Published 20 May 2001 Style Magazine 410th article
Tread lightly: Lord and Lady Hamlyn with Michael Winner at Bibendum (Georgina Hristova)
In the summer of 1950 I was 14 years old and at a strange, vegetarian school, St Christopher, in Letchworth. During the war, they served us grass from the cricket pitch. We were all violently ill, but we produced the best milk in Hertfordshire. One Old Scholar's Day a handsome young man, Paul Hamlyn, who published film books, appeared with a beautiful blonde. I was a manic film fan, so I said: "Can I have all your books free, please?" A look of controlled desperation flickered over Paul's countenance. "Yes," he said rather uncertainly.
Two weeks later I rang him, reversing the charges, from the school phone box to jog his memory. Then a glorious parcel of movie books arrived.
Paul Hamlyn became a regular visitor to my parents' house in Kensington. I telephoned all the film studios saying I was writing a book for World Film Publications - Paul's company - entitled Film-Making From the Children's Angle.
Thus I entered the real world of movies. I met the stars. I ate cream cakes from the tea trolley. I returned again and again.
One day I visited the set of Tom Brown's Schooldays in Denham village. A boy almost my age, John Howard Davies, who'd played Oliver in David Lean's Oliver Twist, was starring. He lived near me, in Campden Hill. The next day I got a lift to Denham in his studio limousine. The star got out of the limo, then me. The publicity man was apoplectic. "I had to take a bus, a train and another bus to get here," he spluttered. "It took two-and-a- half hours."
"We did it in 45 minutes," I explained.
Shortly thereafter the phone rang in my living room. It was Paul. "I hear you're telling film companies you're writing a book for me," he said quietly. "Yes," I replied. "Give it a rest, will you," said Paul.
I was devastated. My new life in the movies was over. But, advised by my dad, I wrote an article about John Howard Davies and took it to my local paper, the Kensington Post. They printed it, and soon I had my own weekly show-business column in their syndicate of 17 newspapers. I was still 14 and at school. This in an era when young people had no identity. Unlike now, when every 14-year-old has been on drugs, in rehab, had sex for three years and manages a rock band. The rest is Winner history.
"But what of Paul Hamlyn?" you ask. Paul is now, deservedly, Baron Hamlyn of Edgeworth. He became the most successful publisher this country has ever known, the ﬁrst to sell books in Marks & Spencer. He revolutionised publishing.
He's also a great philanthropist. He's given millions to help the disabled. He took Covent Garden six times a year and distributed tickets to poor people. He now does the same with the National Theatre. Along the way he married a lovely, clever and creative lady, Helen, who was a pupil with me at St Christopher. He met her by chance in London years later, not having known her at school.
I've never met a finer human being than Paul Hamlyn. He suffers from Parkinson's disease, but he's bright as ever and we recently went to one of his restaurants, the very excellent Bibendum, in Fulham Road. He has another, superb restaurant in the historic and unique Chateau de Bagnols near Lyons, which his wife lovingly restored and opened as a luxury hotel.
For their 40th wedding anniversary, a body of the great, the good - and me - assembled there for a wonderful weekend party. I made a speech. Paul's third restaurant is La Petite Maison in Cucuron, Provence, created by Lady Hamlyn near one of their homes.
Bibendum opened in 1993 and was very fashionable. It's still extremely good. It once got the worst review I've ever given when I had a rare bad meal, in 1995. But they're sensible people, and when I needed a favour for a movie-star friend who couldn't get a table when she wanted it, the restaurant boss, Graham Williams, obliged me at once.
I've enjoyed many excellent evenings at Bibendum. At lunch with Paul and Helen, the goujons of monkfish with Thai dipping sauce were the best I've ever had, the roast beef and Yorkshire near perfection, and the port and blackcurrant jelly utterly memorable. Helen had me try some of her andouillette, a tripe sausage. This is not going on my regular diet. But it was lovely to see old friends again. And sit in the high-windowed, elegant room. Bibendum is utterly exceptional. As you'd expect from anything Paul puts his hand to. After all, he created me.
I am acquainted with four people who know Michael Winner, including an old school chum of his. All assure me that he is not a cantankerous, obnoxious old git.
Leith Mudhaffer, St Leonards, E Sussex
We have just returned from a short break in Normandy. On our last night, seated at red-and-white checked tables, we ate an entree of pig's ears as we watched our main course of stuffed pig's trotters cooking over an open fire. This was followed by a cheese plate and yoghurt with homemade preserve, all washed down with a bottle or two of gamay, coffee and Calvados. The bill came to something like £12 a head. I'd tell Michael Winner where it was, but I think the Normandy benches might be a bit too close together for his liking.
Wendy Street, Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts
Elizabeth Rawcliffe's letter (April 22) states that she and her friends were amused by the Nottingham wine waiter who told them the house wine was "Carafe". In similar circumstances, I would make a point of asking whether the wine came from the north or south of Carafe.
Scott Dickson, Edinburgh
The Amberley Castle Hotel, near Arundel, W Sussex, has the quaint habit of reminding everyone who books in for a meal that they "have a strict dress code for gentlemen diners". Michael Winner need have no fear, however, that his own relaxed style would prevent him being served should he ever drop in. When asked why an exception had been made for a young man in a football shirt, the receptionist's reply was to the effect of: "We are running a business, after all."
Mike Butterworth, by e-mail
I recently went for a birthday drink at the Ritz. I was wearing a jacket, but no tie, and as my wife and I entered the hotel, the doorman politely asked if we were headed for the bar. When we replied that we were, the doorman said: "You'll need a tie, sir. If you don't have one, the barman will oblige" - which he duly did. As I settled into my chair, I noticed a large party at a neighbouring table, all wearing their ties ... except one: Boris Becker. I didn't want to spoil my birthday treat by debating Ritz dress code and the exemptions offered to ex-Wimbledon champions, so I sighed wearily, put on the tie and made a mental note to improve my tennis.
Michael Cole, London