We met Michael O’Dowdall, a doorman at The Ritz
The Ritz was always this mythical place,” recalls Michael O’Dowdall, who has been a doorman at the iconic London hotel for just over 10 years. “It was somewhere special for special people to go to – I never dreamed I’d be part of it.”
Michael is a born-and-bred Londoner and counts himself as a Cockney. “Cockney folklore says you have to born within the sound of Bow Bells,” he explains. “Growing up, I had the usual ambitions of wanting to be a footballer or an astronaut, but I’ve always been an outgoing kind of chap, so doing something that lets me meet different people every day suits me perfectly. Michael has been working doors since the late 1980s.
“My cousin’s husband worked at the casino in Marble Arch, and he told me about it when we were studying ‘The Knowledge’ [a test all London black cab drivers must take] together – I’m a taxi driver too. He left to drive full time, and then a British family bought The Ritz casino and hotel, so I applied to be a doorman.”
Michael’s advanced knowledge of London streets comes in handy, as “giving good directions is definitely part of the job, along with knowing when restaurants open or the best way to get to the airport. I’m a walking map, dictionary and timetable. Once people hear the London accent they’re reassured, because they know it’s my town.”
The Ritz’s central location is an ideal base for tourists according to Michael. “You can go via Green Park to Buckingham Palace, St James’s Park to Westminster, up the Mall to Trafalgar Square, or shopping on New Bond Street.” A popular request is a good curry. “I send them up to Brick Lane. And if visitors want a great view of London, I recommend a river boat trip down to Greenwich – you see all the buildings and get a sense of just how big London is.”
The Ritz is a 24/7 operation, so doormen work eight-hour shifts, with two days off a week. Michael enjoys the rhythm of the days, with people checking in and leaving in the mornings, “then it’s luncheons, suppers and tea settings, or big functions like weddings and birthday parties. For weddings we make sure there’s a space for the bride’s car and coordinate guests arriving, often on the old Routemaster double-decker buses.”
Michael loves the “full spectrum” of visitors that can be found at The Ritz on any given day, “everyone from the sweet old girl who saved up for months to go to tea with her friends through to royalty – it’s a proper London melting pot.
“Afternoon tea vouchers are sold as presents, and so you see people coming around the corner clutching them, eyes wide with amazement. We make sure to put them at ease and make them feel welcome – there’s no snootiness here.”
Guests often ask Michael about the history of the hotel, which first opened its doors in 1906; David Lloyd George is said to have held secrets meetings there during the First World War, and Noël Coward was a regular visitor in the 1920s and 1930s. Visitors also admire the neoclassical building and its stunning décor – “there’s no expense spared maintaining everything to the highest standard,” says Michael.
The doormen’s attire reflects that attention to detail, with a top hat, waistcoat, trousers with a yellow stripe and a distinctive coat. “It’s smart but practical, as we’re often moving luggage or helping people in and out of cars. Because we’re recognisable, we do get a lot of requests for pictures – there probably isn’t a country in the world our photograph isn’t in. It’s lovely to know you’re making someone’s day.” The reverse is true too, with Michael getting to meet numerous high-profile guests.
“They say never meet your heroes, but I’ve met them and they’re still my heroes. I’m just a working class boy so I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
But perhaps the best perk is getting to drive a very special car. “In 2006, Rolls-Royce produced a special one-off Phantom in Ritz Blue for the hotel’s centenary. People often save up to take a trip in it for a birthday treat, so I get to drive them around London in style – I teach them how to do the royal wave. It’s that kind of thing that makes this such a special place to work – there’s really nothing like it.