Dorchester Nights

          

"The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure not a slight pleasure."
(Montaigne, 1588)

With the memory of 2016’s return to the Dorchester still fresh in the minds of all those who attended, it seems the ideal moment to look back on the history of the BDC’s Dinner and Dance at this prestigious location in the heart of London, as recorded over the years in the pages of the BDC Review.

2016 marked not only the Club’s 80th anniversary but also the 70th anniversary of the first ‘Dorchester’ in 1946. But why the Dorchester? Many assume that a Club renowned for members of exceptional taste, style and discrimination must naturally have gravitated to such an establishment, but in fact it was pure chance. Legend has it that some Club members happened upon a stranger at the roadside looking glumly at his 3-litre, which would not go. With loving attention, the members sent the 3-litre motoring on its way. This was in 1946, and the stranger was Max Colombi, banqueting manager of the Dorchester Hotel. Thus began the long association of the marque with the dance floor of the 'Dorch'.

 

1946 – it seems like another world. Woolf Barnato (seen above in full flow) was the main speaker, the report of the festivities was written as seen through the eyes of two members of "the Working Party for the Discouragement of Reactionary Tendencies," and we are forcibly reminded of the many restrictions that abounded. Petrol rationing was, of course, much in evidence and the fact that pure white rolls were served would hardly have been thought to be a subject for special mention unless you had survived seven years of food rationing. Even more shocking was the fact that the exigencies of clothing coupons caused many members to attend in (whisper it softly) lounge suits, while in 1967 one lady present 21 years before reminisced about cutting down her wedding dress to furnish the obligatory ‘posh frock’.

 

Important Four-Wheeled Guests

However, with the aid and enthusiasm of Max Colombi enduring traditions were established in 1946. All aficionados will affirm that the cars have always been the most important guests at the Dorchester and Barbara Berthon recalled, “I can remember the thrill on that first occasion when the toast of "The Marque" was called for and we all stood up; the curtains at the end of the room parted to reveal a real live Bentley YW 5758), in all her glory, there in the Ballroom. Wonder, amazement and delight set us shouting our joy.”

This guest of honour at the first event was J. P. Emons’ 4½ Litre YW 5758, a famous car which in 1929 took 4th place at Le Mans, 2nd in the Double Twelve, 1st in the 500 miles and 3rd in the Six Hour Race. In every subsequent year one or more outstanding examples of the marque have been insinuated with much huffing and puffing into this unaccustomed setting, YW 5758 appearing for an encore performance exactly 10 years later.

Sadly but oh-so-predictably, the tradition that the evening came to its climax with a car being driven from its place of concealment behind a curtain straight onto the dance floor, often with the guest of honour on board, later lapsed at the behest of the Dorchester’s Chief Fire Officer.

Speakers and VIPs

The annals of Dorchesters past are also a rollcall of the great and good of the Bentley and BDC world, from the 1920s to the modern era. Turning the pages of the Dorchester reports we come upon deities of the 1920s and 1930s – Barnato, Frank Clement, Bill Pacey and Walter Hassan (of Pacey-Hassan fame) and of course WO himself.

Although W O Bentley was in many ways a shy and retiring man, he took pleasure in attending the Dorchester in his role as Patron of the Club, in meeting former colleagues and in enjoying the presence of the cars which he had created. On the occasions when he could be persuaded to speak, his self-effacing contributions were notable for their brevity. Indeed, it was normally Mrs Margaret Bentley who presented the trophies and it was she who, in her husband’s unavoidable absence through illness, unveiled the portrait of WO commissioned by the Club in 1963. She continued to attend as an honoured guest for many years after WO’s death in 1971.

Club illuminati and guests pictured at the Dorchester over the years include Stanley Sedgwick (speaking in the above picture), Bertie Kensington Moir, other founder members, the celebrated TASO Mathieson and Victor Gauntlett, better remembered now as the owner of Aston Martin but also a long term Bentley enthusiast (and not averse to turning his hand to the sommelier’s art, it would seem!).

 

After-Dinner Entertainment

Fortunately the Dorchester’s not all food, drink, speeches and trophies. Once the formal part of the evening is concluded, the BDC starts to let its hair down.  Live entertainment was not confined to Bentleys in action; dance bands, a steel band, a Chinese magician and Red Daniells (a Club stalwart who also earned an honest crust as a professional cartoonist, photographer and writer) all contributed to the frolics, while some more mature BDC members may recall Frankie Howerd, the Temperance Seven and the impressionist Peter Cavanagh, ‘The Voice of Them All’, taking the stage. And of course entertainment starts at home. A miniature car race? A cycle race? We have the evidence! The report of the 1971 Dorchester also alludes to “a number of stories about early Dorchesters which I shan’t try to unfathom – pennyfarthings and pogo-sticks and raffling cases of gin –oh, those post-war years of lessening restraint, so I’m told! Seriously though, how about reviving the idea of a Committee Cabaret?” (Now, there’s an idea……)

With one brief interlude the BDC Dinner and Dance was held annually in the magnificent Art Deco ballroom of the Dorchester from 1946 to 1988, when it fell victim to ever rising costs. The tradition was revived in 2008.

2008 diners return to the Dorchester

1940s or early 1950s guests enjoying the Dorchester dance floor.

There can surely be no more fitting conclusion to this brief piece than the following words, as true when written in 1978 as they are today: “At the stroke of one o'clock, the Old Number Seven replica barked into life and with Len Wilton and Margaret Bentley aboard, formed the centre-piece for Auld Lang Syne. This end-of-the-evening tradition captures the essence of our biggest and happiest social event of the year, an atmosphere which will never be forgotten by those of us lucky enough to have been there on many occasions - or even just once. It's a tradition we never want to see die …. and we shall be recounting to our grandchildren all those splendid evenings long ago at the Dorchester.”

 The W.O.Bentley Memorial Foundation, W O Bentley Memorial Building, Ironstone Lane, WROXTON, Banbury, Oxfordshire, OX15 6ED, England.  

Tel: +44(0)1295 738886, Fax: +44(0)1295 738811,     

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© 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, & 2012 W.O. Bentley Memorial Foundation. All rights reserved.