During the ’60s and ’70s, British television benefited from the films of Alan Whicker. Whicker was a genius. He loved the good life and those who led it. He knew, just like F. Scott Fitzgerald, that the rich were different and that they warranted just as much anthropological study as any tribe of blowpipe-toting, penis-sheath-wearing rainforest pygmies. Just as those who make films for the Discovery Channel or National Geographic do now, Whicker travelled to see the rich in their natural surroundings — and come the first decent snowfall of the year, that meant one place: as Peter Sarstedt put it in his wistful ballad ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’, “When the snow falls you’re found in St. Moritz / With the others of the jetset”.
The programme is framed as a sort of jet-set fairytale — the narration even begins with the words “once upon a time”, before explaining how “one day, a rich baron — a very rich baron — swept down out of the mountains to claim her as his third bride and carry her off to a place at the end of the rainbow where rich people go to be happy: St. Moritz”. We first meet the Baroness, former model Fiona Campbell-Walter, in a leopard-skin coat driving her open-top silver-blue BMW 507 at speed along the valley to the airstrip at Samedan where her husband has just landed in a light aircraft.
If you are a reader of 19th-century novels, you will know that Switzerland was once a summer resort and that snow — far from being an attraction — was an inconvenience, blocking mountain passes, trapping unwary travellers in blizzards and so forth. But towards the close of the Victorian era, the Badrutt family began promoting St. Moritz as a ‘winter health resort’, and it was a scion of that dynasty, Caspar Badrutt, who bought the Hotel Beau Rivage. Business was good and so, by the 1890s, he had decided to expand the Beau Rivage, creating a hotel of fortress-like demeanour so impressive that it needed a new name that would express its grandeur. Henceforward, the Beau Rivage was to be known as ‘The Palace’.
Winter tourism had taken off, but winter sports had yet to catch on. Instead, the emphasis was on the medical benefits of the high altitude and the busy calendar of social events enjoyed by guests at The Palace. However, that changed in 1928 when the resort was chosen as the venue for the Winter Olympics. Although the scale of the event — 464 competing athletes from 25 countries — was considerably smaller than the Winter Games of later years, it bequeathed the town a reputation as the home of winter sports, a fact attested to by the use of the Cresta Run, the natural ice toboggan track of (quite literally) lethal rapidity dating from the 19th century, for the skeleton racing event.