WHEN Peter Jackson walks down the grand sweeping staircase of Claridge’s Hotel, even the bride in white posing by the snow-coated Christmas tree stops to watch.
The director appears uncomfortable with all the attention, as he prepares to head through the hotel’s famous revolving door and off to nearby Leicester Square for the Royal Premiere of The Hobbit. Escorting him, with the polished ease of a professional actor, is Michael Bonsor, the hotel’s operations manager, and, courtesy of the BBC’s new three-part documentary series, Inside Claridge’s, a new Scots star, if, that is, young ambassadors for the hospitality industry can be so christened.
Over the past two weeks, five million viewers have switched on to find out if the Middle Eastern princess who hired an entire hotel floor, from which all men were to be summarily prohibited, would ever actually turn up (she did, though we didn’t see her), if the management team led by the delightful Thomas Kochs, a John Barrymore look-a-like whose eyes are perpetually filled with a combination of kindness and wonder, could find the perfect bedside alarm clock (they did, it cost just £20) and just what is the correct way to set a table for afternoon tea. Unlike many workplace documentaries which seem designed to home in on conflict, Inside Claridge’s has instead celebrated a venerable institution which appears to run like clockwork. Spencer Tracey once said: “I don’t want to go to heaven when I die, I want to go to Claridge’s.” Viewers may now wish to join him.
What began life in 1812 as an elegant refuge, offering rooms to the landed gentry who no longer wished to keep a London town house, evolved into a grand hotel whose distinctive red bricks would soon creak with character when William Claridge bought the property in 1854. Six years later Queen Victoria sealed its reputation as an establishment of regal regard by visiting her friend, Empress Eugenie of France, who was then in residence, and ever since it has been viewed by many as an annex to Buckingham Palace, so frequent are royal guests. Once, in 1947, prior to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, a diplomat phoned Claridge’s and asked to speak to the king. The receptionist replied: “Certainly sir, which one?”
Today it is celebrated for its distinctive Art Deco look which came courtesy of Oswald Milne, a pioneer of the artistic movement in 1929 when he co-ordinated the hotel’s modernisation and fitted out the elegant lobby with its revolving doors, mirrors and ‘leaping deer’ lamps. A decade later, during the Second World War, the hotel became a haven for exiled royalty and heads of state. In fact, on 17 July, 1945, Winston Churchill declared suite 212 Yugoslavian territory so that Crown Prince Alexander II could be born in his own country.
Churchill himself sought refuge in the hotel’s penthouse a fortnight later after the surprising landslide that swept him out of power and Downing Street. On the balcony overlooking Mayfair, his wife, Clemmie, tried to soothe him by saying that perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Churchill insisted that, if so, it was exceedingly well disguised. Today, the penthouse suite where Churchill once puffed his cigars is now regularly booked out for over £6,000 per night and was the location for Kate Moss’s riotous 30th birthday bash.
For Bonsor, 33, it is a long way from the Culduthel Lodge in Inverness, which his parents, David and Marion, bought when he was ten. As a pupil at Millburn Academy, he would come home and help out his parents in the evening, thus taking the first steps towards a career in hotel management. Sitting amid the elegance of the Fumoir, once the finest smoking room in Europe and since the ban its most atmospheric bar, Bonsor is surrounded by the etched glass engravings of his fellow countryman, Basil Ionides, the Scots Art Deco designer and architect.
Having a camera crew follow you and your fellow staff is far from usual, he explains in a pristine but elevated Scots accent, buffed and polished after a decade in Toronto, Boston and New York, where he worked for the Four Seasons hotel chain.
“Well, they were with us for a year and you have a job to do,” he says. “The hotel is incredibly busy and you need to get on and get things done and in a way they became part of the family. They had to. We were working very closely beside each other, at odd hours of the day, early in the morning and until late at night. It is highly unusual to have a film crew following behind you as you do your day-to-day work, but we are very proud of what we do and everyone in this building works incredibly hard to get things done and prepared for our guests and there is nothing that shouldn’t be on camera. We are all very proud of what we do and we have nothing to hide.”
In fact, the response from the public has been renewed respect for the dedication shown by staff such as ‘the keeper of the lift’ who operates London’s last remaining manual elevator, and the team of butlers. Whenever the film-maker, Jane Treays, who many years ago met her husband in the Fumoir and got married at the hotel, tried to tease out any hostility at the idea of guests spending £6,000 at the height of an economic crisis, on a single night’s accommodation, she found little or none. The rich, as F Scott Fitzgerald (who would have loved Claridge’s) said, are different, and it is a point Bonsor is anxious to make.
“When you are talking about suites at that level, it is a very competitive business. All our competitors have suites at that level, at that price, and there are suites that are a lot more expensive. It would not take you long to find a hotel suite in London at £15,000 to £20,000 per night. We are very proud of those spaces, they are highly requested rooms for travellers used to those spaces. That is the type of accommodation that they travel in and stay in worldwide. Of course there are a wide range of rates at the hotel.” (The hotel is keen to point out that between 16 December and 20 January rooms are available for £330, or a 20th of the price of their top suite.)
It is curious, but the veil of secrecy that was lifted while filming the series and which allowed us to see the manager ponder how best to address on a welcome card the lead guitarist from the band U2: “Is it Mr The Edge or Mr Edge?” seems to have been drawn over hotel operations again, with Bonsor now reluctant to relate his dealings with the rich and famous. “I have met so many people during my hotel life and that is a very difficult question for me to answer. There have been so many great people, from politicians to celebrities. Thomas Keller was a hero (the American chef runs The French Laundry restaurant in California). That makes more of a mark. People you admire within the industry and he is a phenomenal chef. Having come back to the UK I’m now seeing a few of the royals, the British Royal Family coming in and out of the hotel and for me that has been really rather special. I had lost touch with that in the last decade. I would say that has been rather lovely for me.”
Hard work, he believes, brings its own rewards. So as a student at the Hotel School at Strathclyde University he worked extra shifts at One Devonshire Gardens to pay for an oyster supper at Rogano. Today if he wishes to reward himself after a 12-hour shift, he enjoys a glass of fine champagne (“Dom Perignon, but I’m not so sure how often I drink it by the glass”) and his favourite dish is Beef Wellington. To his mind the height of Scots hospitality is Gleneagles Hotel: “I do think that estate is so beautiful. The modern rooms, sitting on the balcony looking out to the glen is heaven. It is so peaceful and romantic.”
He appears to be the very definition of unflappable, but does he ever get stressed? “Time is always of the essence. There are situations where you feel you are running out of time. It adds a few more grey hairs but it is nothing we don’t overcome. In hotel life you have to think on your feet. We had Noma here, a pop-up restaurant, where we ran out of ants. We can’t pop around to the corner store to get more, so we had to go to Copenhagen to get additional ants. We had to transport tens of thousands. It was a speciality dish of the chef – they taste of lemongrass. Which they do, I can vouch for that.”
As the final programme in the series prepares to air on Monday, he said his parents have been pleased. “They love it. There are several calls from my mother in a day. Both before and after. They really enjoy watching it. They are just proud about how the hotel has been portrayed.”
• Inside Claridge’s is on BBC 2 on Monday at 9pm. www.claridges.co.uk