Published 10 October 1999 Style Magazine 326th article
Michael Winner with, left to right, Joanna Lumley, Cherie Lunghi, Maureen Lipman and Patsy Palmer st the ceremony for Stanley Kubrick (Chris Taylor)
My dining table looks Georgian, as do the 10 chairs. In truth they're very good Victorian copies. You can easily get 12 people round it. And at a pinch, 14. None of this matters as I never have dinner parties anyway, because I worry too much about the guests. Should I produce the Latour 61, or fob them off with the Lafite 82, which sells in most restaurants for a mere £1,200 per bottle excluding service, even though some time ago it cost me 80 quid.
I gave my last dinner party in May 1992 for Arnold Schwarzenegger on his first visit to England for many years. It was a grand affair, but illustrates why I find these events so exhausting. Half an hour before Arnold was due to arrive, my friend Robert Earl rang from the Halkin hotel. "Arnold likes pear schnapps," he announced. Pear schnapps is not readily available in Holland Park at 7pm, but to my immense credit we found some and had it taxied in. Arnold then spilt it on the polished table top. He was greatly worried about this. I was totally unconcerned. I take my friend Diana Rigg's view that being too immaculate is nouveau riche. A little "distressing", as they call it in the antiques trade, is all for the good. "If anyone did this to me," said Arnold, surveying the stain, "They would be banned from Beverly Hills society."
I have a photo of myself making a speech of welcome to Arnold. At the table, guests include his wife Maria Shriver, John Birt, Bob Geldof and Lew Grade. Arnold's response was very witty, he said: "Michael Winner is more than a good friend to me. He is a complete stranger." This was true at the time, although we've since buddied up.
Recently, I was partially responsible for a larger dinner party, a function. The Directors Guild of Great Britain, a trade union of which I am the longest-serving founder-council member, was to honour Stanley Kubrick with its Lifetime Achievement Award. It was my idea. His wife Christiane - I'd known them both for 30 years - wrote: "l remember Stanley being flattered to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, though with horrible foresight, he added, 'This is a bell-tolling award!' " Thus it sadly turned out to be. But it was a moving and excellent tribute. I chose the Park Lane Hotel - their art deco ballroom and balconied cocktail area are particularly attractive.
After worrying about the menu and the seating, I worried about whether guests would turn up. Particularly as I'd done a deal with OK! magazine - well, a trade union needs all the cash it can get - and they listed certain people as essential. My table was as nice a group as you could muster. I took the delightful Miss Cherie Lunghi, recently returned from foreign parts. On my right was Miss Joanna Lumley with her husband Stephen, very smart in a red jacket and looking like a musician, which is just as well as he is one. A conductor, anyway. Then there was the flavour of the month, red-haired and very lovely Patsy Palmer, Sir Peter Ustinov and his daughter and, on the other side, Maureen Lipman and her husband, the writer Jack Rosenthal.
Dinner menus are always a bit of a joke, especially as, at any function for more than 300 people. you know it isn't going to be great. But I thought the Park Lane Hotel did well. Their Italian antipasto of roast artichokes, grilled vegetables, mozzarella, olive bread and rocket salad might not have won first prize in Siena, but for a catered event it was excellent. The inevitable chicken, in this case supreme of chicken (is any menu chick not supreme?), with a tarragon mousse and a wild mushroom cake, was rather good. The dessert was memorable, chocolate millefeuille with orange sorbet. Coffee or tea was accompanied by dark, white and milk chocolate truffles. Alexander Walker, who produced an excellent piece about Stanley on page two of the menu, wrote of our design: "It is quite the most elegant example of its kind I have seen." Even though he had to be somewhere else.
Sir Peter Ustinov made the best speech I've ever heard. His impersonation of everyone from Charles Laughton to Laurence Olivier to John Gavin at the script read-through of Spartacus was historically hilarious. He presented our trophy to Christiane Kubrick after her daughter Anya had spoken most movingly. The Evening Standard described my compering as "brilliant" - so I should have been happy. But it is exhausting organising dinners for any size of group. I shall now retire to be, as before, the host with the least. It's a role I delight in.
For my 50th birthday, my wife booked a surprise overnight away for ourselves and another couple at Toxique, the curiously named but highly acclaimed five-bedroomed Wiltshire inn. Unfortunately, I became violently ill on arrival and had to retire to my room. However, undaunted, my wife and our two guests did enjoy a splendid meal, in my absence. I was quite surprised when settling our account (almost £400) to discover that no allowance was made, even after querying it, for my non-taken meal. We had booked on an overnight-and-dinner basis, but as an act of hospitality this was indeed a Toxique reaction.
Eric Wilton, by e-mail
You mentioned recently (Style, September 12) that the Michelin guide is the only one for which you need a starred first-class degree before you can understand it. I have a first-class degree in science, postgraduate diploma in marketing, an MBA, and 17 years as a chef/restaurateur, yet I still do not understand the Michelin guide - so what chance have you got?
George Psarias, Leeds, Yorkshire
There are moments when I feel I'm going stark raving mad. Lock Michael Winner up, somebody, please. You're a real laugh, Michael. That's the only thing I get out of reading your articles now: a laugh. You're so well preened and vain, you could be in competition at the local turkey farm on mating day. Get a grip, Winner. You're supposed to be a restaurant critic, not an 80-year-old shut up in an old people's home with nothing to talk about but other people's tittle-tattle.
Helen Mortimer, by e-mail
From your recent article in the Sunday Times (Style, September 19), one might assume that you are an infrequent visitor to Northern Ireland and unaware of the deep magic of our wee province and its associated folklore. I would like to share a small piece of lore with you and your readers in relation to the presidential suite in the Belfast Europa. The magic of room 101 is that it is dimensionless in the real world and that its perceived size is directly proportional to the importance of the visitor; consequently President Clinton found the suite to be of presidential proportions. With a lovely twist of Irish logic, the dimensions of 101 are conversely affected by the ego of the visitor. This may explain why you found the accommodation to be so very cramped and limited. I hope that you and your readers find this explanation to be helpful.
S Lyn Fawcett, by e-mail
Send your letters to Style; or e-mail: michael winner@ sunday-times.co.uk.