Sunday, November 25, 2012
Eat in ironed underpants, peel peaches for ladies, and it's 'loo', never 'toilet': Prince Charles's ex-butler on how to dine like a future King
There is a LOL bit towards the end of this article
With his double-breasted tuxedo and Royal tics – nervously fingering his signet ring and toying with his cuffs – Grant Harrold resembles our future King as closely as any 34-year-old Scotsman in copper bangles can.
And as Prince Charles’s former under butler patiently guides me to my butter knife, this is as close as I will ever get to hosting a Highgrove dinner party.
Grant is now a Jeeves for hire. Last week, he agreed a secret out-of-court settlement with the Prince. He was sacked last year after refusing to move from Gloucestershire to Clarence House, Charles and Camilla’s London residence.
The one-time Royal servant – who earned just £24,000 a year – claimed he was intimidated, threatened and treated as a ‘pariah’ by senior colleagues after refusing to move, despite his ‘exemplary’ seven-year record.
He was then diagnosed with phobic anxiety depersonalisation syndrome, a condition that caused him to suffer panic attacks when he was in a city for any length of time.
This led one unidentified member of the Royal Household to describe Grant as being ‘too dangerous’ to work with the Prince and to ban him from direct contact with the Royals.
Staff are even said to have likened him to Raoul Moat, the killer who also blinded policeman David Rathband.
But self-trained Grant is no Raoul Moat. Since settling his case with Clarence House, he has set up his own company, Nicholas Veitch, passing on Royal etiquette tips for £80 an hour.
And having worked for Prince Charles since 2003, he is a champion of palatial manners, a walking, talking Debrett’s. He insists on ironing underpants, he knows how to eat asparagus, he pales at the mere mention of the word ‘lavatory’.
It means that Grant is the perfect man to lead me through an impromptu dinner party thrown at a country hotel in the shadow of Highgrove.
Hovering at my shoulder at the Hare and Hounds hotel in Tetbury, he starts by helping me redo my bungled attempt at a bow-tie. ‘Think of it as a shoelace,’ he says, somewhat unfairly as he himself is wearing a clip-on tie.
Then, as I tackle my salmon caviar, he gently prises the fork from my right hand, puts it in my left and exhorts me to pick up my knife.
‘That won’t do at all. You won’t be getting an invitation to Clarence House any day soon if you eat in that American style,’ says Grant with barely disguised disdain.
He adds: ‘You must always use a knife and fork unless you’re eating asparagus. And you must never hold your knife like a pen.’
If Royal etiquette is a foreign country, dinner parties are a minefield.
My grandfather once told me that a gentleman should – after pudding – peel the peach of the lady seated to his right. I had always hoped this was a euphemism. But no. According to Grant, peach-peeling is de rigueur in Royal circles.
‘It would be utterly proper,’ he says. ‘At dinner, a gentleman must cater to a lady’s whim. If she wants her peach peeled during the fruit course, he should, of course, peel it.’
If Grant, who grew up on a council estate in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, harbours any resentment towards his former employer, he masks it expertly. He is at pains to point out he retains the highest regard for both Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. After all, he still lives in a cottage on the Royal estate in Gloucestershire and his partner works for the Prince.
Grant had dreamed of going into service ever since watching the 1993 film The Remains Of The Day when he was aged just 15. ‘I adored that movie,’ he says. ‘I wanted to be Anthony Hopkins’ character.’
Really? A tortured butler who works for a Nazi sympathiser before masquerading as an aristocrat? Grant spins his signet ring furiously. ‘Well, not that bit, no. I just loved his outfit.’
When Grant’s mother started working as a housekeeper at a country house in Scotland, she secured her then 18-year-old son work alongside her as a butler.
Grant went on to work for the Duke of Bedford, appearing in Country House, the BBC series filmed there, before moving to Highgrove nine years ago. His brother, a footman for the Queen, recommended him for the position.
Charles interviewed him personally and Grant was so well-liked that it was even suggested he was being groomed to become Prince William’s valet. And yes, you do pronounce the ‘t’.
‘When you are a butler you are working with your employer in a very intimate capacity,’ he says. ‘They have to be able to trust you. Loyalty, discretion and trust are your watchwords. But working for the Royals was the best job anyone could have had.’
Grant is admirably (and sensibly, having now signed two confidentiality agreements) tight-lipped about his time at Clarence House. He won’t even tell me whether the Prince likes to wear his napkin on his lap or tucked into his collar.
But over dinner, he can’t help but let slip the odd, fascinating vignette. What, for instance, is the etiquette if, as a butler, you accidentally see your employer naked?
‘Oh, I’ve lost count of the times that’s happened,’ he says nonchalantly. ‘The trick is to maintain eye contact and pretend that it never happened.’
For the record, he has never put toothpaste on anyone’s toothbrush, let alone one used by Charles. And he won’t be drawn on the claim – recently denied by Clarence House – that the Prince demands seven boiled eggs for breakfast so he can choose one that’s perfectly cooked.
Seven eggs or not, Charles apparently always comes down for breakfast, while Camilla prefers hers served on a tray in bed.
Disappointingly, Grant has never ironed a newspaper, but he has run the occasional bath and, of course, ironed the nation’s poshest underpants. ‘I iron everything except socks,’ he says. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’
I am beginning to feel horribly inadequate. I have only just exorcised the humiliation I felt when interviewing Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes. In passing, I mentioned Julian’s fine mantelpiece. ‘Mantelpiece?’ snorts Grant. ‘Do you mean mantelshelf?’
But Grant is a kind instructor. He shows me how to pour the wine, making sure to let the label show. ‘You must always let your guests see the label,’ he says. ‘Unless you’re serving Blue Nun.’
I am almost sure he is joking but it’s devilishly hard to tell beneath his mask of professionalism. There is, it seems, a right and a wrong way to do everything. ‘The bread must be broken, not cut. And never buttered on both sides like a malt loaf.’
And one must never go to the loo until after the main course. ‘You should have gone before the meal,’ says Grant, strictly. ‘It is very bad form to leave the table during the starter. And it’s loo. Not lavatory and certainly not toilet.’ Jackets must, alas, stay on at all times – even in the centrally heated fug of the charming Hare and Hounds hotel. ‘It is preferable to sweat than to expose your braces,’ explains Grant.
But surely, Royal types just do and take what they want, when they want, don’t they? Be it another bread roll or another man’s wife. Isn’t etiquette merely a middle-class obsession? Working-class people are far too sensible to worry about which knife to use, and the aristocracy don’t care a fig for what anyone else thinks.
Grant looks pained. ‘All sorts need help with etiquette. Lottery winners. Women marrying into grand families. It’s nothing to do with class.
‘I grew up in a council house and my dad worked in a British Gas storeroom, but we always did things properly – a tablecloth and three knives each. Always.’
It’s still traditional for the women to retire to another room while the men enjoy a glass of port and a cigar
Attempting to write shorthand notes and tackle my brill fillet was never going to be a happy marriage and, sure enough, disaster strikes as I upend my glass of red wine over the lady seated to my right.
Berith Sandgrens-Clerk jumps back and just about saves her frock. Instinctively, I try to help salvage the mess with my napkin.
Grant is at my side in a trice bearing salt and cautionary words. ‘You must never, ever dab a lady,’ he says firmly. ‘Oh, how true,’ agrees Charlotte Janisch, the lady to my left and evidently a past victim of dabbing herself. ‘There is nothing worse than being dabbed by a strange man. Yuk.’
From a discreet distance, Grant sprinkles some salt and, as if by magic, the stain vanishes.
I’m learning fast here – and not just about dabbing. From the correct way to place your glasses – red wine to the left, water to the right, white in front – to how to leave your cutlery, there is much to absorb.
‘When you’ve finished eating, your knife and fork must be put together at exactly six o’clock on the plate, with the blade of the knife pointing inward,’ I am told.
The ladies leave us after pudding: Charlotte to reclaim her children, Berith no doubt to check her dress.
‘It’s still traditional for the women to retire to another room while the men enjoy a glass of port and a cigar,’ says Grant.
‘Occasionally, a lady has asked for a port, too, but very rarely.’ He looks almost wounded by the memory.
So what do the men talk about in camera? ‘My gentlemen never talked about money, religion or politics.’
Sex and travel then?
‘I couldn’t possibly comment,’ says Grant, finally allowing himself a little smile.
And the women?
‘I couldn’t possibly comment on that either,’ repeats Grant, neatly confirming the obvious: that Camilla’s cronies are even bawdier than Charles and his crowd. But we are happily spared such ribaldry. ‘Drive safely,’ says Grant, politely steering me towards the door.