22 May 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Churchill's son-in-law meets Donald Pleasence
There are some interesting parallels between Vic Oliver (an Austrian performer in Britain) and Peter Lawford (an English-born actor in America). Both were ingratiating performers who relied heavily on the charm of a foreign accent. Peter Lawford had good looks but very little talent: at the end of the day, his appeal during the early 1960s was very largely based on the fact that he was the brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. Which parallels the most interesting fact about Vic Oliver. Although Oliver wasn't nearly as good-looking as Peter Lawford, he was a talented musician-comedian with an ingratiating manner ... but the biggest reason for Vic Oliver's appeal in Britain (during World War Two, and for some years afterwards) was that he was the son-in-law of Winston Churchill.
'Hotel Imperial' was Vic Oliver's tv series, which aired on ITV for 12 episodes from March to June 1958, and 12 more from January to March 1960. Oliver played Monsieur Victor, the conductor of the Palm Court Orchestra in the (fictional) swank Hotel Imperial in London. Each episode would begin with Victor sitting down wearily, pouring a glass of milk, and reminiscing to an unseen journalist (played by the selective-viewpoint tv camera), who was supposedly helping Victor to write his memoirs. After a few sips of milk, the rest of the episode would unfold in flashback as Victor narrated yet another of his adventures during his many years' service at the hotel.
Most of the episodes dealt with Victor's ordeals with one or another temperamental guest at the hotel: usually a prima-donna singer or a pompous VIP. The guest-star list for 'Hotel Imperial' was truly impressive, featuring some of the biggest performers on the London stage at this time... including Donald Pleasance, musical star Mary Ellis, Bonar Colleano, and the African-American singer Elisabeth Welch (who did much better in London than she ever did in the States).
The onscreen role of Monsieur Victor gave comedian Vic Oliver considerable opportunity to display his musical talents. Unfortunately, since Victor was meant to be the hotel's musical conductor, there were often extremely contrived explanations for why Victor had to go to such lengths to placate so many temperamental hotel guests. (Which is the concierge's job, not the conductor's job.) This series was a good showcase for Vic Oliver as a musical comedian, but the scripts were fairly dire.
The supporting cast included Brian Oulton as the hotel's fusspot manager, Tom Gill as his dullard assistant, and Leslie Heritage as the debonair desk clerk. The producer of this ITV series was Alan Melville, who usually worked for BBC at this time. All in all, a pleasing series that offers a good look at a distinctive performer.