Behind The Palace Doors – Steven Kaye

Behind The Palace Doors by Steven Kaye
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Former Royal footman Steven Kaye worked for the Queen for three and a half years after personally writing to Her Majesty to inquire about a role within the Royal household. Speaking exclusively to Slingo, he shares his interactions with the Royal family and his experience of what life was like behind the palace doors.

How did you first get your role as a Royal footman working at Buckingham Palace? 

“There was a documentary on TV and it was the first documentary that had ever aired about life inside the palace, it was like a backstage tour. I was absolutely fascinated because we’d never seen anything like that before, the state rooms hadn’t even been opened by then. I thought, I’m just going to send a letter to the palace and apply, see if I get a reply - I didn’t think I would - so I wrote to the Queen and said how much I enjoyed the documentary and how might a person gain entry into Royal service. I was in two minds about whether to post it, but a few weeks later a letter came through the door with the Queen’s crest and stamp on.  

“I thought it would be a thank you, but no thank you. I opened up the letter and it said we’re interested in meeting you. I rang this number and arranged to go down to Buckingham Palace and have what they described as an ‘informal meeting’. The only question asked that was kind of formal was whether I was a Royalist or not - obviously, I am. I was shaking like a leaf all day, went home on the train thinking there was no way on earth I was going to get a job there and they rang me a day later and said we’d like to offer you two positions; the role of a footman or the role of an under butler. The footmen are a little more senior, an under-butler is literally looking after the silver or the glass, you don’t get to travel around much and you don’t get to see the Royals much. I thought if I’m going to dive in head first, I’m going to join as a footman and before I knew it I was moving into Buckingham Palace, which nothing can prepare you for.”

What did a typical day look like for you as a footman? 

“So I was a team of 10, we worked on a rota system. The night before we would go down to the footmen’s room and you’d look at the following day’s order and you’d see who was in for lunch, who was out for dinner, who was nipping in for afternoon tea. If the Queen had any meetings we’d always have to make sure we were at a certain door at a certain time. For instance, if you were number one on the roster, you were looking after the Queen and Duke, you’d start at 6am, lay the breakfast table, feed the dogs and walk the dogs, you’d set up for lunch. 

“Number four would be doing coffee trays for the Royal household, you’d have 20 coffee trays to do in a day. You were running around like a headless chicken. At 11am, a lot of people were wanting coffee, so you’d be spinning plates, but it was a lot of fun.” 

What did you enjoy most about the job? Do you have a personal highlight? 

“Probably Royal Ascot, we would sit at the back of the carriage behind the Queen and the rest of the family. You’d sit there with your hands on your knees and when the national anthem plays you’d have to take off your tophat. It used to be that there were two footmen at the back of each carriage, but interestingly now it’s a footman and a police bodyguard disguised as a footman.” 

What would you say was the most challenging part of the job?

“When there was a state visit, so we had President Bush and I also did the King and Queen of Jordan who came in November 2001, we were allocated male members of their visiting dignitaries to valet for. We might have five or six different people to do the valeting for, we’ve got to serve at the state banquet, get back to their rooms to turn their clothes around for the following day and then get back to the banquet in time to serve pudding and fruit.  

“That was crazy, there’s about 10 footmen trying to get shirts pressed and shoes cleaned in quite a small space. There was one occasion when the Queen’s private secretary actually got the wrong pair of trousers because someone had forgotten to put a label on them, so he ended up with trousers that were two sizes too big for him, that was quite funny.” 

In every job people are bound to make mistakes, what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan?  

“These sorts of things do happen quite a lot, with any job where there has to be perfection, there’s always going to be a lot of mistakes. But, as long as you correct those mistakes quickly, I don’t think the Queen really minds. She doesn’t like sloppiness, so given that it’s an accident and not deliberate, she’s usually OK.  

“There was one occasion where the under-butler had forgotten to put candles out on the dining table. As it so happened, for some bizarre reason in the dining room at Windsor the lights were flickering on and off, so the Queen ordered that the lights be turned off and we’d just have candlelight - well, there were no candles. We were then running down to one of the pantries to find some candles and bring them up while the Queen was virtually sitting in the dark.” 

How were your interactions with the Queen? Was there a particular moment you shared with her that stands out for you? 

“When I first joined the Royal household, I had moved into the palace but the Queen was at Windsor because it was the horse show followed by Ascot. Two days after I moved in, I was taken to Windsor Castle by car to go and meet the Queen and be introduced as her new Royal footman. I was shown how to bow and you go in, bow your head from the head down never by the waist, with your hands by your side and you only speak once the Queen has spoken to you first.  

“She said welcome to the Royal household, I’m looking forward to seeing you next week and she had obviously been briefed about my mother who is a machinist for a company based in Long Eaton where I’m from. They have the Royal warrant of appointment for providing soft furniture to the Royal household and the Queen spoke about how she knew my mother was working for a Royal warranted company. She’s obviously briefed to make you feel at ease and like she knows something about you. It was really lovely.”  

Was there anything that surprised you about the Queen? 

“So we used to go out and do shooting lunches. At Sandringham we’d do the shooting lunches in a very large log cabin, so we’d have to get the fire going, lay the food out, put the bar up and make sure everything was perfect. Once we thought the Queen had gone back to the house for lunch because it was ready for one o’clock, but there was no Queen [at the cabin]. Two o’clock arrives, three o’clock arrives, no Queen.  

“Me and my colleague footmen - there’s always this unwritten rule that you’re allowed to have a drink on duty as long as you don’t take it too far - we’d had a couple of beers waiting for them and the sniffer dogs finally arrive about 4pm and it’s getting dark. The Queen walks in, she has a pheasant in one hand and a gun in the other, she puts them in the corner, puts the dogs in this pen and I’ve made her a gin and dubonnet - it’s one part gin, two parts dubonnet and an ice and a slice, she’d always have one of those at five o’clock - and what I found interesting is that she sat with her elbows on the table as she was eating. I just didn’t expect that.  

“You’ve always had that etiquette rule, ‘elbows off the table’, but if it’s good enough for the Queen, then it’s good enough for all of us. I think it’s her way of making her guests feel relaxed. She’d always sit there and pick at the food with her elbows on the table. But she would never do that at a state banquet, obviously.” 

Would you agree that the Queen has a great sense of humour and can you recall any moments where she really showed that?  

“She does have a great sense of humour and she’d show it especially when she and the Duke were together. There was one time when somebody had given the Queen a cheese as a gift at Sandringham. Most of the gifts like that get sent away to either hospitals or children’s homes and so on, but she chose to keep this particular cheese. The head chef had checked it was all OK to eat and it went on the table, but it was the smelliest cheese - I don’t think I’ve ever smelt anything like it in my life. It was horrendous, you could smell it as soon as you walked into the room. The Duke had this grinder in his hands and was grinding this cheese, he was sitting at one end of the table and the Queen at the other and he shouted over to the Queen, ‘Lilibet, smell your fingers.’ She just looked over at him and cried ‘Oh Philip’. Myself and the other footmen all looked at each other like did he actually just say that? It was really quite funny. 

“One funny thing was that if the Queen went out on a visit, when she got back, she’d get out of the car and one of our jobs as footmen was to take the blanket off of her legs and roll it up and put it in the garden entrance. All the members of the Royal household would be waiting around for the Queen as she stood chatting about the experience she’s just had and as she turns away to go up into the palace, everyone then bows and curtsies. But, sometimes she’d change her mind and turn back to have another conversation and everyone is bowing and then having to wait to bow again. It was quite funny, I think she used to do it deliberately.” 

What was your experience handling the Queen’s corgis? 

“There was one corgi called Emma that stood out. You’d be walking along the corridor and you’d always try to avoid her because she’d try and bite your ankles. We used to feed the dogs in the morning. They have their own dog room at Buckingham Palace. It’s quite regal - a great big dark wooden glossy door with a gold handle and beautifully polished floor with all these dog beds all over the place. We would put the food out, most of them had special dietary requirements, so we’d have to remember who had what and they all had a silver dog bowl with their name engraved on it. The Queen would feed them herself at 3 in the afternoon.  

“We’d literally be walking the dogs and you’d turn around, the Queen would be there with her headscarf on and she’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ll take over now.’ We were relieved of our duties and off she went.” 

Did you notice a difference in the Queen depending on which Royal residence she would be at?  

“Balmoral and Sandringham is where the Queen is most relaxed because they are private residences, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are much more formal. Without a doubt, the Queen’s favourite residence is Windsor, but I think she likes Balmoral as she can walk about with the dogs and nobody disturbs her. She’ll tend to have the dogs with her for the first four weeks and then on staff changeover day, we would then have to fly the dogs back to Windsor. They’d get flown on the private jet to Northolt and a lady that lived on the Great Windsor Park would come and collect them.”  

Who was the most interesting guest that the Queen entertained while you were working for her?  

“Gosh, she’s entertained many interesting people. I remember meeting Joan Collins once, she was lovely. She was at one of the Prince of Wales’ dinner parties. He would hold some of them at Buckingham Palace so he could use the Queen’s footmen rather than hire external caterers. When you’re going round with a tray of drinks, the guests will have a chat with you, people are quite fascinated about what you do. I actually ended up getting an extra job - in the footmen’s room there’s a notice board with extra jobs, so if a celebrity that is a friend of the family is having a dinner party, we could opt to work for them - I remember being at Joan Collins’ house at Eaton Square with a few fellow footmen.” 

How were your interactions with other members of the Royal family? Is there anything that stood out or surprised you? 

“Princess Anne was lovely. A funny story for you, once the chefs had cleaned up in the kitchen, you’d go and get things for breakfast and there would always be a bunch of bananas literally on the side that were black, they were left to rot, they were never put away in the fridge. I remember asking who they were for and it turns out the Princess Royal only eats black bananas - the Royal chef had strict instructions to serve them overripe.”  

Do you think Charles and William will follow suit and live at Buckingham Palace like the Queen has done? 

“It’s about modernisation isn’t it. Will William want to live at Buckingham Palace, is that something that may continue? Or will the palace become more of a museum? My view is that because people view Buckingham Palace as the head office, it’s important to keep those traditions alive. The moment they start to be out of the palace and living somewhere else, that kind of erodes some of the traditions we have in this country and I think William is very aware of that.  

“The Queen has always said, ‘I need to be seen to be believed’, and Charles and William know how important that is. I think William and Kate will do a fabulous job [when they take over the monarchy]. I'm just quite sad that he doesn’t have the support of his brother anymore. I think we were all hoping they were going to be the fab four and the future of the monarchy, but sadly that’s not to be.” 

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