Robert Watson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

'When you buttle, your life mirrors that of your employer. In the morning you are up an hour before him and you don't go to bed until at least an hour after he has retired.

It's hard work and the only way to make it easy is to plan ahead and be well prepared so if something does go wrong, you'll be able to take it in your stride.

You get yourself ready then get the dining room ready for breakfast. You'll also make sure the newspapers are there and the public areas are tidy. No one wants to come down to a mess.

More often than not you'll have to cook breakfast. It won't be a big buffet breakfast. If it's Tuesday, it might be kippers, if it's Wednesday, it could be poached eggs and if it's Friday, it might be scrambled eggs, a sausage and two rashers of bacon.

We used to iron the newspapers because the ink would come off and it was always difficult to open the pages. We'd put brown paper over the pages and iron it so the ink would soak into the brown paper. But modern newsprint has improved and you don't need to do it any more.

The employer of a good butler doesn't need an alarm clock. We have something called a calling tray, which is a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits served to you in your bedroom. You know it's 7am because that's the time your butler always brings your tray.

I know a butler who works for a duke and the duke isn't gaga, but he's never dressed himself. He goes to the bathroom and comes out in his underwear and expects the butler to have chosen his suits, then button his shirts and tie his shoe laces while he stands there. He thinks it's perfectly normal. No modern employer wants that level of service. It might be, 'Tomorrow Robert, I'll be wearing the grey suit, blue shirt and yellow tie.' The butler will have it laid out for him, ironed and pressed and ready to go, but that's as far as it'll go.

I've still got a few private clients I look after. It's usually a household where I've placed a butler and the employer wants me to see how things are going, to oversee from a distance. Or it might be a house in London whose owners want to change their dining room and they'll ask me to take care of it. I'll select a whole new range of cutlery, china and glassware. People trust their butler's judgment.

For certain occasions, we wear formal attire, if that's the image the client wants to project. Yet I supply butlers to villas in the Bahamas and they'd look ridiculous in white gloves, pin stripes and tails. So they can wear Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.

I established the Guild of Professional English Butlers because there is a shortage of good butlers. I train and place people ... and train hotel butlers. I arrived in Hong Kong from Las Vegas. I'm here for two weeks tutoring butlers for a five-star hotel. Next I'll be at Raffles in Singapore, then home for three days followed by San Diego, Mexico, Vegas again.

When I'm teaching, I never switch off. I'll stay in a luxury suite so I'm being looked after by the hotel's butlers. I'll snip buttons off shirts, hang them back in the wardrobe and at the end of the day, expect to find the buttons replaced. I'll send laundry with one sock missing and I want to see if they say, 'I'm sorry Mr Watson, there's a sock missing. Do you want me to help you find it?' I don't expect them to assume I've got three legs.

I'll set my alarm for 4am and ask for a glass of white wine and a cigar to see how quickly they respond. When I've finished my last Marlboro cigarette and thrown the packet in the wastepaper basket, I expect to see a new packet of Marlboro cigarettes on the desk when I return to the room. The room attendant will have told the butler and the butler will have realised I'm out of cigarettes and had them replaced. It's not the big things; it's the small details that have such an impact on a

guest's pleasure.

Wherever I am in the world, I always wake up at 6am and there are certain places I go where I know they'll bring me a coffee and orange juice at that time without me having to tell them. A good butler should know what you need before you do.

In the old days, it was the lord and lady of the manor, born and bred to their position in life and accustomed to the finer things, including domestic help. These days, it's new money. People have the riches to buy every luxury, then they suddenly realise they've bought this big house and it's full of servants and they need someone to come in and train these people how to look after the household.

Sometimes it's a cultural thing. Perhaps someone from Asia is entertaining a lot of guests from the west and they don't really understand how to look after them or care for them as a host. So they employ a butler who puts them right on certain matters of western etiquette. You don't look down on your employer. You just go with whatever he wants and if he asks for your advice, you are there ready to give it.

The king of Saudi Arabia has homes around the globe and an army of staff from the Philippines, India and Indonesia. But at the top, you'll always find an English butler. There's a certain cool, calm collectedness about the English. Whatever happens, we tend to take it in our stride. We don't panic or make a lot of noise and we deliver what's perceived to be the epitome of service.

Your English butler is a person who knows everything about you, knows what you want five minutes before you ask for it, is very reserved and whose lips are sealed about everything. That's why I get so upset with [Princess Diana's former butler] Paul Burrell. I always say there are two people you should have total trust in - one is your mother and the other is your butler. What he did let the whole profession down. People today are more wary. We're sending butlers out there and they're signing 30-page contracts. It never used to be like that.

I was head butler at the Lanesborough [hotel] in London for 10 years. There I saw it all - film stars, presidents and politicians. If I told you some of the things I've seen, your hair would stand on end. But nothing could make me tell you. For me, it's the ultimate sin. You put yourself in a very intimate relationship and taking advantage of that relationship is wrong.

People keep quoting these old English plays to me, saying, 'The butler did it!' I say, 'No, he didn't. He polished and loaded the gun and handed it to the person who did.' That's our role in life.'