’s most expensive). When we meet, appropriately, at The Savoy in London (which features in the series) Grant is still fizzing away, taking gulps of water (he’s a teetotaller) before addressing the thorny question of why he is presenting a series that focuses on the utterly unaffordable during a time of penny-pinching austerity.
‘‘I got my head round it,’’ he says, ‘‘by thinking that, in the middle of the Depression, Hollywood churned out Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fantasy movies. So I think we have an appetite for not [having to face] the really grim economic stuff we’re fed on a daily basis. Having a peek into the thin-crust creme brulee of how people live at that level is voyeuristically interesting to do.’’
Does he relish the task? ‘‘If you are hyper-curious, and you want to find out what goes on in making up a luxury hotel, it’s the best job in the world because you have the advantage of going backstage. The designers, the bellhops, concierges, receptionists, chefs, pastry chefs, cleaners, everything. You get the whole gauge of it. It’s exactly the equivalent of a theatre: you’ve got the front-of-house show of it all, where the performance of the hotel takes place. But everything that is backstage is a world within a world, a hermetically sealed microcosm of people dedicated to giving five-star service and pleasure.’’
The series is certainly escapist. The camera dwells longingly on gleaming jacuzzis (often occupied by a fully clothed Grant) or the vast open spaces of luxury suites, swimming pools, tinkling fountains and exotic (or garish) design details.
Happily, just when the sheer unattainability of it all is in danger of alienating viewers, Grant’s enthusiasm pulls the show onwards.
He seems to have a particular affinity for his interviewees, roaring with shared laughter or badgering them like an amiable Jeremy Paxman as the mood takes him. Admittedly, some encounters are friendlier than others. In the first episode, he confesses to ‘‘sphincter-winking terror’’ when going to meet hotel mogul Donald Trump (who gives a lengthy monologue about the unhygienic tradition of shaking hands, before Grant gets him to confess that he does it anyway so that people won’t hate him).
Bantering with the backroom employees is a much easier task. ‘‘The bellhops at Manhattan’s Palace Hotel . . . these guys were like something straight out of Damon Runyon. They were all coming up to retirement. They’d worked together for 35 years and the stories that they had to tell were just a gift. And that was completely unexpected, as opposed to the sort of model-actor-waiters and staff in some of the LA hotels, for whom the job is just a stepping stone.’’
When it gets seriously weird, such as at the Barkley Pet Hotel and Day Spa near LA, Grant just lets it wash over him. ‘‘When I read the brief beforehand I thought: Oh dear, this is Louis Theroux, freak-TV stuff. But when you go into it you realise there’s somebody out there who has got a lot of money and wants their dog to be given five-star treatment and to have closed-circuit TVin their little kennel so they can see them at all times. You scoff and it’s completely bonkers, but if somebody’s providing that service, then why not?’’
Looking back, did he ever imagine that one day he’d be granted a free pass to all this bling? ‘‘I hoped I could make a living as an actor. But how I have ended up doing so is beyond anything I could have ever anticipated. But you are prepared for it, in that from the moment you start doing movies, the level of luxury in the hotels that you stay in goes from nought to 100 miles an hour instantly.
‘‘If I’d never done a movie, and I was plonked into this series, I would have been much more wide-eyed.’’
So what does he look for in a hotel? ‘‘Personal service. It doesn’t matter how big it is or how many gold taps there are in the bathroom, it’s that somebody gives you a sense that you’re being personally looked after. The Four Seasons in New York is absolutely brilliant at doing that.’’
Does he complain when that service doesn’t come up to scratch? ‘‘Never. No, if I have bad service or a bad experience, I just won’t ever go back there.’’
What about tipping? ‘‘I always tip because I was a waiter in Covent Garden and I know that’s what a waiter relies on, and unless the service has really been pants, I feel duty-bound to over-tip, or to tip generously.’’
In the series he gets to poke his nose around the grandest and greatest: The Ritz, the Waldorf Astoria, Caesar’s Palace. But it’s all a show and Grant knows it.
‘‘It’s what Napoleon said about a throne being only a bench covered in velvet. The bed you slept in? Tomorrow night somebody else will be sleeping in it. That’s the great egalitarian nature of staying in a hotel. No matter how ponced-up it is, it’s still a room for hire.’’ Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets will screen on Foxtel’s LifeStyle Channel later this year.