Now seems like a bad time for The Savoy, but there’s just enough personality, humor, and irony here for ITV’s docuseries to make a case for itself.
There’s a pretty obvious question hovering over ITV’s new four-part fly-on-the-wall docuseries about London’s first and most famous luxury hotel – is now really the right time? Perhaps a better question would be is there ever a right time for this kind of thing, which delights in the privilege and exclusivity of this establishment, its staff, and its guests, while also claiming – boldly, I think you’ll agree – that the pre-pandemic portion of its business we’re being treated to is somehow the most dramatic in its storied history. We’ll see about that!
But as much as I was perfectly ready and perhaps even eager to complain about every ghastly facet of this place and the obvious ill-timing of this show, I ended up finding it quite smart and charming, obviously well-aware of the fact that the Savoy’s pleasures will remain closed-off to most people and giving its most normal-seeming employees a deserved focus while their uber-toff bosses and the VIP clientele are treated as kind of eccentric comic relief characters to be laughed at and sometimes made good-natured fun of.
If you’re going to make this kind of series, this is the way to do it, then. For what it’s worth I’ve been in the Savoy, since my father-in-law stayed there when he got remarried, and as I walked through those iconic revolving doors in shorts and a tank top – I was staying across the street in the Strand hotel that’s for normal people – the staff looked at working-class me as if I’d brought a machine gun in. I mention this because I wish I’d have known then what The Savoy episode 1 makes clear, which is that a lot of the people integral to keeping the place running are peasants just like you and me. This is, I suppose, quite obvious, but the place is so comfortably cushioned by decades of swanky exclusivity that I half expected its staff to have been lab-grown in vats of champagne.
Gordon Ramsay’s imaginatively-named production company Studio Ramsay is responsible for this, since he owns the hotel’s famous Savoy Grill, and makes a couple of cameos to essentially advertise the place and talk up the restaurant’s absurdly French director, Thierry, who’s like David Brent with an Aristocats accent. It’s Thierry who typifies the kind of thing you’d expect from The Savoy, but he’s also the one who pulls down the curtain, saying outright that you put on a clown suit when you enter and take it off when you leave – the whole thing’s a performance, and is much more palatable when you imagine it as one.
Sean, the head butler, is a similarly eccentric figure, cast as a kind of lilting tyrant but really a bit of a softie, or at least that’s how it seems in his employment and nurturing of failed actor Michael, whose late mother, Lynda Bellingham, was in the Oxo adverts and thus constitutes British royalty in a sense. But there’s nothing princely about Michael, who just needed a steady job and found one here, sh*tting himself while catering a small drinks party and longing for the normality and safety of a late-night bus and a Tesco meal deal.
The stuff with Ramsay sampling new dishes and complaining about chipped plates was a bore; his shtick is tedious in his own shows at this point, let alone when it infiltrates different ones. But I liked The Savoy’s embrace of irony. It wasn’t shy about highlighting the enormous breadth of wealth and circumstance on The Strand, from homeless people sleeping in bags mere yards away from liveried porters, and it was quick to have a laugh at the expense of the clientele, especially the bloke who ordered Steak Diane with his clearly uncomfortable guest. He’s there all the time, apparently, which seems like a curse more than a privilege.
The Savoy episode 1 can still be a bit trying. But it also seems like the most palatable version of any show called The Savoy that I can imagine, which is worth a mention, isn’t it?