Published 8 August 1999 Style Magazine 317th article
Royal flush: Michael Winner with owner Terry Laybourne at 21 Queen Street (Vanessa Perry)
The journey from the airport to the Copthorne Hotel Newcastle was bizarre. The Mercedes chauffeur lived in Birmingham. Don't ask me why a movie company should hire a man who knows Birmingham to get us round Newcastle. To help him, the driver had a computerised disc system, apparently linked to a satellite. This produced a highly irritating female voice that spoke incessantly throughout the journey. "Turn left at the roundabout," she said. Followed by: "Travel for two miles and then turn right." As we got to the turn-off: "Turn right now." And so on. it was a nightmare. As we drove up to the Copthorne she said: "You have now reached your destination." I would have been very happy to murder her somewhere along the way, but in our new robot society, this is not always possible.
I'd stayed at the Copthorne before in a wonderful, memorably large room with an enormous, canopied bed and a window overlooking the river Tyne and a marvellous iron bridge. This time they'd divided things up into two smaller rooms with a worse view. There was very 1950s yellow diamond wallpaper and a tacky threepiece suite. It all looked gloomy. "Horrible," said Vanessa. Then "It's awful, isn't it?" A bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale came "From the pen of Ruraigh Whitehead, general manager". The first gift I've ever had from a pen. As I find lager very good for the hair, I rinsed my hair with the brown ale. A few moments later when I dabbed it with a face flannel, it was all brown. So I washed the lot out.
A delicious, enormous, fry-up English breakfast arrived 18 minutes after being ordered, which I thought was good. We had lunch in a room called The Bar, decorated with oars and boating stuff. Alan Shearer was in the lobby outside, waiting to see them throw a caricature picture of him off the iron bridge. I think it's wonderful how these northerners amuse themselves. I was told the fried fish was local. "Local from the freezer?" I asked suspiciously. "No, you'll taste it when you eat it," the waiter replied. It was exceptionally fine. One of the nicest bits of fried fish I've ever eaten. The batter was superb. The mushy peas were good, but tepid. I only ate one chip, it was all right.
For dinner, we went to 21 Queen Street. I'd been there before and described it as being like an airport lounge. They'd changed the decoration it was now warm and welcoming. The owner-chef Terry Laybourne still has a Michelin star. He'd been away on my previous visit when I was up for one of my police ceremonies with a comparatively unknown Tony Blair.
Twenty members of the public had been invited to dinner, there were other tables bringing our group to about 50. We had warm salad of seared scallops, cured salmon and aromatic vegetables. Close to superb. Then new season's lamb with veg. Also very good. Then custard tan with nutmeg ice cream. That was fine. The organisation was spectacular. The entire three-course meal was effortlessly served in an hour. I remember praising Terry's restaurant last time, with a few minor gripes. A local paper maliciously made it look as if I hated Newcastle and everyone who lived in or near it. Disgraceful!
This time, as I was chatting to Terry, one of the guests took my tape. Later on I realised they'd talked into it and recorded themselves. How audacious. Have these locals no shame? A man's voice said: "And the latest comment from all the Geordies, we're very, very proud of Michael Winner. As long as he likes us, we like him." Then a lady said: "He's a charming man." Then another lady - obviously the tape recorder was being passed round the table - said: "He's charming." Then a male voice: "He's a very nice man, much nicer than we thought he'd be and the whole table concurs that he's a gentleman and we hope he agrees with us that Newcastle is the best football team in the land." I know nothing about football. But I do have, in my old, classic autograph book, beautifully pasted up with photos, the signatures of the entire Newcastle United football team when they won the cup final in 1952. They stayed at the Letchworth Hall Hotel near my Quaker boarding school and one of the boy's fathers knew them. I have George Robledo, Frank Brennan, Joe Harvey and other brilliant players. I've also come to the firm and unshakable conclusion that everyone in Newcastle is heroic, delightful, beautiful, elegant, of wonderful disposition and a genius. Let the local paper make me a bad-mouth villain for saying that - if they dare!
In view of recent letters from other readers criticising Harry's Bar, Venice, it was with some slight trepidation that we made our annual visit last weekend. We need not have worried: the food was excellent and smoothly served by friendly waiters, many of whom we recognised from previous visits. Yes, it's expensive, but well below what one might expect to pay at a comparable restaurant in London. Our three-course meal, with a decent bottle of wine and a further half-carafe of house wine, came to £150 - and we have yet to find a London restaurant where the waiter deftly changes the tablecloth halfway through the meal.
Jack Raeburn, Bristol.
I read recently that you don't care particularly for dining in pubs (Style, July 25). Given the standard of food in most British pubs, this is understandable. There is one that I would recommend to you, however. Mr Thomas's Chop House in Manchester city centre is a Victorian-style chop house serving truly outstanding home-cooked English food in nice surroundings. I know you are rarely in Manchester, but this place is worth a visit.
Andrew Palmer, by e-mail.
I read with interest your recent column in which you mentioned your family's shops in west London (Style, July 11). I remember going to J D Winner's in Shepherd's Bush with my father. In fact, I still have a coat hanger embossed with "J D Winner and Sons, 15-19 Goldhawk Road, London W12". It accompanied me on my RAF service and, on my demob in 1954, came with me to Lancashire where I have used it ever since. It sure beats today's plastic.
Mr L M Lee, Poulton Le Fylde, Lancs.
My considerable enjoyment of Winner's Dinners is tempered by the fact that certain "friends" claim we look alike. That notwithstanding, I was astounded that the omniscient Michael Winner only discovered limoncello in Capri (Style, July 18). It may be a local product, but it has been readily available throughout Italy for many years. Personally, I detest it, so it's horses for courses - despite our apparent similarity.
Pierre Richterich, Leeds.
I feel compelled to remark on the photographs accompanying your excellent restaurant column. My curiosity aroused, I looked back at several weeks' copies for a comparison. Sure enough, your facial expression is identical in all of them - the precise features of the Cheshire Cat who also got the cream.
Derek Courtnell, by e-mail.