CHAUFFEUR Hugh Millington was negotiating a three-point turn in Trafalgar Square to whisk his passengers - two high profile businessmen and a well-known member of the last Tory government - away from the scene of a bomb scare, when a youth leapt through the traffic chaos and lunged at the back passenger door. With lightning reflexes, Millington flicked the central locking switch just as the young man yanked at the Bentley door handle.
The youth melted back into the crowds while Hugh, sounding calmer than he felt, apologised to his shaken passengers. "They were full of praise for my quick thinking, but I was kicking myself - I should have automatically locked the doors from the outset," he said. "As a chauffeur, you should take nothing for granted. Always expect the unexpected. It involves much more than simply driving someone from A to B."
A successful "butler on wheels" needs to be quick-thinking, meticulously organised and absolutely discreet - three attributes Hugh instils into the dozen or so men and women he trains every year at one of Britain's only recognised centres of its kind, The Northern Chauffeur Association, based at Boston Spa in Yorkshire. Each trainee pays pound;450 for an intensive two-day course, which includes defensive driving in a Jaguar saloon and role play to demonstrate correct behaviour in a variety of situations. This includes how to open the car door in such a way that VIP passengers will be shielded from potential attack and how to address and greet people correctly.
"I know almost immediately, just by talking to someone over the phone, whether they have what it takes to become a chauffeur," said Hugh. "It isn't just about whether they can drive well. It's about their manner, their personality, their attitude."
His courses are inspected and approved by the Institute of Advanced Motorists' Fleet Training Division, and all trainees are automatically expected to pass the IAM's advanced driving test. "At the moment chauffeuring is a self-regulating establishment, which means that, in principle, anyone could set themselves up as a chauffeur. Although a vehicle used for chauffeuring needs to be insured for hire and reward, and some metropolitan borough councils insist that vehicles are inspected and operated under licence.
"There are a lot of people out there who shouldn't be calling themselves chauffeurs. They just don't have the right attitude. Last week I saw one so-called chauffeur leaning against the wall of the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge smoking a cigarette while he waited to pick up a client. He couldn't have cared less."
Hugh's background in funeral management and public relations - he joined explorer Robert Swan's expedition to the Antarctic as publicity manager - certainly taught him the art of courtesy and discretion. "You have to be absolutely discreet because you see and hear things which you shouldn't really see or hear. I once had two very high profile MPs in the back of my car discussing what I can only describe as "politically hot stuff" quite openly. Had I been anything other than totally discreet, wo knows where that information may have ended up?" No names, then, in connection with the international singing sensation who was discreetly asked to "refrain from lighting spliffs" in the back of his car, or the top-notch businessman whose personal assistant added new meaning to the word "personal", when they made an unscheduled detour to the airport via a luxury hotel. "It's more than my job's worth," he said. Hugh launched his own training school after attending a chauffeur training course in London in 1996 which left him feeling short-changed. "The course didn't tell you what to do if things didn't quite go according to plan. It didn't explain the correct course of action if you had to collect a customer from a difficult pick-up point, for example, or how to address your client if, during a long motorway journey, you needed to stop at a service station. It lacked the finer details."
Through The Northern Chauffeur Association, which he runs alongside his own Jaguar specialist Sovereign Chauffeur Company, Hugh is hoping to raise standards across the UK. "It's quite disturbing that the business is ungoverned," said Hugh. "Chauffeurs look after VIPs, celebrities and government officials, often without any formal training. Anyone could set themselves up as a chauffeur. I certainly think there needs to be tighter control. The profession needs regulating.
"Of the 10,000 chauffeurs in the country, a high percentage will be cowboys. If you want to hire a chauffeur, at least find one with a proven reputation, who has undergone proper training and who can be recommended by the IAM.
"Good chauffeurs come from all kinds of backgrounds, but they will all get on well with people, they will see it as a vocation, they will provide the best service possible and they will know instinctively how to react in certain situations. Those interpersonal skills are very important. They will have a natural keenness, a grace, which is just in them."
This means knowing when to speak and when not to speak to their passengers. Many people use the time freed from driving for conducting business in the back of the car, while others simply want to contemplate. More sociable clients won't hesitate to jump into the front seat and chatter all the way from Heathrow to Scotland, but the driver must never speak until he's spoken to. It's against chauffeuring rules and jolly bad manners.
"I never get bored," said Hugh, who is prepared to step into his gleaming XJ8 long wheel base Sovereign Jaguar at the drop of a hat, day or night, for his clients. "I continue to chauffeur because I'm always coming up against new situations and new problems which I can then pass on to my trainees. And, of course, I love the job. I get an extraordinary insight into great minds. It's a great privilege. And I hear things I can't repeat to anyone. Not even to my wife Poppy. I have to lock some things away into an internal box and throw away the key."
But when the pristine suit and gloves come off and the cap is doffed for the final time, Hugh likes to take a back seat - literally.
"For a real treat I hire one of my own chauffeurs, sit back and enjoy the ride. It's great fun."