The butler is back and in thoroughly modern style, says Sandy Mitchell
Overworked? Stressed? Unable to enjoy life? What you need is not a holiday or a therapist but the household luxury that almost every successful magnate seems now to have acquired: a butler.
“We have had many people asking us for butlers,” reports one London agency while, at a rival business, the woman at the “butler desk” — mahogany and buffed to a mirror-like sheen, no doubt — can barely contain her glee at the “enormous increase in demand”.
Clients are a mix of privateequity or hedge-fund dealers, entrepreneurs and celebrities whose desire for an unflappable major-domo is fuelled by their increasingly high disposable income.
But the men (and women) employed as butlers are not the same as in the classbound old days ofWodehouse andWaugh. Today’s butler has been dusted off and given a radical makeover, even down to the job title. “More modern houses call them ‘house managers’, though they still do traditional tasks such as overseeing house moves, waiting at table, valeting and packing,” says Stephanie Storey of the agency Greycoat Placements.
“But they are multi-tasking, too. In the bigger, more flash houses they have to be computer-literate to deal with new technology. There’s the stereo system, the heating, the swimming-pool and the security systems.” (In the country homes of twitchy East European oligarchs, dotted with closed-circuit television cameras, the butler often lurks at the centre of the surveillance web.)
What has changed too are the attitudes to employing butlers. “The snobbery has gone out of having a butler,” insists Geordie Greig, editor of Tatler. ‘‘It is seen as a normal part of the new service-industry culture and you certainly no longer need a grand castle to have one.’’
He also notes a telling difference in the tone of these new domestic set-ups. “ Upstairs, Downstairs formality is disappearing for the generation under 45. The butler is much more likely to be wearing a black polo neck than a striped waistcoat.” Perversely, that sometimes causes friction.
The new self-made multimillionaires, even City boys, often work in a culture of Gap T-shirts and flat corporate structures. When they try to bring that informality home with them, they risk revolt from domestic staff schooled in top hotels with fierce hierarchies. “Some clients want the butler to call them by their first name and they want to use the butler’s own first name, but the butlers can find that very difficult,” warns Storey. (Jeeves would sooner have had his teeth knocked out with a hammer than allow the name Bertie to pass his lips.)
The younger generation of butlers has adjusted perfectly to this new social order and no one could epitomise this flexible breed better than Mario Hinterdorfer, a multilingual 33-year-old Austrian, currently employed in a private household in London. “The old-fashioned butler would always be in the background, but the profession has changed 100 per cent,” he explains in silksmooth Euro-English. “Modern butlers don’t just stay in the background. They are all-rounders who travel everywhere, often on the private plane. They go shopping with the wife, they take care of the private office and they change the light bulbs,” says Mario, who doesn’t wear a uniform at work.
His “owners”, as Mario refers to his employers and those of his numerous butler friends, are not billionaires but just “normal rich people”. “They want to be relaxed when they get home and find food is on the table and the ironing is done,” he says. For providing this service, a butler in London can expect to earn £35,000 to £40,000, with accommodation included.
Some aspects of the job remain reassuringly unchanged. This became apparent during a recent lunch party at the neoPalladian country home of a couple in their late 40s, who have each made a fortune in new technology. Such was the spellbinding level of luxury that even the table set for the small children (few of them old enough to read) had elegant hand-written menu cards. After the children got down from lunch it was the senior butler who was called on to play with them outside the dining room.
The whole remarkable performance was only let down by the vulgar behaviour of some of the visitors, as I discovered when we arrived home and asked the children what they had got up to after lunch. “We played hide-andseek but that man [the butler] found me straight away,” complained my youngest. “What did you do after that?” I asked. “I bit him,” came the reply.
Not a word was said at the time by the butler, of course. “Being 100 per cent discreet. That is one rule that hasn’t changed,” purrs Mario.
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Service with style: Mario Hinterdorfer (top) is typical of the new breed of butler, a role that has changed greatly since the days of Jeeves and Wooster (above)