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The Secret Life of the Savoy – and the D’Oyly Carte Family by Olivia Williams

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Non Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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The Secret Life of the Savoy – and the D’Oyly Carte Family by Olivia Williams is published with Headline. History fascinates and intrigues me and it always will. I look back at The Golden Ages with rose-tinted glasses as my imagination goes into overdrive as to what it would have been like. The glamour, the drama, the passion, the scandals. These were the days before the internet, before social media recalled every single moment of the lives of the rich and famous. Reading Olivia Williams scintillating book is like entering a time capsule. The attention to detail is exceptional as she recounts the trials and tribulations of the D’Oyly Carte Family through three generations.

Richard D’Oyly Carte was the founder of The Savoy Hotel but before he built this historical and luxurious accommodation, he was known for his theatrical success with his establishment of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company

‘The premise was to pioneer an original form of entertainment , the English light opera – which became the staging post between highbrow Continental opera and the twentieth-century musical. He did not want opera to be monopolised by a fashionable aristocracy any longer, but opened up to Victorian Britain’s burgeoning and increasingly sophisticated, wealthier middle classes – in other words, people like him’

With the assistance of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, he brought to the world the now renowned light operas HMS Pinafore and The Sorcerer, the first two of many. Their popularity and success was to lead Richard D’Oyly Carte to establishing his next dream, his own theatre. And it is from this acorn, grew an empire. Richard D’Oyly Carte was a man way ahead of his time. Over his years at the helm of both his opera company at The Savoy Theatre (1881) and The Savoy Hotel (1889), Richard D’Oyly Carte introduced inspiring new ideas. The Savoy Theatre led the way as one of the first public buildings to use electric lighting. He was the mastermind behind such ingenious ideas that we all take for granted today as the simple queuing system. His introduced the notion of variable sitting in a theatre, with the sloping floor which brought a huge change to the design of theatres. His multiple achievements were really phenomenal as he constantly pushed the boundaries to be the best. When he built The Savoy Hotel, he did so with a dream to create ‘the Hotel de Luxe of the World’ Developed over five years, D’Oyly Carte brought a Continental flavour to London, the likes of which had never been seen before. He created what was called an ‘immersive experience’ with the guest first and foremost at all times from the moment they arrived outside the hotel’s iconic entrance. Having travelled across the continent, he knew exactly what he wanted and was willing to pay whatever was necessary to get the top staff working for him. He poached top chefs, maitre d’s and many more, all in the hope of achieving and maintaining that sense of five-star luxury that is now synonymous with The Savoy Hotel.

Following his death in 1901, Richard D’Oyly Carte’s wife Helen continued to fulfill his dreams but in 1913, following Helen’s passing, the reins were handed over to the next generation, his and Helen’s son, Rupert. Rupert was to face huge challenges with two world wars, including The Blitz in London in 1940. Keeping the hotel open was paramount and it was a testament to his ability that he succeeded in this during such trying years. The years following the end of WW1 saw many an aristocrat up sticks and sell their palatial mansions and move in permanently to the hotel. It became a magnet for The Bright Young Things, whose parties were notoriously wild at the time.

Through all these, at times, very challenging years the standards were maintained, with investors being persuaded to hold tough. This was The Savoy Hotel. They would see these fluctuating days through and they did.

Olivia Williams takes the reader on the most incredibly in-depth journey from when the idea was but a seed in the mind of a theatrical agent who believed in himself and his ability to succeed. Following Rupert’s death in 1948, the managing of the hotel and theatre was passed to Bridget, his daughter and the last surviving member of the D’Oyly Carte family. Michael, her brother, had been killed in a very tragic road accident in 1932, which left it’s own permanent mark on the family.

Bridget was never comfortable in her new role but she fought off buy-outs and other foe in her own indomitable way. She succeeded in keeping the company afloat through very demanding times when society was going through huge transitions. Her passion was very much for the opera and she did her best to keep the theatre afloat but eventually, due to increasing costs, The Savoy Theatre closed it’s doors in 1982, three years before the death of Bridget D’Oyly Carte. (it did reopen in 1988 under new management)

Throughout the book, Olivia Williams gives us an almost fly-on-the-wall insight into the history of The Savoy. The ostentatious behaviour of some guests, the excessive displays of wealth, the glamorous lives of the rich and famous are insightfully described leaving the reader wanting more, much more. On every single page of this book there are read-out-loud moments, shocking moments and drama, plenty of drama. The eccentric partying, that is quite unfathomable today, is a wonder to read about:

‘For The Gondoliers-themed birthday dinner, the hotel obligingly flooded the courtyard to conjure the Grand Canal of Venice. They painted frescoes in front of its walls, strung fairy lights up to illuminate the night sky and dinner was served on a gilded, silk-lined floating gondola. Real swans were swimming in the water, and as a final flourish, a baby elephant borrowed from London Zoo pulled a five-foot high birthday cake.’

The Savoy Hotel and the D’Oyly Carte Family are magnificently depicted by Olivia Williams in this triumphant biography, with The Secret Life of the Savoy – and the D’Oyly Carte Family being the first of its kind ever published. The amount of research is staggering and is a credit to Olivia Williams. Richard D’Oyly Carte, agent, theatre impressario, luxuary hotel owner, a man with a clear vision, a clear goal, was a visionary, an entrepreneur, unafraid to take risks with a determination to make his dreams a reality. The Savoy Hotel is now no longer under the ownership of the D’Oyly Carte Family but their memory remains.

“In three generations the D’Oyly Cartes had pioneered the luxury hotel and the modern theatre, propelled Gilbert and Sullivan to lasting stardom, made Oscar Wilde a transatlantic celebrity, inspired a P.G. Wodehouse series, and popularised early jazz, electric lights and Art Deco.
Their accomplishments and happiness, however, rarely matched up. They had still found themselves in emotional turmoil in the beautiful surroundings that they made for themselves.
Thirteen original Gilbert and Sullivan operas, five luxury hotels, at least three affairs, and three untimely deaths later, with Bridget the last one standing, their line, and their century of success, ended…”
– Olivia Williams

The Secret Life of the Savoy – and the D’Oyly Carte Family is a truly spectacular piece of writing. Fascinating insights bring history alive for the reader, exploring the hidden world behind the doors of this iconic hotel and the family who established it.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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