Would you like sugar with that, sir?

2013-11-14 11:10

Thanks to the increase in African billionaires – and the popularity of certain TV shows and movies – the butler is making a comeback.

Be honest. Who wouldn’t want the services of a live-in employee whose sole purpose is to make your life more luxurious?

In the movie The Butler, which opened in local cinemas on Friday, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who becomes head butler at the White House.

The film spans more than three decades and eight presidential families. And all along, Cecil remains silently in the background – pouring, preparing and polishing with the discretion and charm demanded of his profession.

While the movie highlights America’s political twists and turns during Gaines’

34-year tenure, it also trains the spotlight on an often-misunderstood occupation.

A jack-of-all-trades, the butler is all-knowing but utterly discreet and runs a household with the efficiency, authority and aplomb of a ship’s captain.

‘Butling [that’s the correct term] is about service, not being a servant,’ says Newton Cross, principal of the South African Butler Academy (SABA) in Cape Town.

‘It’s about being unobtrusive but indispensible. Butlers in private homes may not be part of the family, but they are definitely part of the household.’

In an age when technology rules and the emphasis is on instant gratification, it’s interesting that demand for practitioners of this old-world profession is growing on the continent.

Adriaan Coetzer, who heads up the recruitment arm of the academy, says the increase in African billionaires has spiked this demand.

‘You’d be surprised at how many families require a butler. We’ve placed people on cattle farms in Namibia, game lodges in Kenya, private estates in Tanzania and seven-star hotels in Dubai. A good butler is seen as the ultimate status symbol – one way of showing you’ve really arrived.’

This privilege doesn’t come cheap – butlers can earn upwards of R28 000 a month.

It’s 8am outside SABA in Century City. Immaculately dressed in black suits, white shirts, black bow ties and white cotton gloves, the 22 students of the academy have lined up for inspection.

‘It’s all about discipline and having respect for the profession,’ says class guardian Abraham West as he leans forward to straighten a trainee’s bow tie.

‘We teach our students that being a butler means being a lifestyle manager for your client. It’s about having technical skills, passion and commitment. Excellent butler service is also about paying attention to detail, anticipating your client’s needs and going that extra mile.’

As founding member and principal of the only school in Africa to offer five-star butler training, Newton is a stickler for what he calls the ‘wa-wow’ factor.

‘Whether our butlers get placed at a private estate, a royal palace, or on a cruise liner, it’s all about delivering more than what is expected of you,’ he says. ‘We tell trainees that the job of a butler is often like a performance

You’re on show, creating the ideal environment for your client – whether you are preparing a picnic for them on the beach, feeding their pets or driving their kids to extramural activities.’

Allison Mitchell, a mother of two, is one of the students. She used to work in the motor industry but realised her genuine interest in people would stand her in good stead for a career as a household butler. ‘Providing excellent service is a calling for me,’ she says.

Fellow trainee Adriaan Olivier, a school-leaver with a light aircraft pilot’s licence, dreams of landing a position with an über-wealthy royal family in Dubai. He plans to see parts of the world and experience aspects of a luxurious lifestyle that butling affords.

Dallas van Zanten, a qualified goldsmith, is thrilled at the prospect of working in a beautiful home or villa with exquisite views. ‘I would never feel jealous of my client’s wealth and excess,’ she says.

‘Instead, I would view myself as fortunate to have the opportunity of working in a gorgeous environment.’

Burt Laas already works as a butler in a private home in Cape Town. He’s here for a refresher course – and to learn new technology, such as how use an iPad to to manage household budgets and staff schedules. ‘To be successful, the butler of today has be tech savvy,’ Adriaan explains.

They should have some understanding of smart-home technology that allows them to operate complicated security systems and remote alarms. These days, a good butler can be a personal assistant, chauffeur, au pair and household manager and shouldn’t earn less than R7 500 a month.’

After morning inspection, the students move into the classroom, which is arranged into stations that depict all the areas of a sprawling mansion.

In the kitchenette, they are taught the art of creating French poached eggs, floral teas and Duck à l’Orange.

In another section, they are shown how to polish silverware, clean chandeliers and dust mirrors. Other classes include wine tasting, sabrage (opening

a bottle of Champagne with a sabre), linen storage, flower arranging, creating recycling systems, making airline bookings... and the importance of polishing shoes.

‘Think about it,’ Newton says. ‘Paying attention to your client’s shoes means every time he glances at the shiny leather, he is reminded of how much he relies on you.’

During the eight-week course, students are taught interpersonal relationship management skills too.

‘The theoretical personalities, challenges and situations we create for our students equip them for experiences in real work environments,’ Newton explains.

‘We cover every awkward situation, such as what to do when your clients are arguing in front of you (retreat) to how to deal with a risqué request (deflect).’

As a butler himself, Newton has learnt how to pack a hockey stick and a wedding dress into one suitcase.

During his time of service, he worked for former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, golfer Tiger Woods, Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher and singer Shania Twain.

As a private butler on the cruise liner Queen Mary 2, he served singers Lenny Kravitz and Carly Simon and actor John Cleese.

‘I once had to fly in a helicopter to collect a client’s favourite pillow,’ he says of the more bizarre aspects of his profession.

‘But I’d never give any inside information on any of my clients. Although [butler] Paul Burrell betrayed Princess Diana’s trust after her death, discretion remains the butler’s number one rule.’

The butler did it… in these movies & TV series

  • Geoffrey Butler, played by Joseph Marcell (left), was the highly accomplished valet to the Banks family of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
  • The inimitable Mr Carson (Jim Carter)oversees the staff in Downton Abbey.
  • Hobson, played by John Gielgud in the 1981 film Arthur, is his spoilt client’s greatest confidante.
  • Anthony Hopkins (right) played loyal English butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day.
  • Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth is a grounding force for the hero in Batman.

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