Published 2 February 1999 Style Magazine 291st article
Lion bar: Michael Winner and his new-found friends at The Old Red Lion Inn (Vanessa Perry)
The Cyber Cafe in Dunstable was closed down. The Mouth Chinese Restaurant had its lips firmly shut. Nothing going on there. It was a grim winter day and past my lunchtime. We Scorpios like everything just so. Lunch at one, dinner at eight. If you're planning to drop in for a meal, always risky, stay away from the A5. I decided to cut my losses and turned off down one of those little white roads, too small to have identifying numbers on a road map. They're invariably the best. It was 1.30pm when we got to Great Brickhill in Buckinghamshire. The Old Red Lion Inn looked quaint. Signs announced the British Institute of Innkeeping and Andrew John McCollin landlord.
Inside there were photos of Joanna Lumley, Jeremy Beadle, David Jason and Mick Jagger. This was clearly a glitterati rendezvous. We turned right into the eating area where two very glum customers sat at a table with a red check cloth. On the wall there was an identity poster of birds. I sat at the bar and surveyed the menu. "Is this all frozen or is it . . .?" I started. "Combination thereof," replied the gentleman behind the bar, later revealed to be Andrew McCollin. I ordered a "Lion's Feast: two rashers of bacon, sausage, tomato, burger, two eggs, mushrooms, baked beans and chips. £6.25." It was as adventurous as anything else on the menu. Vanessa ordered a ploughman's lunch. "The atmosphere's bizarre," she whispered.
In the "public bar", the other side of the counter, we could see a few men, very quiet, slightly menacing. "Come on, let's look in there," I said. Vanessa shook her head firmly in the negative. So I went alone. The second bar had a sign on it: The Den. There was a TV - on. A real fire - not on. A nice view from the back window over a garden and some excellent countryside. A single slot machine. "What's Great Brickhill famous for?" I said quietly to anyone who cared to answer. "Barry McGuigan," replied a man in a blue sweater and a Levi's hat. Apparently, he lived next to the pub and Barry McGuigan used to live next to him. "He's into cabaret now, Barry McGuigan," volunteered a bald man. I was beginning to warm to this lot. They told me Barry used to drive in a motor-racing team for a local man. "MG Metros souped up to hell," said someone else. "Are you going to be here long?" I asked, thinking of the photograph I needed. "Are you going?" "No, no, we're drinking at the moment," said the man in the hat.
I definitely liked this group. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon, gloomy weather, and they were assembled for a drink and a chat. In those circumstances intruders have to move in slowly.
I went back to the other side. "They're nice people, come on," I said to Vanessa. She joined me. In came my robust plate of food. Very basic, very British. Perfectly all right. The chips were very chunky. "Home-made?" I asked. "Not home-made, just excellent," said Mr McCollin. I Apparently, they're by Brake Brothers. They had the light texture of bought-in chips, but they were quite good. "Bread's warm, it's nice," said Vanessa. More people came in. Bit of laughter. A white horse went by outside, right to left, ridden by someone with a black protective hat.
I thought it was a particularly relaxed, very English, understated atmosphere. I poured tomato ketchup on my fry-up. I enjoyed it. "Who're the big shots round here?" I asked, looking at old photos of the village on the wall. "Family called Duncombe," I was told. "My mother used to be their secretary. They've still got the big house," another man said. "There was a pub up the road, the Duncombe Arms," volunteered someone else. "It's shut now, it's houses," said the bald man "Do the Duncombes join in everything?" I asked. I find this sort of local stuff very interesting. "No. He's about 90. Used to have two old gun dogs. He's on the parish council," said the man in the hat.
They started asking for autographs, quietly. "Not every Saturday we get celebrities in." A very well-mannered lot. Friendly, not pushy. One of them, with suitably long, artistic hair, had written a screenplay that had been optioned. "I'm not giving up the dayjob," he said. We shook hands and left. I thought it had been exceptionally pleasant. "They all bloody smoke, don't they," said Vanessa as we got into the Ferrari. A few weeks later I sent them copies of our photo together. Not many people do that. It's one of my few good habits.
In a recent article (Style, January 24), Michael Winner writes: "...they do kindly keep Evian hidden, just for me". I suggest Mr Winner might try reading the label backwards.
Joseph Sinclair, London NW4
So, the good news is that Michael Winner enjoyed the food at Fawsley Hall (Style, January 24). The bad news appears to be his being picky about some of the paintings and the reception area (which, incidentally, is a naturally lit and creative joining of two different architectural periods). We have stayed at Fawsley Hall several times and believe that the Saunders and their partners are to be congratulated, not castigated, on their vision and painstaking restoration of a formerly great house. Those of your readers who like to enjoy good food in beautiful and unique surroundings - and who often find Mr Winner's damning of an establishment not matching up to reality - should try Fawsley Hall for themselves. They will not be disappointed.
Mrs Lewis Baker, Bishops Stortford, Herts
Given his vast experience of culinary appreciation, has Michael Winner ever considered crossing the fence, so to speak, and penning a cookbook of his own? It might be rather amusing, I thought, to call it Winner Bakes All.
Boris Lovelace, London W1