Back­stage at the world’s best ho­tels

Richard E. Grant on the se­crets of top-drawer ser­vice, suites and fine din­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BEN ROSS THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

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.

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