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Just my cup of tea

Published 31 December 1995
Style Magazine
130th article

Sophia Loren with Michael Winner's Marx Brothers lookalikes (Pic Photos Ltd)

I decline to write about New Year's Eve because the food is usually awful. Instead I shall refer to English Tea, a much-forsaken item. When I was young there were dozens of places just for tea. Gunters in Curzon Street was one, and there was a lovely place in Letchworth, where I went to school, with a mural of a veranda and flower gardens beyond. The waitresses wore black, with white aprons and frilly lace tiaras. l think they now do the same in Richoux, in Mayfair, or certainly very similar, but there is no mural. And in Letchworth we had a pianist, too. But Richoux is pretty good. It's the only decent place outside a hotel that I can think of that does tea at all.

The best tea in London is definitely Claridge's. But last time I was there they didn't have those little sponge cakes with icing. Ah, well. They're very tolerant of me at Claridge's, but as I knocked back the earl grey, and with a view of the lobby, l recalled a time they were not. Some years ago I put on a show in the West End called A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine. It got rave reviews but took little money. My friend Sophia Loren was over staying at Claridge's and was to have a book-launch party there. "Would you," I asked, "be photographed with the Marx Brothers shortly before?" The Marx Brothers were three artistes from my show, the first half of which was a Marx Brothers-type sketch. Sophia agreed and l was to escort her to the book launch.

Not being able, or wishing, to book a room, I called the press photo call for the lobby of Claridge's. Suddenly, it was full of ill-dressed men with cameras and raincoats. "Even you, Mr Winner, cannot do this," a manager said with unusual firmness. Sadly, at that exact moment, Sophia was making a splendid entrance down the grand staircase. "We'll have to go to your suite," I murmured. "Not likely," said Sophia. Or something similar. So we re-set up in the hallway outside her suite on the second floor. After a few seconds, a small manager flung himself in front of Sophia. "This must stop!" he said dramatically. But the photographers had got enough and I went down with Sophia a little later to the book reception. The manager came up to me: "I hope you didn't mind, Mr Winner," he said, as I ate a foie gras canape. "Not at all," I said graciously, "You were terrific. You must do traffic on my next film."

I shall now give marks for tea. Claridge's 9. And a surprise winner, the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. They have the most enormous display of cakes, sandwiches, savouries, fruit, all amazing. And you eat it in the lounge, or in a greenhouse sort of thing, or on a balcony overlooking hibiscus trees and jacaranda in full purple bloom. I give their tea 9½. Ston Easton Park in Somerset gets a 9¼. Their tea is as good as the Mount Nelson's, but they don't offer quite as wide a choice. The Dorchester lags well behind with a weak 3. Terrible cakes, sandwiches, which a lovely old lady who sits near me at Claridge's rightly described as being watered by a damp cloth, and terrible service. Richoux I'll give a strong 6. Nothing, tea-wise, beat my old housekeeper Mrs Hickey. Her cakes were totally historic. Barbra Streisand came early for tea one day and they were taken out of the oven specially. We had to deliver cakes to her for the next six Weeks. While we waited for the tea to arrive, my then girlfriend Catherine (nicknamed Sparkle) asked Barbra if she'd like her tarot cards read. Amazingly. Barbra was very keen. Sparkle was not too good at tarot, she had instructions glued on the cards but they kept falling off. Eventually, a bit fed up with being ignored, I said: "Sparkle. do stop. Barbra, she knows absolutely nothing about tarot card reading." Sparkle turned quick as a flash. "Don't take any notice of him, Barbra," she said, "He's going to be very ill in August."

I thought that was a riposte as good as Mrs Hickey's teas. A strong 10. Nobody will ever beat that. But I'll have fun making sure of it as I wander through life.