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Not many happy returns

Published 21 September 1997
Style Magazine
219th article

Birthday girls: Michael Winner with Sarah Bond, left, and Margaret Schofield

I was in Teddington high street, not one of Britain's architectural splendours. We had checked out a photographic studio for our film. It was lunchtime. "That's a very good Italian restaurant," said our location manager, Michael Harvey, pointing to the Trattoria Sorrento next door.

Michael is a splendid fellow, but food judgment is not one of his specialities. "When I worked at Thames Television," he continued, "they brought people here who had been made redundant." "Did they bring Benny Hill?" I asked as we walked in. "I've been in this restaurant when Benny Hill was eating," said Michael.

That's not a recommendation. I was a Benny Hill fan. His "murder" in the name of political correctness was one of the most shameful idiocies of British show business. My friend, the film director Lewis Gilbert, once made a movie with Benny, and gave him a lift to work each morning. "What did you have for breakfast?" he asked. "Soup," said Benny. "Why soup?" said Lewis. "I go to the supermarket and buy cans that the labels have come off because they're cheaper," said Benny. "It's nearly always soup." He was extremely rich then, bless him.

Memories of Benny flooded back, intruded upon by a rather surly Italian waiter telling us we couldn't sit at a table for six as we were five people. It was next to an enormous layout for a birthday party, so I retired quietly to a table further away.

The Trattoria Sorrento is a down-market cousin of the Trattoria Terrazza group that first made me aware of Italian restaurants in the early 1960s. Chianti bottles hung from the ceiling; there were deer antlers, pink tablecloths and, behind us, a mural. A waiter pointed: "There is Venice, there is Milan, there is Naples." "A montage of Italy," obliged my associate producer, Ron Purdie. "Set lunch is £7.95, children half-price," I announced. "Roll your trousers up, quick," Mr Purdie said to Michael Harvey.

On the menu, were things you never see any more: egg mayonnaise, avocado vinegarette (sic) and prawn cocktail. There was a list of "To-day's specials" on the menu and another on a blackboard. They were both different.

My bread roll was disgusting. Vanessa said "The olives are very well flavoured," but I don't like anything where you have to take a stone out - I am too delicate. My starter sardines were mediocre, tasteless and looked peculiar. The heads, almost parted from the body, seemed to be in agony. Vanessa couldn't find much taste in her asparagus, either.

In the old days, food wasn't over-preserved, chemicalised at birth, long frozen. Whether you ate in posh place or poor, the basic content was similar. Today, there is the most enormous difference between "well-bred" veggies and animals and the mass-produced. A whole stratum of people exists that rarely, if ever, experiences what real food tastes like. This is sad.

Michael Harvey, the culinary optimist, interrupted my reverie. "This is excellent," he said, devouring his mushrooms in garlic butter. Then the birthday party came in, 16 of them, middle England to the core. I mean that as a compliment. They fitted in perfectly with the white pebble-dash walls, the two ship's life belts hanging from the ceiling (we were near the Thames), the stale, strung-up salami, and the lanterns, some with green bulbs, some with white.

My main-course trout came without lemon. It was perfectly cooked, but I didn't like it. The service was excellent. They quickly brought me a large tumbler of ice. Vanessa said her salmon wasn't bad, but I thought it odd that they served cold mayonnaise with hot salmon. The potatoes were all right, the mangetout very good.

The birthday party people had eaten their first course and, as wine flowed, the noise level became louder. Not out of order, but more laughter, raised voices. Men with ties and white shirts with spectacles in the pockets, women with pearls and carefully done hair, flowered striped or blue dresses.

It was getting busy now, you had to fight for service. I'm good at that. I chose Italian trifle from the dessert trolley. It was pretty good except for the crust, which was sickly and horrible. Vanessa left her fruit salad, saying "It's okay, but it has this liquor with it I'm not quite sure about."

The birthday party group had fallen silent as they ate their main course. They finished just when I decided a photo with them would be nice. There were two birthday ladies, Margaret and Sarah. A lot of cameras appeared. I thought they all seemed very decent people. In the street one of my group told me there was no lock on the gents toilet door.


In response to Peter Keeffe's retort (Style, August 24) that "Yorkshire folk will eat stewed bricks", it is common knowledge that Lancashire is renowned for its tripe.
Mrs M Knowles, Barnsley, S Yorks

While I am loath to write anything to encourage Lancastrians to venture over the M62, I do feel that P Keeffe has little idea of the restaurants we Yorkshire people are lucky enough to have. Leeds and Harrogate are particularly well served, with at least a dozen top-quality places, notably Leodis and William & Victoria's. If Mr Keeffe fancies a change from his hotpot, he may be pleasantly surprised.
Robert Whitfield, East Keswick, W Yorks

I recently ate at the Chalk Farm branch of the Mongolian Barbecue chain of restaurants, and cannot understand why these places are so roundly criticised. Our meal was extremely enjoyable - we returned for thirds - and even the young man with the pierced lip who cooked our food was charm itself.
Julian Giles, London SW6

On August 24, Michael Winner published my attack on his character. I was obviously unaware of his sporting nature. Well done and keep writing.
Duncan Brown, Beckenham, Kent