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For once, Michael Winner has got it right

(But he still makes truly awful films) The Daily Mail sent its own investigator to the hotel panned by the outrageous food critic

Published 29 May 1999
Daily Mail
By Max Davidson

A reason to whinge? Michael Winner and his girlfriend Vanessa Perry (Dave Benett)

A hotel which bans Michael Winner is one that most people would be happy to patronize. His caustic restaurant reviews in The Sunday Times have earned him the wrath of chefs everywhere. There are establishments as far afield as St Lucia where his life would be at risk if he paid a return visit.

So news that one of Britain's most famous hotels has blacklisted Winner comes as no surprise. Cliveden, in Berkshire, is one of the great stately homes of England and, in its heyday, played host to countless famous figures.

It was good enough for George Bernard Shaw. Good enough for Charlie Chaplin. Good enough for Lawrence of Arabia. But not, it seems, good enough for minor-league film directors.

Winner, and his companion Vanessa Perry, stayed at the hotel en route to dinner with Tony Blair at Chequers. It would have saved trouble all round if Cherie had offered to put them up in the spare bedroom. But the Blairs are not fools. They know that the first requirement in a house-guest is good manners - a quality in which Winner is famously deficient.

He is reported to have been at his most boorish at Cliveden, whingeing from the moment he arrived. When afternoon tea was served and the freshly baked scones were cold, he gave the staff a piece of his mind. There was also a slanging match the next morning when the breakfast tray did not have a dessert spoon so Ms Perry - shock, horror - was reduced to eating her melon and muesli with a teaspoon.

Matters came to a head over lunch, with the disgruntles couple storming out of the restaurant vowing never to return. The flashpoint was when Winner was incandescent and screamed because their Buck's Fizz glasses were supposedly smeared with fingerprints and lipstick.

'You idiot,' he shouted at the waiter. 'How can you let this happen, this filth? How dare you fob me off? I am not a tourist from a coach.'

The heart bleeds - not for Winner, but for the waiter.

But suppose, just suppose, that Michael Winner is right? Not right to shout at waiters, but right to demand high standards of service at an establishment such as Cliveden. It is the people who complain, not the people who turn the other cheek, who ensure that high standards are maintained.

Rooms at Cliveden cost £300 a night and, for that sort of money, one is entitled to be waited on hand and foot. There can certainly be no excuse for shoddy service, third-rate food or dirty crockery.

So how good/bad is Cliveden? What sort of a deal does it offer the ordinary punter? I spent the night there with my girlfriend and sampled the services found wanting by Winner. It was an instructive experience - and led me to an unexpected conclusion. I hate to say this, but Michael Winner may, just may, be a man more sinned against than sinning.

Our overnight stay set us back more than £500, and was marked from start to finish by mediocrity. We should have been enjoying the high life, English country hospitality at its best.

You only have to turn into the drive at Cliveden to get the reek of serious money. But where was the Rolls-Royce service to go with it?

This was the dessert spoon episode which turned Winner nuclear. We lay awake half the night worrying that we would suffer the same indignity. It was all right. When our breakfast tray arrived, the cutlery was present and correct. Unfortunately, in their anxiety to count the spoons, the staff had forgotten to include any jams or marmalade to spread on the toast and pastries. This rendered the latter - again not freshly baked - pretty inedible. Even worse, we had asked for newspapers to be delivered with our breakfast, at 7am. No newspapers. Suppose we had been stressed-out executives, having to read The Financial Times cover to cover before heading off for a business meeting? The papers did not arrive until 7.25am - and, even then, only two of those we had ordered. For a luxury hotel, just 30 miles from London, it was simply not good enough.

Dinner Unlike Winner, who went to Chequers for dinner with Tony and Cherie, we had to slum it in the hotel dining-room. The room itself was stunning and the staff put on a fine display of dome-lifting and general bowing and scraping. But the food was very ordinary at the price.

The low point was my companion's pan-fried red mullet which was raw in the middle. Michael Winner would have thrown it half way across the room and called for the manager.

My companion, a novice in the art of complaining, simply asked the waiter to show the mullet to the cook and ask him whether he agreed it was under-cooked. My companion was offered a second mullet and not charged for the dud one. She was not, however, offered anything resembling an apology.

Insult was added to injury when the bill - £130 for a two-course meal - was later supplemented by a £2.75 per head surcharge as a contribution to the National trust, which runs Cliveden. Winner thought this was outrageous and he is quite right.

There are Corsican bandits who relieve people of their money more graciously.

Cocktails We ordered Buck's Fizz, like Winner, and subjected the glasses in which it was served to close scrutiny. They were spotless, brilliantly clean, with not a speck of dirt of any description. So one up to the hotel? Not quite. The reason the glasses were spotless, the reason there was no residue of freshly-squeezed orange juice, was that we had been fobbed off with orange juice which seemed to have come out of a carton. At least Winner got a proper Buck's Fizz. We got a very down-market version - at the very up-market price of £9.50 a glass.

Tea Winner's main gripe was that he had a meal of two halves: a pot of tea followed, 15 minutes later, by the accompanying food. The delay was only eight minutes in our case, but it was still irksome. The waiters moved about their business with the urgency of hamstrung snails.

Winner also claims that he was served stone-cold scones. Ours were warm, but otherwise undistinguished: too small, and rather dry. My late aunt Gwen could have baked better scones with one arm tied behind her back. The real shocker was the 'finger' sandwiches. They were the width of three fingers and left everything to be desired. Winner's companion had taken umbrage at the smoked salmon, which she declared 'old and disgusting'. We gave the salmon the benefit of the doubt, but were shocked by the staleness of the bread. It could have been around since Nancy Astor's day. Considering that we were paying £16 a head for tea, serving sandwiches made with unfresh bread was a disgrace.

We stayed in the Kipling room which boasts a four-poster bed and all mod cons, but the room was cramped and rather stuffy. It had a poor position, on the ground floor, and as we dressed for dinner, we were overlooked by guests arriving in the car park.

Even odder was the swimming pool. This, famously, is where John Profumo first set eyes on Christine Keeler, frolicking topless like a mermaid.

The pool is now part of a modern spa complex, although you would never guess it. Modern? We went for a dip only to find two ducks mating in the middle of the pool. It was a picturesque touch, but the hygiene implications hardly bear thinking about.

What is the point of pumping a pool full of chlorine if you are going to let wildfowl in the deep end?

If Michael Winner had caught the ducks in flagrante delicto, he really would have thrown a wobbly.

Banned: The director is no stranger to upsetting establishments such as Cliveden, top, but maybe he was right to complain