Backstage at the world's best hotels

In his new TV series, Richard E Grant unlocks the secrets of five-star service, fine dining and luxury suites. So, what's the key to a truly great stay?

You don't have to wait long for Richard E Grant's inner Withnail to surface. "Free to those that can afford it," he proclaims during the opening sequence of his new 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's resurrected it to describe some of the most opulent accommodation in the world.

Fans of black comedy Withnail and I, the film that saw Grant delivering a portrait of a dissolute actor that was equal parts drunken languor and mischievous devilment, will see shades of that same 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 remote-control 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 more than $40,000 a night, one of the most expensive in the world).

When we meet – appropriately enough at The Savoy in London, which also features in the series – Grant is still fizzing away, taking great gulps of still water (he's a lifelong teetotaller) before addressing the thorny question of why he's presenting a television 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 being faced by the really grim economic stuff that we're fed on a daily basis. Having a peek into the thin-crust crème brûlée of how people live at that level is voyeuristically interesting to do."

Is the task something he relishes? "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 Richard E Grant) or the vast open spaces of luxury suites, on swimming pools, on tinkling fountains, on exotic – or garish – design details. Happily, just when the sheer unattainability of it all is in danger of alienating the viewer, Grant's sheer enthusiasm pulls the show onwards. He seems to have a particular affinity for his interview subjects, 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, racily entitled "Power and Money", 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 back-room staff is an easier task. "The bellhops at Manhattan's Palace Hotel that was run by Leona Helmsley [New York's 'Queen of Mean', who was eventually jailed in 1989 for tax evasion] in the 1980s: 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 Los Angeles, Grant just lets it wash over him. "When I read the brief beforehand I thought, oh dear: this is Louis Theroux, freak-television 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 television in their little kennel, so that they can see them at all times. You scoff and it's completely bonkers, but if somebody's providing that service, then why not?"

The "free to those that can afford it" line has particular resonance during a segment on Las Vegas, the Sin City of "comped" luxury hotel suites handed out by casinos to encourage high rollers. Grant's interview with Steve Cyr, an independent casino host (or, as Grant puts it, a "gambler wrangler") reveals a sort of aghast incomprehension.

"I've never gambled. As an actor, and being self-employed, I just live in terror of being in debt … I've said to people, 'as you get off the plane, why don't you just take this wad of cash and flush it down the loo?', but they land in Las Vegas going: 'How much money am I prepared to lose?' ... which is a very, very odd psychology.

"When I saw Steve and his client gambling, Steve was like a kind of circus master in the bullring, whipping the guy up. He was having a conversation with the dealer, and the people who were providing drinks, and he was encouraging this man to spend money, which wasn't his money. But he clearly got off on all that, and then got a commission."

Looking back, did he ever imagine that one day he'd be granted a free pass to all this bling? "I hoped that I could make a living as an actor. But how I've ended up doing so is beyond anything I could have ever anticipated. I thought I would be lucky if I could work regularly in the theatre, never in a city like London. So it's been beyond all expectations on my part.

"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 hotel in New York is absolutely brilliant at doing that."

Does he ever complain when that personal 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 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.

"Once while I was a waiter, John Cleese came in, and I served him. The other waiters dared me to tip soup all over him and get Basil Fawlty to come vipering out of him, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I subsequently got to know him, and told him about this. And he said yes, you would have been walloped if you'd poured half a bowl of soup into my crotch."

Grant returns to his waiting roots later in the series, when he's trained to carry a tray properly at The Savoy, a skill he masters with the aplomb you might expect from a one-time member of the "downstairs" cast of Gosford Park. He seems equally at home chatting to former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. "The big challenge with her," he says, "was trying to compete with her 25 macaws, which were flying around the room, nesting in her shower, and trying to peck you."

Grant lets the viewer draw their own conclusions about the people he meets. "I kept in the back of my mind that I wanted to be able to go back to all these hotels, and to look the people in the face that I had spoken to, rather than go to the camera behind their backs and say: 'This person is an absolute Satanist'."

He pokes his nose round the grandest and greatest: The Ritz, The Goring, 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 that 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' starts on Sky Atlantic HD at 9pm on Thursday 25 October

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable