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Playing away

Published 29 July 2001
Style Magazine
420th article



Howzat? Michael Winner, third from right, with some of the cricket players at The Cricketers Arms, Rickling Green (Denis Madden)

I went to The Cricketers Arms at Rickling Green, in Essex, to take a lie-detector test. Wires were attached and I answered questions about where I'd stayed the night before. You can see my response on Thursday at 8.30pm on BBC1's Celebrity Sleepover, a cross between Blind Date and Big Brother. A so-called celebrity is taken to a member of the public who lives in a place the celebrity knows not - until he gets there. The famous guest spends a day, a night and part of the next day with the host. Cameras are even placed in the celebrity bedroom. I am, without doubt, the least suitable candidate for Celebrity Sleepover. I hate being a guest. I never stay with people. People who ask you to stay want you to amuse them. You're a slave to the hosts' whims. You're on duty every second of every hour.

I've only been a guest for three nights in my life. One with Paul and Helen Hamlyn in Gloucestershire, which I enjoyed. And two nights with a very famous composer in St-Paul-de-Vence. My host was a man I greatly like and admire. I woke up in the morning ready to call room service. Then I realised there wasn't any, so I wandered down to the kitchen "Could I have coffee and croissants for two," I asked the girl on duty, considerably limiting what I really wanted. "There are no croissants," was the reply. I thought: "I could be at La Colombe d'Or sitting on the terrace ordering whatever I fancy, and here I am a prisoner!"

In my bachelor pad there are seven bathrooms and nine toilets. I haven't shared a bathroom since I was at school. As I packed for my journey to the unknown I thought: "Why am I doing this?" After the host has put up with the celebrity and vice versa, both get a lie-detector test as they answer questions about each other. While waiting for my host to be "lie-detected" - they had to play me his answers and get my response - I came across a barbecue for the teams playing cricket on the adjacent pitch. This was the England of our dreams. Summer. The sound of bat on ball. The crisp whites of the cricketers. Not those vulgar, coloured protective things they wear in one-day cricket today.

I surveyed the grill handled by Sean Proctor, son of Tim, the pub's owner. All barbecues look alike. I chose a sausage, a lamb cutlet and a hamburger. The burger was home-made and rather good, the lamb cutlet unpleasantly bland, not nearly as fine as those I have from R Allen of Mount Street. The sausage - "standard cumberland from Smithfield market" - was reasonable.

The cricket match was between men who sell plywood and men who sell hardwood. This is a serious fixture in the south of England. There is plywood versus hardwood, plywood versus softwood and softwood versus hardwood. "Hardwood won it last year, plywood the year before. So it's reasonably well poised at the moment," plywood player Mark Dorey explained. The lady sitting next to me complained her hamburger was raw.Mine was cooked perfectly, medium rare. I apologise for the modest position I've taken in our photograph. To those of you who live only to see a clear vision of me every Sunday, I'm the overtanned person, third from the right.

The BBC drove me home in one of those absurd white Cadillac stretch limousines that could accommodate a boyband and half their stadium audience. Thereafter, I retired to Belvedere, Marco Pierre White's splendid restaurant in Holland Park. He has a superb new chef, Matthew Brown, who can knock off pig's trotters and ballottine of salmon with equal skill. The blackberry soufflee is memorable.

Marco particularly wanted me to see his second redecoration, following the original turgid effort by David Collins. The place is vastly improved. A marble staircase now leads to the first-floor dining area, which sports Chinese wallpaper with flowers and butterflies and a new parquet floor. Downstairs there's also new silk wallpaper, Italian old-master prints and lovely Venetian Chinese-type lanterns with tassels. Unfortunately, they're hung so low the tassels knock diners on the head. I made my view clearly known and I think they'll be uplifted. All the place needs now is a pianist. "Ridiculous idea," said Marco. "Doesn't do Le Caprice any harm. You have one at the Mirabelle. It'll warm up the dark winter nights," I responded. "We'll get a piano and man to play it when you come, Michael, and get rid of them both the next day," replied Marco dismissively. He's a wag, isn't he?



Letters

Why all these put-downs of Cliveden (July 1 and 15)? We are regulars and we love it and so do all the people we meet there. Okay, it's not cheap, it's not perfect and it's a very old building -which means things do sometimes go wrong. But the staff are always lovely to us, the food is great, the spa is a haven for us hard-working, smog-ridden Londoners and it's only 40 minutes away by car. The building is breathtaking, a former stately home in amazing grounds on the banks of a lovely stretch of the Thames. What more do you people want, exactly?
Nick and Natasha, London

Michael Winner writes (July 15) of his visit to Gravetye Manor. He appears ignorant of the historic past of this place, which is a shrine for garden lovers. Gravetye Manor was where William Robinson, a pioneer of modern gardening, laid out his beds, which are still visible. Later, another great name in English gardening, Gertrude Jekyll, improved on Robinson's work there. I thought everyone knew about that. Mr Winner obviously didn't. If he had, it might have tempered the acerbity of his comments on the hotel.
Francis Bennion, Budleigh Salterton, Devon

Can someone please enlighten me as to why Michael Winner persists in considering Harry's Bar (July 8) to be the best restaurant in the world, despite the loss of its lone Michelin star? Having eaten there last October and paid a fortune for the "privilege", I found it by far the most disappointing meal of my entire holiday. The starters were passable, although costing enough to purchase a minor renaissance art treasure. But the risotto primavera would not have made it into Delia's How to Cook, and the main course, a creamy scallop baked mess, hailed on the menu as a signature dish, was so bad it made charter airline meals look good. Am I missing something?
Kevin Moran, by e-mail

I find my ghast totally flabbered by the vitriolic response of Gordon Berry (July 15) to my letter about the Winner Appreciation Society. To suggest Cheshire is "the soft, overfed underbelly of Manchester" is a slur of historic proportions. Were I and the rest of the northern chapter vindictive, we could retort that: Yorkshire born, Yorkshire bred, strong in arm, but thick in head. But we are not, so we won't.
M Montgomery, Woodford, Bramhall, Cheshire

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