Monday 18 February 2019

'You couldn't live with me - you would lose your mind!'

Ireland’s most renowned hotelier tells Deirdre Reynolds how working in television isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be

Deirdre Reynolds and Francis Brennan
Deirdre Reynolds and Francis Brennan
Hotelier and television personality Francis Brennan. Picture by David Conachy.
l'Ecrivian restaurant on Baggot Street. Pic. Ronan Lang.

Deirdre Reynolds

When you're more used to scoffing your lunch at an office desk than a dinner table, dining out with Francis Brennan is a daunting prospect - not least in an establishment like l'Ecrivain.

After all, as the host of RTÉ's At Your Service, the hotelier is famous for his hatred of bad table manners, counting eating off one's fork and using one's mobile phone at the table among his biggest bugbears in life.

Happily, 'Mr Brennan', as he's known to his staff, couldn't be more convivial as I struggle to figure out whether to tackle my tortellini-strewn mushroom consommé starter with a knife and fork, or a spoon.

"I get on well with most people," says Francis, who runs the five-star Park Hotel in Kenmare with brother and At Your Service co-host, John. "I know what I want and I know what's right, but I'm very easy to work with really."

Now the colourful presenter is hoping to show others "what's right" too with his new book of modern manners, It's the Little Things: Francis Brennan's Guide to Life.

Covering everything from funeral etiquette to the correct way to position a toilet roll, the multigenerational stocking filler has been flying off shelves here this Christmas, proving so popular that the author has already been asked to pen a second.

"It's funny to see your own book in print alright," says Francis, who's originally from Dublin, but has lived in Kerry for more than 40 years. "When I got the book, I was laughing [because] they included the three things that are the bane of my life on the cover: the toilet roll, the duster and the cup of tea.

"People have forgotten a lot of the proper things in life: simple little things like when you open a door, don't let it swing closed on the person behind you.

"When I was writing it, I thought: 'A 14-year-old could read this and enjoy the funny stories, and still be getting a little lesson out of it'," he explains. "Then the grannies will read it and think: 'I need that for Johnny, who's 14, and needs to learn how to do things right'.

"I decided to cover all the bases, from etiquette to grooming and table manners, and it has worked out fairly well. A lot of people are buying it as a gift.

"If only three children in Ireland get an idea out of something out of it, it'll be good."

The fabulous Brennan brothers return to the small screen for the seventh season of At Your Service on Sunday, January 5.

But the eight-part business makeover show could be their last, Francis reveals: "There comes a time when seven years might be enough of that type of show. I have to run my own business.

"When they first asked me to do the show, I said no, [thinking] 'Do I want all that?'. I had never done TV before. Then John, who joined the show later on, said: 'Go on, you'd love it'.

"I was 54 then," he adds, "so I didn't expect it. I was surprised. It's interesting that you'd end up with another career in your later life."

Although there are obvious similarities between At Your Service and Gordon Ramsay's Hotel Hell, which premiered on US TV in 2012, you couldn't possibly confuse the potty-mouthed celebrity chef with the man dubbed 'Saint Francis of Kenmare'.

"I'm not Gordon Ramsay," the business man, who started out as a waiter in some of Dublin's top hotels including The Shelbourne and The Burlington, says. "I find him far too aggressive, but then, that is his stamp.

"When they asked me to do the show originally, I said: 'I won't do scripts and I don't do language - I'll just be myself'. And I've always stood by those rules.

"If I open a drawer and a mouse jumps out and the camera is on, brilliant - but I'm not putting a mouse in the drawer to open it just for television."

Despite his prim and proper image, teetotaller Francis says he thought comedian Mario Rosenstock's skit of him as an actorly, coke-snorting makeover king was side-splitting, and even his 91-year-old mother, Maura, agreed.

"My mother saw it and she thought it was hilarious," tells Francis of the sketch, which appeared on the Gift Grub impressionist's TV Christmas special last year, before doing his own impersonation of his mum, 'So like you!'

"She says he does me better than I do myself, so that's as good a stamp as you're ever going to get.

"When he was filming this year's Christmas show, he asked me to do it," continues Francis, "but I wasn't in the country. I would have done it [otherwise].

"First of all, he portrays me as I am. He hams it up a bit, but it's not unfair to me. I'm exactly the same off camera as on."

Accidental celebrity Francis already has "a couple of TV projects in the pipeline" for 2015.

One programme he has no interest in reprising, however, is Francis Brennan's Grand Tour, a 2011 RTÉ reality show which depicted the exasperated hotelier leading a group of Irish sightseers on a coach trip across Europe.

"I have never done another one of those, although they're mad to do them," reveals Francis. "They wanted to do Norway, Switzerland and Italy. But I said: 'I'm not happy with the way it was portrayed and I'm not doing another one', so that was the end of that.

"First of all, I don't have to do them," he adds. "I'm lucky that I have a real job and this is only a sideline - it's not the other way around.

"But I would love to do more travel shows. There's two things in the pipeline, but nothing gone to bed."

With his slick of silver hair, pinstripe suit and signature pocket square, the impossibly well-groomed sexagenarian is hard to miss, even in Michelin-starred surroundings.

So it's not surprising to learn that he doesn't escape the attention of fans either.

"I've been stopped in New York 10 times, in Disneyland in America and Addis Ababa [in Ethiopia] and just last week in Atlanta," says travel junkie Francis, next seen on At Your Service - To The Rescue, a charity special in aid of Enable Ireland which airs on St Stephen's Day. "People would come over now in the middle of your meal and they want photographs. That goes on all the time now.

"John can't stand the public thing. I don't mind [it]. If you can make a person's day happy, sure isn't that nice.

"I'm not on Facebook officially, but I know there is a Facebook page for me," he tells. "Somebody did a Facebook page for me. People also send me shortbread, recipes, that type of thing.

"When I was doing a book signing in Galway recently, a lady gave me a lovely bag of teas, and I've used some of them already.

"When somebody does that, they go to a lot of trouble."

Beloved by so many, over a moreish chocolate dessert, I wonder whether the unwed star would like to find love himself.

"Can I tell you now, you couldn't live with me," jokes Francis, who lives alone in a house overlooking Kenmare Bay. "You would go out of your mind living with me!

"Being a perfectionist, I'm a nightmare. I always know where the scissors is. If you live with somebody, they'll put the scissors somewhere else.

"I never lived with anybody," he adds, "and I've no plans because it just would be too complicated. I'm very happy the way I am at the moment."

Whilst confessing he would have loved to have experienced fatherhood like his brother John, who's married with two teenaged children, the 61 year-old says he's long since settled for the title, 'Uncle Francis'.

"I would have liked to have had a family and children and all that, but I just never gave myself the time," he admits.

"When you're a hotelier, you can work 24 hours in the day if you want. You certainly don't have time to relax.

"I have 11 nieces and nephews and I get on great with all of them," adds Francis. "I'm good for a chat and a bit of a laugh."

After more than 40 years living and working in the Kingdom, the honorary Kerry man insists he has no plans to retire to the Big Smoke: "We never went to Kerry on holidays as children or anything, but I love Kerry now. I wouldn't leave it.

"I don't worry about age at all," adds Francis. "I never think I'm over 60. So here I am, as I am, and I'm probably not going to change!"

It's the Little Things: Francis Brennan's Guide to Life, published by Gill & Macmillan is out now, priced €14.99.

A Life in Brief

NAME: Francis Brennan.

AGE: 61.

From: Dundrum, Dublin 16.

LIVES: Sneem, Kenmare Bay, Kerry.

Relationship STATUS: Single.

KNOWN AS: Theatrical hotelier and host of At Your Service with his brother, John.

LIKES: "A bag of Tayto cheese and onion crisps."

DISLIKES: "People who scrape the plate with their fork."

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