Last Night's TV - The Savoy, BBC2; Art of Germany, BBC4; Ian Hislop's Age of the Do-Gooders, BBC2
A taste of the suite life
Tuesday 14 December 2010
You didn't need to have a head for statistics to enjoy
The Savoy, the first of two documentaries about the preposterously expensive refurbishment of the celebrated London hotel, but it certainly helped. Loss per week of closure after the re-opening was delayed for more than a year: £650,000. Number of applications for 600 jobs: 28,000. Number of rooms: 268. Cost per room of the refit: £800,000. And that was just the tip of the statistical iceberg, on which subject, Lew Grade once said of his catastrophically costly flop Raise the Titanic that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. Similarly, the Middle Eastern owners of the Savoy might have been better advised, in their bid to make the hotel the swankiest in London, to buy and de-swank all the others.
Still, at least they've got a two-hour commercial out of it, which is what this documentary project amounts to. The last time television cameras chronicled life in a hotel, the establishment was the benighted Adelphi in Liverpool, once synonymous with grandeur but very much on its uppers at the time of the docusoap Hotel in the 1990s. It was hard to imagine anyone wanting to stay at the Adelphi after watching that series, not if there was a Premier Inn available nearby, but the Savoy is a different kettle of fish; the kind of place, indeed, where if you want a kettle of fish delivered to your suite at 4am, the concierge will merely ask whether you favour cod over mackerel.
I say concierge, but in fact the Savoy has used the reopening to reinstitute its butler service after several decades, hiring as head butler a suitably fastidious Irishman, Sean Davoren, whose first job was to oversee the recruitment and training of 25 others. Ten or 15 years ago, when docusoaps ruled primetime much as talent shows do now, these shows always yielded a star, the likes of the cruise-ship chanteuse Jane McDonald. Here it is the ineffably camp Davoren, half Jeeves and half Julian Clary. "You will," he trilled to his butlers, "be the wind beneath the guests' wings." I don't think he meant this literally, but he did then teach them to perch discreetly on the guests' toilet seats to see what excrescences – a rogue piece of cotton on the marble, perhaps – might be visible from a loo-eye view. Quite clearly, Davoren should have a butling series of his own. I'd love to see how he licks his young charges into shape.
As for the design of the new-look Savoy, it includes more than 6,000 newly painted "Old Masters", which would doubtless bring a wince to the strangely Steve Coogan-like features – in a certain half-light he's a ringer for a slightly inflated Alan Partridge – of the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. In Art of Germany, Graham-Dixon turned his clever eye and exquisite turn of phrase to the 1920s and 1930s, and utterly engrossing it was too. He showed us the huge stone figure, now recumbent in a store room, that had once stood outside the Chancellery in Berlin, in effect guarding Adolf Hitler's front door. "It feels almost radioactive, as if it is still emitting evil energies," said our host, looking fittingly uncomfortable.
I didn't know until I watched this fascinating programme that it was Hitler's loathing of modern art that actually kindled the Nazi movement. In Mein Kampf, he described it as a moral plague, sent by the Bolsheviks using Jewish art dealers. Fits of morality almost always look ridiculous in hindsight, and of course Hitler's were more ridiculous than anyone's, but the achievement of Ian Hislop in Age of the Do-Gooders is to champion the great campaigning moralists of the mid-19th century, the Mary Whitehouses of their time.
In the last of his excellent three-part series, he addressed "Sinful Sex and Demon Drink", which taught me something else I probably should have known but didn't – that the Temperance Movement was born in Preston, Lancashire, scarcely 15 miles from where I grew up. Splendidly, the man who started it all, Joseph Livesey, wasn't a beetle-browed fundamentalist but a jolly cove who used humour to spread his message. "Think Les Dawson," a historian of the Temperance movement told Hislop. It seems rather a shame that by the time I hit drinking age, which I did with a resounding clang around 1978, Preston was known as a good place to get pissed. Moreover, who is the most famous Prestonian of our own times but the former cricketer Freddie Flintoff, known not to be averse to a pint or eight?
Still, the history of Temperance is riddled with such ironies. Hislop didn't mention the tourism pioneer Thomas Cook, a fierce campaigner for teetotalism, whose inaugural train excursion in July 1841 carried 600 signatories of the Temperance pledge from Leicester to the dry town of Loughborough. Let it not be whispered anywhere near Thomas Cook's grave in Welford Road cemetery, Leicester, that modern Loughborough houses all those sports-science undergraduates, drinking vodka and cider cocktails strained through the rugby captain's jockstrap. Or indeed that the era of mass tourism that he kick-started would lead, inexorably, to Brits going on cheap-booze holidays to Benidorm.
Hislop was very good on the early years, and stars, of the campaign for abstinence, but I look forward to someone making a documentary chronicling it into the 20th century. My own parents-in-law, arriving in London from Barnsley for their three-day honeymoon in the late-1950s, were horrified to find that they had unwittingly checked into a Temperance hotel. The Savoy, alas, was well beyond their means.
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