School for Jeeves

By Georgina Pattinson, BBC News (original article here)

Paul Burrell’s days as a butler are well and truly behind him. But there are plenty of people who want to take his place – and lots of households where they need a man who can.

Who would imagine Jeeves could be a bona fide star in the celebrity-fuelled 21st Century? Surely the job is an anachronism – a character from a time when monogrammed slippers were the height of fashion and port was passed to the left?

Not according to Rick Fink, who has started a school for butler-valets in Oxfordshire.

Far from being an austere figure, Rick is a friendly 69-year-old, employed by the great and the good – and the aristocracy – for more than 40 years.

However impeccable his credentials, though, training a new generation of gentlemen’s gentlemen sounds like a wishful dream.

In fact, since opening his classes last year, he has had several pupils through his doors. The majority want to become servants on yachts of the rich.

Step forward pupil 18-year-old Robbie Guillory, who starts at Glasgow University next year, and who wants to be a butler after he finishes his degree.

I thought – I’d like to do it for a few years and see how it goes,
— Mr Rick Fink

“I would quite like to try stewarding on yachts because I’m very into sailing. And I quite like the whole stately home tradition. I think it’s absolutely wonderful.”

He is obviously charmed by the idea of the unflappable Jeeves (technically a valet), by John Gielgud in Arthur and by Anthony Hopkins’ character in Remains of the Day (which Rick says “couldn’t have been closer to one of the jobs I did in the 60s”).

Fount of knowledge

“I think that might be part of it why I joined,” says Robbie. “There’s so many different stereotypes of what a butler is.

“I think the actual butler persona is a mixture of all of those. He’s a fount of knowledge, he’s always there to help, he’s a picture of discretion – that’s the ideal butler, that’s what everyone would strive to be.”

He’s immersed himself in a world where people carry furled umbrellas, change for dinner and read an ironed newspaper in the morning.

“The only reason we iron them is to keep the print on the paper,” Rick says. “You knew that though, didn’t you? That’s the only reason the papers are ironed.”

So that lifestyle still exists, hidden away in a 21st Century Britain of supermarkets and suburbs. There are country estates where the wealthy come to shoot pheasants, and magnates who know that Britain produces the best butlers. Even the dapper P Diddy has “assistant” Farnsworth Bentley.

The skills may come from the 1930s (“nothing’s changed” says Rick) but like a well-made tweed, they last.

Overflowing baths

The well-trained butler apparently has a pick of stately homes, palaces, embassies and “Prestigious Corporations” to work for. There are thousands of butlers plying their trade – Rick says he could work “14 days a week” if he wanted.

Salaries are rated about £26,000 a year – a very experienced butler could earn £1,000 in a hard weekend but may only get £500 a week somewhere else. Robbie is likely to start on considerably less.

But the stories aren’t bad. Tales abound of butlers filling vodka bottles with water, of catching elderly gentlemen getting frisky with women half their age while their bath overflows and of being shot by accident.

Discretion is important. While Paul Burrell may find the celebrity world more profitable, he’s unlikely to return to life as a butler when he emerges from the jungle.

“He gave too much away. If I talked about my employers, I’d never find any work. Immediately, you’ve lost their trust,” he says.

“Butlers stick together. No-one wants to see somebody disclosing what their owners are about.”

Oiling the wheels is Rick’s other motto – and there is plenty to learn. On the six week course, students are taught how to run a staff, cook, look after wine, announce guests, iron a jacket, pack a suitcase and carve.

A butler becomes a fix-it man, a confidant and – occasionally – a friend. Perhaps the job is becoming, with glacial dignity, a little more modern.

But both look taken aback when I raise a revolutionary idea. What about a woman butler?

Hmmm. “You think of a butler and you think of an archetypal Jeeves character,” says Robbie.

“You have a ladies’ maid, and you have a male butler. But I think it could change, I don’t see why it shouldn’t, just like everything else.”

I’m not holding my breath. But Rick is refreshingly down-to-earth and his hands-on attitude to the job is far from the superiority I’d expected.

“I wanted to be a butler ever since I was about 10,” he says.

“I used to go to the films a lot, and I used to see these Abbott and Costello films. And they always used to finish at a big party. What impressed me most was the chandeliers and the people done up in their white tie and tails.

“These things were brilliant and I used to think, I’d love to be among all that.”

Originally published in BBC News, December 2004