Published 6 June 1999 Style Magazine 308th article
Masters of the role: Professor David King and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
Why on earth should anyone buy a Cambridge University master of arts gown with a white-lined hood? Thus I mused while unwrapping the one I'd ordered from Ede & Ravenscroft of Trumpington Street, Cambridge. Perhaps I'd wear it to greet dinner guests. Unlikely: I've only given three dinner parties in the past 27 years. It rested on the sofa in my study until - knock me down with a feather - a few days later I received an invitation from the master and fellows of Downing College, Cambridge, inviting me to their commemoration feast. "Dress black tie, gowns with scarlet decoration may be worn" was hand-written on the bottom. Gown or no gown, this was not for me.
Invitations usually get put on the left of my desk. There they lie, soon covered with further ephemera, forgotten and unanswered. I wrote to Professor David King MA, ScD, FRS, Master, pointing out he really didn't want me. "I ask to see the seating plan, know exactly who is on the table, be told who's placed either side of me and opposite, have the right to make changes. All this is far too much for a man of your stature, so I'll say thank you no, and hope to meet another time." Professor King graciously replied that I was seated on his right-hand side, he would send me a top table plan and a thumbnail sketch of everyone on it and let me do as I wished. Now it became: how to get the helicopter in? I liked the idea of returning, for the first time since I came down in 1955, in some style and with a bit of noise. Mrs Professor King told my copter man that we could land on the college lawn; others had done so before. But this was not to be. Apparently the "others" were royalty. Royal flights are okay; plebs like me, decreed the Civil Aviation Authority, had to land on a nearby rugby pitch. And I thought we lived in a democracy.
There was more trouble. I was doing a BBC television show just before the 20-minute flight from Battersea. So I took my evening dress and other paraphernalia into the lavatory of the heliport for a quick change. It was unimportant I'd forgotten cuff links. But my evening-dress trousers were not on the hanger. Oh well, I would appear immaculately dressed from the waist up. Below, there would be the considerable contrast of a pair of jeans. Nobody cared, even though I took the trouble to point out in my speech that this was not a protest, but an error, for which I apologised.
To describe any meal in a Cambridge dining hall as a "feast" would, I thought, require a stretch of normal meaning. But my Cambridge dictionary called it "a meal with very good food or a large meal for many people". Since there were 140 guests and a six-course menu in which the word "dessert" strangely meant cheese and biscuits, I suppose we qualified. I was particularly pleased that by the end of our correspondence the master was signing himself "Dave". Most unlike my dour tutor, Mr Norman, who referred to me, in student days, as "Winner" and endlessly told me I spent far too much time watching films and working on the university newspaper. But then my headmaster at school lectured me on how the Warner Bros gangster movies, now cinematheque classics, would result in my growing up disturbed. Sit down the reader who said: "He was right."
Fronted by an ornate, silver bowl "from the Long Range Rifle Club", we started with terrine de legumes: fair to middling. Went on to filet de bar grille au safran: very good indeed, first-rate sauce. Then a sorbet; I like sorbets. Thus to the main course, supreme defaisan chatelaine. Perfectly acceptable, but a bit dry. The carrots were historic. At this point I realised I was the only one at the table who was eating. Many others had not been served. I think it's essential to commence while the food is hot, regardless. I turned to the master. "Start, David, because I'm the only one," I said. "Right," said Dave and started eating. College masters have certainly improved since my day. The only time I met Sir Lionel Whitby, Downing's boss in 1954, was when he hauled me up for taking the porter's bicycle and leaving it at the Varsity newspaper office. Sir Lionel sent me down for two weeks. Yah boo, Sir L. I've got the best seat in the house. I'm about to reply on behalf of the guests. I even scoffed the poire macaron an coulis defraises. That's more than you ever gave me.
I am fond of your column, but could I suggest that, while you are blowing thousands on helicopters and LearJets, you either toss a few shekels in the direction of a decent tailor or desist from publishing photographs of yourself. You look like a tramp, man.
David Cottle, Swansea
I have enjoyed every one of your films and am a great addict of your weekly column in The Sunday Times. It is your style and honesty that I admire so much - a kind of amiable, no-nonsense eccentricity that is as endearing as the styles of G K Chesterton and Patrick Moore.
Philip Ward, New York
Over the years we have noticed your love of both Italy and desserts. Allow us to recommend a place that combines the two: Da Beniamino in Comerio, Varese province, Italy. Beniamino offers his guests a menu that, unusually for Italy, contains oriental and American dishes, as well as Italian. Go there and have the banoffee pie - it's heavenly.
Maureen Finnerty and Richard Heron, Cadrezzate, Italy
I have noticed that most of your letters about bad restaurants seem to be in the London area. Why not take a trip to Shrewsbury in Shropshire? You would love the town; I just wish I could say the same about the restaurants.
Robert M Adams, Shrewsbury