"Downton Abbey" effect? British butlers make big comeback

downton abbey
downton abbey

(CBS News) What could be better than going home after a long day to find a butler waiting?

Demand for British butlers has more than doubled recently, thanks, in part, to the PBS drama "Downton Abbey." But as a recent visit to a school for butlers-in-training shows, serving others can often bring its own reward.

The great British butler is back with a vengeance, buffed to a high sheen, and ready for action in the modern world.

And it's not just pop culture characters like Bruce Wayne, the Addams Family and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" who have them. The thoroughly modern, real-life Prince William and wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, are on the lookout for one.

But it's specifically the British butler that the super-rich are demanding, a surge apparently due to the "Downton Abbey" effect.

Former royal butler Grant Harrold told CBS News, "I think certainly people are getting to see life in these big, old, grand houses from a hundred years ago and they want part of that, they want to get into that kind of whole way of Britishness."

Harrold knows a thing or two about Britishness. He used to be a butler for Prince Charles. He remembers meeting the prince for the first time. "Suddenly to walk in this room and he was standing there, and you think, 'Wow this is amazing,'" he recalled. "And he was so, he put me at ease, made me feel completely relaxed."

Harrold says faithfulness is one of the keys to being a butler. He said, "You've got to be able to be loyal to the person, loyal, trustworthy and discreet."

But nowadays buttling, as it's called, goes a lot further than folding napkins, Harrold said -- though he's a past master at that too. "A modern-day butler is very much like a personal assistant," he said. "Buttling isn't like what you see in the old movies where a butler just did one thing. They need to be flexible."

Recruitment agencies say demand for the British butler is being driven by the new-money elite in China, Russia and the Middle East. Exact numbers don't exist, but back in the 1930s, it's thought there were around 30,000 butlers in service in Britain. That fell to about 100 in the 1980s.

These days, there are thought to be around 10,000, but that number is now going through the roof, with many butlers going abroad for the best pay and perks, such as cash bonuses, cars and watches.

Sara Vestin Rahmani runs a butler academy, and she said she's seen demand skyrocket tenfold in two years. She recently opened six academies in China, where women butlers accounted for almost one-third of trainee intake.

Rahmani, director of Bespoke Bureau, said the allure of British butler is finesse and etiquette. "People from the emerging markets, they love the Queen's English. They love the British accent," she said.

A good butler can make upwards of $200,000 a year, plus fringe benefits, such as living in the lap of luxury -- or next to it, anyway.

In addition to buttling himself, Steve Ford trains would-be butlers. He showed CBS News some of the tricks of the trade, from how to correctly polish a shoe to fixing a zipper and cleaning out sweat stains.

But besides the day-to-day know-how, there's real sacrifice. Ford said, "What people don't realize in this industry is your family will always come second, your employer will always come first."

Being waited on hand-and-foot takes a certain character too. "It's not for everybody," Ford said.

Whether status symbol, personal assistant -- or maybe a little of both -- a butler, as one put it, is for the super-rich who are only looking for something the wealthy have sought for centuries: someone to do their dirty work for them.

Watch Charlie D'Agata's full report in the video above.