Come on, Eileen, you're a star

She is more than a match for the BBC. Emma Cook goes to the Adelphi to find the woman behind the Hotel
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The Independent Online
EILEEN DOWNEY is perched on a seat in one of Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel bars, drumming her fingers impatiently against the gleaming brass rail beside her.

She fixes me with a stern stare, her pale-blue eyes barely blink. "You can't be a shrinking violet and run an hotel like this," she says, as her Scouse brogue takes in Cilla-like precision. "You a-i-r-n your respect in this place. You a-i-r-n it.

Eileen is the sort of woman you would want on your side in any battle of wills. Those familiar with the fly-on-the-the-wall BBC1 documentary series Hotel will know that some of her more combative encounters over the last two episodes would have silenced even Sybil Fawlty.

The Adelphi may be the largest hotel of its type in the north of England, but Eileen, the general manager, emerges as the bigger star of the TV show.

The hotel's size is impressive: 391 rooms, three miles of corridors, 200,000 meals a year and over 200 staff (it's Liverpool's biggest private employer). But that's not why last Monday's overnight viewing figures exceeded 8.5 million. If Eileen, 42, ran a local launderette, there's no doubt we'd still be glued to the screen; revelling in her next colourful confrontation, and perhaps hoping for just a moment of self-doubt.

Not much chance of that, on-screen at least. Off-screen, though, she seems less daunting and looks daintier: she's just 5 ft tall and has tiny feet. After a few minutes, her manner thaws - at least when she sticks to her favourite subject, work.

After a breakneck tour of the hotel - it seems disappointingly tranquil after the frenetic activity on TV, and, in places, slightly tattier as well (brown Seventies style carpeting and dralon sofa in the bedroom), she checks on the function-room full of diners in bow ties. "All running smoothly," she hums as we march towards the bar. In the era of Joe Punter- turns-media-celebrity, Eileen Downey must be the next candidate for the chat-show hot-spot. Sparky, confident and "ordinary," surely it can only be a matter of time before she is swapping jokes with the Ginger One on TFI Friday? But no, Eileen is not playing ball.

"The Big Breakfast keep getting in touch," she says. "I really can't see myself doing it, can you? I certainly don't want to be the next Maureen from Driving School. I'm not interested in being a star."

She doesn't even like the cameras, she says, and feels quite indifferent to the recent flurry of media attention. "The only reason I did it was to let everyone see the Adelphi. It was one way of getting the message across, so people would see what a good product it was."

A corporate woman through and through, Eileen seems to relish her workload, and is often on the go for 15 hours a day. Ask her if she has any hobbies and her face looks blank. She doesn't read, not does she go to the cinema or watch TV much. Not surprising, given that she can easily leave the house at 8am and still be at the Adelphi at 2am the next morning.

Does she ever want to slow down? She shakes her head. "Stress is a modern word," she says. "I don't think I have ever suffered from it. My work is enjoyable."

Like many people who seem driven from within, she can't understand why everyone else isn't as energetic as herself. "I notice the BBC didn't have as much tenacity as us," she chides. "So I told them they were a right load of luvvies."

Eileen Downey seems so integral to the hotel's image, it is surprising to hear that there is another dimension to her life. She has two elder sisters: one is a headmistress, the other a nursery nurse. They grew up in Liverpool, where her father was a long-distance lorry driver and her mother worked in a fruit shop. They were all expected to be achievers. "My father always says: 'I didn't have any sons, but I did breed some powerful women'."

Her husband seems equally happy to encourage her ambitions. Married for 23 years, they live 15 miles outside Liverpool. He never tries to offer advice about work decisions, but says things like: "I'm sure you'll do it well, dear. I know you will."

He's also there every night after work, at whatever hour, to drive her home. It wasn't always her career that came first. After they married she stayed at home for seven years to look after their two sons, who are both now at university.

Then she joined the Adelphi as a night auditor and rose to general manager five years ago. "I didn't really notice myself working to the top," she says. "It just seemed to click."

Now she's there, though, she realises how rare it is for a woman to be working at her level. "I wouldn't say it's a sexist industry, it's tough whoever you are." Yet she's quick to point out chauvinism when our conversation turns to her "tough" on-screen image. "Funny, isn't it?" she says, with no amusement. "If a man was to say the things I said he wouldn't be deemed tough at all."

In their rush to expose a "confrontational woman," she feels that the cameras may have overlooked a compassionate streak.

The Grand National incident in the first episode, when she was hiring mattresses to punters for pounds 45 a throw, wasn't totally accurate, she says. "There were 120 people we fed for nothing that night. That jockey said he had no money. He still had a bottle of beer in his hand. That chap asleep on the settee. He didn't pay. That's why maybe the TV hasn't got it quite right.

"Yes, it's a business, but it's also something else as well. It's an institution."