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Hey, big spender

Published 1 July 2001
Style Magazine
416th article



Marching on their stomachs: Michael Winner and Philip Green (Michael Lindsay)

I find shops difficult. I last went to a supermarket six years ago. I put my purchases in a basket, and you know what happened? There was a queue at the till. There was nobody ready to take my money instantly. I put the basket down and walked out. I've never been back. I never shop. So when Philip Green, one of the great retailers of all time, asked me to have fish and chips with him in British Home Stores, which he happens to own, I was confused. I like fish and chips. Georgina had told me Bhs served very good food in Kensington High Street. That branch closed down. But Philip's a nice fellow. The sort of person made for the phrase "He calls a spade a spade". Which means he calls it something infinitely more robust and vulgar.

Philip bought Bhs just over a year ago. "When everyone was dotcom mad," he explained. "They thought real assets were worth nothing and fantasy was worth a lot of money." So he picked up Bhs for £200m and, in one year, increased the profit from £12.5m to £31m. Previously, Philip had the money ready to buy Marks & Spencer, but decided to back down. A pity. If anyone could have made a go of M&S, it's Philip Green. As it is, the M&S shareholders paid a fortune in the takeover battle to keep the existing management in place, and they've gone down the tubes ever since. Philip no longer wants it. Having bought, sold and run some of the biggest retail chains in this country, he now has Bhs and Mark One.

Philip was waiting at a side door to Bhs in Oxford Street and led me through towelling gowns (20% off) to the self-service restaurant. There was a colourful display of salad, quiche, steak and kidney pie, a nice- looking roasted half chicken, carrots, roast potatoes, chips. "They're not chips, they're parsnips," Philip corrected me. Lots of different rice, sausages, doughnuts, cream cakes. We proceeded to the seating area, where one table was laid with a cloth and offered waitress service. It was considerate of Philip, but I'd have been quite happy to go and get my own.

I ordered fish and chips, baked beans and a Yum-Yum Donut. "Afterwards?" asked Philip. "I'll have the doughnut now," I replied. "I'll have a few peas as well." It all arrived. The batter was fresh and crisp. The beans were HP, not Heinz, but they were good. My cod was excellent.

I was offered strawberry tart, chocolate gateau, mixed fruit tart and lemon meringue pie. I chose apple tart. It was fine. Not Gordon Ramsay, but extremely pleasant nonetheless. "Why aren't you having a dessert, Philip?" I asked. "Because I'm getting like you," he said, showing his stomach. Actually, he had some way to go.

A lady customer came over and said to me: "I want to tell you how good the lamb is. It's the third time I've come here. Lamb on the bone with peas, carrots and roast potatoes." Then off she went.

"Excuse me," said Philip. "That's £5.50, like the fish and chips. We sell over a million plates of fish and chips a year. Bhs has 120 restaurants across the country." As we left, I gave our waitress, Nola, £50. "That's not necessary," said Philip. "It is for me," I replied. "I won't take a free meal."

Downstairs, Philip got busy. He indicated a display and spoke to the store manager, Michael Lindsay. "What did you say, Philip?" I asked. "I told him to move those dresses down because they're not in the discount promotion. They should be separated from the discount promotion by the swimsuits. That's logical retailing," said Philip. He added proudly: "I'm personally involved in finding every piece of this product."

I was studying a takeaway area. It had large, open plastic containers of sweets. I nicked a "banana" and a jelly baby. I wanted to take a fried egg sweet, but I thought, "Enough." I do that at my local Odeon. I go round the display sweeties, take two or three and eat them on the spot. I sent a £20 cheque to the excellent manager, George Rait, but he returned it, saying it was a pleasure to have me there. I shall send the cheque to charity in the name of Odeon cinemas.

I won't bother about the two sweets I nicked from Bhs. I'd given £50 cash for lunch and the bill only came to £10.30. If Philip had customers like me every day, his profits would increase to £100m a year. He should be so lucky.



Letters

Michael Winner comments on the lack of English-speaking ability among French staff at Sharrow Bay (June 10). This is by no means unique to that establishment. Recent visits to Chewton Glen, Hampshire, and Hotel du Vin, Tunbridge Wells, have thrown up the same problem. Why? Aren't native English-speakers up to the job? Or do they lack the mystique that broken English provides?
Howard Dawson, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

With reference to Maurice Hubert's letter (June 17), it should be remembered that, however delightful, the Churchill Arms in Paxford, Glos, is a pub, not a five-star hotel. Mr Winner judges places by the relevant standards. We should do likewise.
Anne Simons, by e-mail

Michael Winner has plumbed new depths of boorishness with his review of Manchester's Lowry Hotel (June 17). He wonders why he was subjected to the recording in the lift announcing opening and closing of the doors. Has it ever occurred to him that the facility is for those who are visually impaired, and not for selfish guests like himself?
Paul Harris, Manchester

I understand from a friend that Michael Winner wasn't too impressed with Cliveden. I wish I'd read that before we decided to spend our honeymoon night there. The hotel was so poor that I spent two hours of the day composing a letter to the manager. That was in October, and I've heard nothing back. We were virtually ignored when we arrived. Breakfast was minuscule, served on a cold plate by a surly girl. The room had wallpaper peeling off in small areas and the woodwork was dusty. We were asked if we'd like to pay extra for flowers in the room, which I'd have thought would be present in a high-calibre hotel anyway. We ordered tea in the hall, but were ushered into a small room in which the staff proceeded to store tables and chairs. It was like something from Fawlty Towers. After an hour, the tea still hadn't arrived. I seriously regret paying the bill now. Do they treat all their guests like this?
Rosemary Leheup, by e-mail

As president of the Winner Appreciation Society (northern chapter; membership two), I humbly request his appraisal of Hakkasan in London. AA Gill and Jonathan Meades have published diametrically opposite opinions of the place. The public eagerly awaits the only opinion that really matters.
M Montgomery, Woodford, Cheshire

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk