Two TV shows, a five star hotel and a new book – just how, asks, does Francis Brennan do it?
IT’S a sunny morning in May, I’ve a busy afternoon ahead, and as I’m strolling through Stephen’s Green on my way to meet the inimitable Francis Brennan, I’m mentally going through a checklist of everything I’ve to do that week. Little do I know that in approximately 40 minutes I’ll be feeling hopelessly inadequate and wondering how I can squeeze an extra eight hours into my working day.
There’s an expression that’s been doing the rounds for a couple of years; a motivational tool of sorts that’s meant to inspire us all to maximise our time. ‘You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé’, it posits, but as someone who procrastinates a lot, I have a new touchstone for productivity; as unlikely as it sounds, Francis Brennan is my new Beyoncé.
While the tenth season of At Your Service hit our screens last month, Francis is already busy filming the eleventh; he began his week in Carrick-on-Shannon doing just that, but he’ll finish it on the other side of the world, as the following morning, he tells me, he’s jetting off to a mystery location for his next Grand Tour. Somewhere in between he’s had to fit in a board meeting with Fáilte Ireland, a meeting with his publishers about his upcoming travel book, and when he leaves me he’s off to Dunnes Stores to work on his autumn 2019 homewares collection.
If his diary wasn’t dizzying enough, on top of all that he has a five-star hotel to run, and Specsavers have announced he’ll be the ambassador for their hearing loss campaign for the second year running — which is why I’m sitting in front of him this morning wondering how on earth he’s so composed.
“I’ve met people suffering from hearing loss where I’ve had to say to them, listen, when you have a bad tooth you go to the dentist. If your heart is bad you go to the cardiologist. So why wouldn’t you go and get your ears tested?” he says, explaining one in six Irish adults is affected by hearing loss, yet 69% of us fail to get regular hearing tests, let alone seek out a solution for something that affects our quality of life. “It’s a shame people are missing out on life when it’s something they can fix, and that’s why I got involved,” says Francis. “Because it’s helping people to improve their lives, and what better thing could you be doing than that?”
Helping people is second nature to him — it’s the quality that likely drew him to hospitality. It seems, in fact, that he almost can’t help himself, and as I remark that I need a holiday just hearing about his workload, he tells me he’s just back from one — though in typical Francis Brennan style, his holiday involved organising and coordinating a trip for a group of friends he’s been travelling with for over 30 years.
“I just had a 10- day cruise actually,” he says, when I ask him if he’s planning on taking break. “I go away with a group from SKAL Ireland, which is a club for tourism professionals. They’re all in their 70s and 80s, and they call me the kid, so for the last 15 years I’ve assumed the responsibility of organising the trips, and oh we’ve had some wonderful trips,” he says. “We’ve been up the Amazon, we’ve been to Kenya, China…
“For the past few years we’ve gone on cruises, and what’s lovely for my friends is that they can get away safely and know they’ll have a great time, which is not easy to do in your 80s,” he points out. “But all they’ve to do is come to Dublin airport with their passport and Brennan has done everything. I’ve registered them for the cruise, I’ve arranged the transfers, I’ve booked the hotel for the night before, I’ve cars ready to take them around all the cities — they only have to turn up and follow me!”
That sounds suspiciously like work to me, I tell him, but he’s having none of it.
“I don’t see it that way. To be honest, I don’t even see the Grand Tour as work,” he laughs. “I’m going on my holidays.”
As the saying goes, love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life, and it seems Francis could work every day without even realising it, which makes my next question somewhat redundant.
“How do you spend your free time?” I ask , hopefully.
“Oh there’s not much of that,” he says, admitting that, despite having two TV shows on the go, he never watches TV himself. “I can’t get RTÉ at home in Kerry, so I probably haven’t seen 60% of At Your Service. I have them, because they send them to me, but can you imagine me going home at night and putting on myself to look at?” he asks. “That’s never going to happen.”
I wonder, since he never watches it, where his instinct for making good TV comes from, but the answer is right in front of me — he’s as affable, entertaining and funny in person as he is on screen.
“I’m sitting here talking to you now the way I would be on television. I change nothing,” he says. “When we film At Your Service, I have a rule — I don’t get out of the car until the camera’s rolling, because then it’s really natural,” he explains. “Very little is staged, I like to go with genuine, first time reactions. It’s light entertainment and it suits me because I am as I am — in real life I’m just good fun; even at the hotel, I have a bit of a laugh with every guest.”
If you had a fantasy dinner party guest list, he’d be worth considering for a slot, but don’t come near him in the summertime — peak season in Kenmare. “My house effectively closes down from April 1 to the end of September,” he says. “I have a cottage my friends come to stay in, but as for hosting anything or having a party during the summer? Go away and leave me alone,” he laughs. “I’ve no time.”
He’s insistent, though, that having a five-star summer in Ireland doesn’t have to involve the kind of high end luxury of somewhere like the Park Hotel. “What’s five star?” he asks. “It’s different to everybody. When I was younger, my father would take us to friends of ours in Donabate who had an old railway carriage as their holiday home — that was 10-star to us. Dad used to bring a cooked chicken, and it’s hard to believe it now, but that was so deluxe, to have a chicken on a Monday afternoon on the beach in Donabate. It was fantastic.”
It’s all about the experience, he says, and if we get the weather, even the simplest summer soiree can have a five-star feel. Plans are afoot to launch an outdoor furniture collection for Dunnes next summer, as outdoor living becomes “a huge thing in Ireland, for the three days we can do it”.
“If you’re planning a summer event, just be comfortable with what you’re going to do and have as much prepared in advance as you can,” he advises. “You want to enjoy it with your guests and not be killing yourself.”
It can be a barbecue and salads with Cornettos for dessert, he says, or you can keep it simple with great ingredients. His own summer favourite is Kerry lamb, which is on the menu in the Park this summer, and features on the hotel’s Kenmare food trail.
“A rack of Kerry lamb, which comes into its own in July or August, done in the oven with a dusting of breadcrumbs and some rosemary. You don’t need to be messing with it, putting things into sauces and this and that,” he insists.
And afterwards? “A bowl of strawberries on a summer’s day — sure that’s as five star as you’re going to get. Irish strawberries though,” he clarifies. “I had strawberries from Peru last month — they were as big as your fist but there was no flavour in them. You might as well be eating a turnip as a strawberry from Peru!” he exclaims, and in Francis Brennan’s book, life is simply too short for that kind of carry on.