“My mother was desperate for me not to go into the family business,” claims Alex Polizzi, TV’s former Hotel Inspector, scion of the Forte dynasty and daughter of the formidable hotelier Olga Polizzi.
Mother and daughter are taking espresso with RT in the hushed calm of the immaculate morning room at Brown’s Hotel in London’s Mayfair (part of their family business, of course). “But I had no aspirations ever to do anything else. I absolutely love the hotel industry. It’s an amazing job for a multi-tasker like me.”
She widens her brown, mega-lashed eyes. “I could never have been a physicist. But running a hotel is a great job for someone who likes a finger in lots of pies. You get to do a bit of finance, housekeeping, food and beverage, and a lot of public relations.”
At the moment, the multi-tasking includes TV presenting. For as well as being a hotelier in the Forte mould, Alex Polizzi is now a TV face, the latest incarnation of that TV staple, The Expert Who Helps Businesses in Trouble.
Having gained her spurs marching around rubbish hotels in The Hotel Inspector on Channel 5, Alex Polizzi now brings her wide eyes, bobbed curls and brisk work ethic to The Fixer, a BBC2 series in which she tries to put some sparkle into ailing shops on the lacklustre British high street. She descends on hapless companies as a sort of cross between Mary Portas and Mary Poppins.
Her mother shakes her head gently when I bring up the analogy with la Portas. “It’s more about being an intelligent person, looking with fresh eyes at something,” says Olga, “not like Mary Portas. Mary Portas is an expert in her field, whereas here, really…”
“Mother! I don’t think you should talk me down like this,” cries Alex imperiously. She may be a 40-year-old mother [of three-year-old Olga], but her manner still has the unmistakeable ring of Head Girl. Olga Polizzi, 65, raises a perfectly arched eyebrow and stirs her espresso.
The first subject in Alex’s series is Courtyard, a miserable bridal boutique in Kettering, Northamptonshire. She visits it only seven times but still manages to turn the business around. Her technique?
“I try to get them to raise their game, to see things differently. Most of these businesses aren’t on the edge of disaster. They’re all still turning a profit, which is a very different scenario to pulling them back from the brink of bankruptcy.”
Like all the other firms in the series, the bridal-wear shop is a family enterprise, and Alex knows well the difficulties of working with Mama, and what steps must be taken to do it successfully.
That said, her mother is a remarkable person as well as a formidable businesswoman. She brought up her two daughters single-handedly after her husband, Count Alessandro Polizzi, died in a car crash more than 30 years ago.
“I was on my own for many years [she’s now married to author William Shawcross],” says Olga. “I have had moments when I haven’t spoken to Alex, and moments when I haven’t spoken to Charlie [her younger daughter Charlotte], but on the whole we’re pretty close. It’s difficult for mothers and daughters to work together, but we’ve worked hard at getting on.”
In their smart suits, with their talk of balance sheets and board meetings, they clearly know what it’s like to work together as professionals. This was not so at Courtyard Bridal Boutique.
“It was so embarrassing,” says Alex. “It was so mother-daughter. God knows, we’ve –”
“We like bouncing ideas off one another,” says Olga calmly.
“Yes, well, some people would say that’s healthy debate,” responds Alex. “Sometimes it generates something a bit more heated, but a) we’d never do that in front of anybody, and b) you have to respect each other.
“But at the bridal shop, these two women were always going ‘Mummy’,” she mimics in a babyish voice, “and their mother, who was the boss, talked to them as if they were 12.
“It is so boring, hearing people of my age whining about not getting on with their mothers. At some point it has to be resolved, doesn’t it?” says Alex, briskly.
“Either resolve it or shut up about it, because frankly it’s a bit pathetic.” She sighs. “I’ve always been an extrovert, and working in the hotel industry I think
you have to like people. You have to be ready to step out of those swing doors and you’re on stage.”
I almost think she is about to leap out of her chair with excitement. “I’d love to do another project with my mother, you know!” she suddenly announces. “Darling, I’d love to do another hotel with you.”
Her mother sips her espresso steadily. Does she feel the same way? Amazingly, yes.
“I don’t know why. I need it like a hole in the head,” says Olga. “But there was nothing so exciting as doing Tresanton [her first boutique hotel]. We did everything from the trays to the cleaning. Alex, I remember you scrubbing the tables!”
“One of our great strengths is that we are down-to-earth, hands-on people. We don’t mind rolling up our sleeves and scrubbing things down, do we?” says Alex.
At this juncture I remember that in the series she reduces the bridalwear family to tears, not once, but several times. They’re tough, these Forte chicks.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.
Alex Polizzi: the Fixer begins tonight at 8pm on BBC2 and BBC HD