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Good time gamble

Published 26 July 1998
Style Magazine
263rd article

Lucky streak: the actress Frances Barber with Michael Winner at Goodwood (Mark Lloyd)

As mumsy lost £6m at the Cannes Casino in the 1970s and paid for it by selling all the antiques and furniture dad bequeathed to me, I have never taken to gambling. As the saying goes: "I gave already." So when Roderick Gilchrist, deputy editor of The Mail on Sunday, told me it was his turn to be allowed a box at Goodwood races and asked if I'd come, I thought: "This'll be at best all right, probably dire." I had been only once to a racetrack, some 40 years earlier, and hated it.

Furthermore, it was the Sunday on which I was celebrity starter of a cancer charity "marathon" for 3,000 cyclists. To be involved with two lots of racing in one day seemed extravagant. Conveniently, the bike ride started in Battersea Park, close to the helicopter pad, so I called Philip Amadeus and he readied the Agusta 109. I had been given detailed instructions by a posh-voiced chap from Goodwood the day before. The helicopter pad lay in a distant loop of the racetrack. Mary would pick us up there and take us to Charlton Box One where Mr Gilchrist and 40 assorted chums would be.

As we flew over Goodwood, we saw nobody waiting to escort us. "I'll buzz the track," said Philip. "Let them know we've arrived." As we swooped back toward the landing area, there was a bus with an old man driving. It took us 25 minutes to get from this far part of the course, down a country track, onto the car-infested main road and up to the box. Longer than the journey from London.

In what looked like an Essex schoolroom, lunch was laid out courtesy of Payne & Gunter Limited. There is only one person in the world better than me at securing a table when there are not enough of them and getting to the buffet before the queue forms. That is the distinguished photographer Mr Terence O'Neill. He had already reserved two places for Vanessa and me, which was just as well because it was clear only a small proportion of the guests would have a sit-down lunch.

I wandered casually to the buffet ahead of everyone else, as if to peruse, at leisure, a display of rare books. I took some tiger prawns in chilli sauce (remarkably fresh), Thai chicken with a tomato salsa (pretty good) and braised supreme of salmon with provencal herbs and olive oil. This had a breadcrumbed top which was odd, but I quite enjoyed it. The veg and new potatoes were fine. I reckoned for a mass meal it scored well.

That excellent actress Frances Barber settled opposite me. I had last seen her naked as Eliza Dolittle in a production of Pygmalion at the National Theatre. Quite why Eliza should go starkers I had forgotten, but it was a splendid interpretation of George Bernard Shaw's original concept. Miss Barber told me she had observed me eating tea in the Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town, where she had been doing some guest food and hotel reviewing. "I was on my own," she reported. "I was too frightened to come over to you and Vanessa." I said that was a great pity as we'd love to have taken her to lunch in the wine country, and Frances promised, if she saw me eating tea again, to barge in.

My friend, the distinguished playwright Ronald Harwood, asked my opinion of the "burnt lemon tart" which wasn't burnt. I told him it was surprisingly good. We had a few bets, mostly disastrous, and Ronnie told me he always went to sleep in the afternoon. "Noel Coward said it was essential to get into bed," he advised. When Ronnie woke up, he had chocolate biscuits and tea.

That reminded us: were they serving tea? The barman told me "Yes". But where was it? At four o'clock it hadn't arrived. "I like my tea no later than 3.45," said Ronnie. I agreed. "Hang on," I said, "I shall deal with this." I rustled up Graham Sheppard, the box manager, and soon, at our table only, was a tray of sandwiches (enough to feed everyone, but all mine) and scones, cream and jam galore. I felt no guilt whatsoever when everyone else looked on in amazement. Ronnie and I had a nice tea. I only lost £340. The helicopter ride back took 20 minutes.

I finished off the evening in Planet Hollywood at a private screening of A Perfect Murder, which was accompanied by very tasty blackened shrimp with creole mustard sauce, an excellent hamburger and some chips. My new friend Peter Mandelson appeared to enjoy himself, too. A jolly nice day, really.


How I agree with Michael Winner about Llangoed Hall (Style, July 5). The last time we visited, the manager looked straight through us on arrival and the lone porter took our luggage. The next day, the noise of mowers in the garden was such that we repaired to our room, only to find the bed unmade at 3pm. The service in the restaurant was chaotic, and the final straw was to be accused, by an impertinent underling, of walking tar "from Ross-on-Wye" onto the carpet, despite the fact that there was a lake of tar melting in the car park.
Joanna Russell, Beaworthy, Devon

Michael Winner's review of Llangoed Hall was like reliving a nightmare. We stayed there some years ago and, although the management has changed, it seems that little else has. Like Vanessa, I sent clothes to be laundered and have never seen such tortured pressing. Getting a drink before dinner was almost impossible, and the restaurant, though full, was as lively as a library reading room. We thought of giving it another try, but having read Mr Winner's comments, we won't bother.
Michael Bradley, Newport, South Wales

It is sad that the whole ethos of Llangoed Hall should have been lost on Michael Winner. Llangoed is the perfect antidote to "grand hotels" - those awful places where unctuous, sycophantic staff pander to guests with inflated egos. Llangoed is more like staying at a noble home when the owner is absent. It is the epitome of good manners and good taste, aimed at what is somewhat euphemistically called "old money". Obviously, those who prefer vulgar ostentation will not find Llangoed Hall to their liking.
Philippe Boucheron, Droitwich, Worcs