The Basil Fawlty of the Midland

Les Whittingham.
Les Whittingham.

Today the Midland hotel runs smoothly under the expert watch of English Lakes Hotels.

This was thanks to the chaotic ownership of Les Whittingham, dubbed the ‘Basil Fawlty of Morecambe’.

A great British eccentric who marched to the beat of his own drum, Les was the most controversial character in the hotel’s 80-year history.

It was early 1991 when Whittingham arrived on the Midland scene.

Then-owners Family Hotels had put the hotel up for auction, but bidding was closed with no sale when the highest offer came in at £650,000, well short of the asking price.

“We didn’t exactly want to give it away, it’s not Christmas!” scoffed the auctioneer to the assembled throng.

But later the mystery bidder met with the auctioneer and struck a deal for undisclosed fee.

The new owner was Whittingham, a loveable rogue and entrepreneur from North Wales, who reportedly only bought the Midland because “he liked big buildings”.

In 1992, the Barbican Centre in London wanted to use the Midland’s famous Eric Gill stone relief for an art exhibition.

As a Grade II* listed building, no fixtures and fittings could be removed from the hotel by law. This didn’t stop Les. He had the much-loved original feature of the Midland dismantled and removed.

An eagle-eyed passer-by saw it being loaded into a lorry and alerted Lancaster City Council. The council then issued a writ against Whittingham and a legal battle commenced.

Elaine Singleton, features writer for the Lancashire Evening Post, recalls interviewing Les at the time.

“I remember he was very evasive and I couldn’t get a straight answer out of him as to where it had gone,” she said.

As it turned out, the relief had been shipped to a London warehouse, before appearing in the Barbican exhibition later that year.

Whittingham and Lancaster City Council would end up in court in 1995 and the judge found in favour of the council, but it was three years until Whittingham finally returned the Eric Gill to the hotel, where it remained in pieces in the sun lounge, stored in wooden crates.

Whittingham’s running battles with the council were the stuff of legend. He first incurred the authority’s wrath by holding table top sales on the hotel lawn. Then in 1994 he repainted the hotel yellow, with turquoise trim, at Disney’s request because they wanted to use the hotel to film a movie.

At this, the council served Les with an enforcement notice to change the colour back to white.

Whittingham’s response? He threatened to paint the hotel pink with yellow spots, in tribute to the Mr Blobby attraction which opened that year at Happy Mount Park.

Thankfully he never carried out this bizarre threat.

Whittingham also made several attempts to offload the hotel and had plans to convert it into a nursing home and later a casino, both of which were eventually dropped.

But then in August 1998, at the age of 49, the charismatic Midland owner died suddenly of a heart attack.

Even in death, Whittingham continued to cause controversy. When conservation officers turned up at the Midland shortly after he died, they found the Eric Gill relief had gone missing yet again.

After a near year-long investigation, it was discovered in a blue van parked in a service area near Pontefract, West Yorkshire. Today the Eric Gill is back in its rightful place, in the Midland reception area.

Thanks go to Barry Guise and his book The Midland Hotel: Morecambe’s White Hope for the incredible tale of Les Whittingham.