When Oliver Peyton eventually departs for the queue behind the red velvet rope at the great Atlantic Bar in the sky, the restaurateur wants his family and friends to see him off in the carefully choreographed, hedonism-laced and somewhat idiosyncratic style that has been his hallmark.
He will be buried in a biodegradable coffin in a wood in Berkshire after a small service, which will be mostly secular but involve a priest — “I’ve got a bit of Catholic in me” — and feature Jerusalem, a solo rendition of Ave Maria and Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon. “I’m pretty conventional when it comes to tunes at services.”
“A Series of Revelations”
Then there will be a big party in Cornwall, which he has planned meticulously. “It will definitely be a six or eight-hour affair. It will be a series of revelations. I wouldn’t want it to be lunch and a few speeches.”
The menu: white-truffle risotto followed by rock-salt sea bass or rare rib-eye steak and caramelised ice cream from the River Café for dessert. He has picked out a vintage champagne and most of the wines are favourites from the Rhône Valley. “And then, as people were thinking of leaving about three o’clock, out comes some really expensive Château d’Yquem pudding wine — and people will say, ‘Well, we can’t go now.’ ”
Dancing will begin about 6pm. “I know who’s going to DJ. I’ve already asked a friend of mine — if he outlives me.” The first song will be Patti Smith singing Because the Night followed by Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to The End of Love. “My wife hates that tune, but I think she might tolerate it on that occasion.” The “Oliver Peyton funeral playlist” is still under construction, but he’s up to 49 numbers so far.
“And then, as people were thinking of leaving about three o’clock, out comes some really expensive Château d’Yquem pudding wine — and people will say, ‘Well, we can’t go now.’ ”
All this will take some organising, but Peyton has thought of that too. This week he opened his “life-affirming funerals” business in west London.
Peyton, 58, whose best-known restaurant was the 1990s pleasure dome the Atlantic Bar and Grill in Piccadilly, central London, and is most visible these days as a judge on the TV show Great British Menu, is not a “funeral director”. Or an “undertaker”. And when I tentatively refer to the building we are in as a “funeral parlour”, he looks stricken. That is exactly the kind of Victorian terminology he is trying to get away from. So where are we? “I think it’s our home in Chiswick.”
Mess Things Up a Bit
Outside, Chiswickians are taking pictures of the jaunty name sign above the door: Exit Here. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Something and daughters’ or ‘Something and sons’. It’s a bit larky,” he admits. “There was a bit of me that just wanted to mess things up a bit. It’s just my nature. I like doing things other people haven’t done yet. It brings a smile to people’s faces. I tested it out on my mother-in-law and when she liked it, it was fine.”
His mother-in-law is Olga Polizzi, the hotelier (who owns the Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall, where he married and where he wants his wake) and daughter of Charles Forte, the hotel and catering magnate. “Some mature people go, ‘It’s disrespecting the dead.’ You know, there’s more than one on the high street and we need to stand out. We’re disrupting quite a conservative business.”
From the outside you can see in through the big glass windows, and the only other clue to what sort of business is being conducted is a vase of flowers on a plinth. Inside, the walls are mostly white or tasteful hues, the floors are lightly coloured bare boards and the furniture is as bright and funky as you would expect from a Soho House bar. Peyton remains constantly vigilant to the potential for Marley, his 12-week-old cockapoo pup, to urinate on one of the brand-new rugs.
“There’s virtually no black,” he says of this showroom. “Black is Queen Victoria, isn’t it? Just alien. It doesn’t feel correct to me. Life has moved on.”
In a backroom stand three sample coffins. The simple ones (£650) have rounded ends and come in five bright colours. Then there is a wicker option, and one that is most emblematic of the sort of direction Peyton wants his business to go. It is a hand-painted Mexican Day of the Dead-themed casket. Yours for £950, the same price as a Co-op solid-oak coffin. The simple Co-op coffin is £300. Those caskets will be carried by bearers in navy — not black — Richard James suits, and some of the bearers are women.
“Black is Queen Victoria, isn’t it? Just alien. It doesn’t feel correct to me. Life has moved on.”
“I’ve just tried to have slightly younger people as bearers and the choice of girls. I’m not trying to put mature men out of a job, but it’s about choice. Most of the girl bearers are fitness instructors and two of the bearers come from the local fire service.”
The average funeral in Britain costs £4,271. Exit Here estimates that its average price for cremation at its nearest crematorium, in Mortlake, would be £4,700, which includes fees, casket and ashes urn. For a natural burial at Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire, where Peyton wants to be interred, the charge would be £5,900, which includes the cost of the plot and an English willow casket.
Then there are the many extras that Peyton hopes to sell, such as flowers by Nikki Tibbles, whose Wild at Heart florists are a fashion-set favourite. “We want to offer better quality and more choice. And the celebration is the key. People would come to us for a more positive experience. Our niche is that we don’t just bury people, we try and create an overall experience. Of course, if someone just wants burying, we will do that. But our business really is about bringing a bit of joy to it. You plan your wedding, plan your birthdays. Why are you not planning your funeral?”
“People would come to us for a more positive experience. Our niche is that we don’t just bury people, we try and create an overall experience.”
He is pitching for the John Lewis sector of the market. “I want us to be the middle-class experience. I want to bring a bit of glamour to funerals without getting out of reach.”
Peyton began to devise his new venture after the underwhelming funerals of his parents, who were buried at a cemetery in Hove, East Sussex. His father died of a heart attack six years ago. “We just called up the local funeral director. All the coffins looked pretty much the same.”
Afterwards they returned to his parents’ house for the wake. “It was just a pretty miserable experience. There were quite a lot of people there and we were doing the food and drink and everything else and we just weren’t together. I hadn’t really organised the food correctly. We were in shock and grief. I just kept on thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ We will do that for people. We will take care of all those extra things. We want to do the hospitality. When my parents died I wanted that help. ”
His mother died four years ago and he was better prepared. “My mum had dementia and it was a long, slow burn. But even at the end of the day there was a joy. I wanted to try and make a positive experience, and when we left her favourite restaurant we all felt pretty good. She would have wanted us to go and drink sauvignon blanc and eat oysters. To have a nice time at the end.”
Funerals Are All About the Party
For Peyton, who started out in nightclubs before moving into restaurants, bakeries and catering, funerals are all about the party. He recalls wakes in Ireland, where he grew up, but wants to do things here with more panache. “The celebration is more important than the service for me. The memory for people is going to come from the celebration. I want people to leave my party and go, ‘That’s how I remember Oliver.’ I want my kids and everyone else to go, ‘That was cool.’ ”
What if you don’t want to be cool? What if your grieving family don’t feel like a great big party? Well, then obviously your business won’t be so good for Peyton. But he’d still like it, even if you just want sandwiches rather than the full feast with suckling pig.
“We are all different. Some people ask, ‘Do you have cardboard-box ones? I don’t want to spend any money.’ Of course. Many people just want to be buried or cremated and off they go. We’re not going to turn business away.
“You can have a neon casket blaring out tunes. You can have a simple cardboard box with no one there. If someone wants a horse-drawn carriage, we’ll do that, of course.” Am I imagining that he shudders as he mentions this last option?
Coffee or a Glass of Wine
He wants potential customers to come in for coffee or a glass of wine and plan their funerals. Exit Here will help people to devise their funerals for a fee, but they won’t pay for the funeral until it happens. The government announced this year a crackdown on sales tactics in the pre-paid funeral market.
One of his more demanding planners could be his wife, Charlie, a fashion retailer with whom he has three teenage children. “My wife has got this thing about being burnt at Varanasi,” he says of the sacred Indian city. “She wants to do that and our job would be to make her wishes come true. You can do Varanasi, you can do Ibiza. There are lots of natural burial sites in Ibiza.”
Among the shareholders in Exit Here is Barry Pritchard, who belongs to the third generation of a family of funeral directors and is a member of the board of the National Association of Funeral Directors. “It’s been hard to get them from the 19th century to the 20th century — and here we are in the 21st century,” he says of his peers.
“My wife has got this thing about being burnt at Varanasi.... You can do Varanasi, you can do Ibiza. There are lots of natural burial sites in Ibiza.”
Pritchard’s role will be to “make sure we don’t become a circus — that’s not what Oliver wants. It’s about being able to push the boundaries, but working within what is allowed on the legal side.”
Peyton’s claim that there is no competition for him out there is a stretch. Plenty of funeral directors are modernising and the two giants, Co-op and Dignity, offer a range of burials and cremations, including unusual venues, personalised picture coffins, live-streaming facilities at crematoriums and advice on wakes.
Nevertheless, Peyton believes that this project is similar to when he shook up late-night London in 1994 by opening the Atlantic in a vast art-deco cavern that quickly became a magnet for celebrities, paparazzi and all those who wanted to drink until 3am. “Everybody said, ‘You’re out of your bloody mind here. Look at the size of this place.’ ”
Velvet Rope and Clipboard?
The Atlantic became such a 1990s institution that Peyton was called the “third Gallagher brother” by the restaurant critic AA Gill. The restaurant was of its time and closed in 2005. Peyton’s own hard-partying days are long behind him too. He had a spell in the Priory, gave up drink for eight years, and now only takes the occasional tipple.
There should be a velvet rope and a woman with a clipboard on the door of his funeral, but sadly there probably won’t be. He launches into a story about being out on the town with Alexander McQueen, who complained that he hated standing behind the red velvet rope. Peyton insisted on taking him immediately to the Atlantic and sweeping past the rope line. “The door opens, a bouncer comes out and he says to me, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ I mean, honestly!” he says, wincing at the embarrassing memory. “I could have died.”