Published 24 March 2002 Style Magazine 454th article
Back to school: Thomas Kibasi, Michael Winner and Joe Devanny (Dinah Lagoudakos)
I gave my first "lecture" at Cambridge University on June 22, 1968. It was organised by the Film Society. Their chief David Hare, took me to dinner. He went on to become a famous playwright. A couple of years later, I spoke at the National Film Theatre and thereafter told a load of movie tales all over the place. Much of my talk to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles is still available in their book, Directing the Film, a standard tome for would-be movie directors.
I was recently invited, for the 10th time, to address the Union Society in Cambridge. In my student days, Cecil Parkinson, now a Tory peer with a posh accent, debated there with a very northern voice. He was a leading light of the Labour club. Tam Dalyell, now a left-wing MP and scourge of the Tories, was chairman of the Conservatives. Thus do loyalties change and waver as age overcomes instinct.
I went to Cambridge a few years ago as guest of honour at the anniversary dinner of my college, Downing. I flew up by helicopter, but was forced to land on a football pitch. The master, David King, had told me I could set down in the college's grassy centre space. The Duke of Edinburgh had done this. It transpired a poor boy from Willesden could not. Mr King is now the chief scientific adviser to the government. If foot and mouth returns, it's up to him to get rid of it. His Downing College days will glow by comparison with that task.
When I last spoke at the Cambridge Union, we ate at Midsummer House, an excellent restaurant, recently awarded a Michelin star. The owners wrote, asking me to visit again. Foolishly, I asked Thomas Kibasi, the senior officer of the Union, to book where students went. He chose Chez Gerard, part of a dreary chain I don't like. I suggested Mr Kibasi find a personally owned local restaurant. He opted for a Turkish place, but that had a function on (Turkish lap dancing?), so it was out. Thomas finally alighted on Michel's in Northampton Street.
I arrived a bit late, as we got stuck in a motorway hold-up caused by an overturned lorry. Michel's looks like a country cottage, with beams and old photos showing groups of people and local views. This was all set dressing. Michel's is part of a group called Oceanwide Ltd.
The food was absolutely terrible. It was beyond belief. It started well. The bread was superb. Then I had chicken-liver pate, which was just all right. My main course of rabbit was listed on the blackboard as a special for the day. This indicated
to me bunny was running round the fens a few hours earlier. It was so rubbery, I just could not cut it. I guess it came prepacked. I once had an unspeakable rabbit dish at Belvedere in Holland Park before Marco Pierre White took over. That was found to be stored in packets when Marco's people cleaned the place out. Belvedere is much improved. They have an excellent new manager and it's been redecorated. They no longer serve prepacked rabbit. I definitely recommend it.
I was desperate to eat Michel's rabbit, but it was impossible. It was like trying to cut a toy bought in Hamleys. With difficulty, I managed to get two tiny bits off. They tasted awful. The sauce was equally frightful. Only the vegetables were harmless. We didn't have time for dessert. My receptionist, Mrs Lagoudakos, accompanied me on this non-culinary outing. She had tiger prawns with noodles, which she said were "indescribable". She didn't mean that as a compliment. Her main-course tuna got a verdict of "awful and tasteless". The students with us, including Joe Devanny, president of the Union, ate everything without comment.
I paid the bill, thinking university fare had taken a dive. When I was a student, the Copper Kettle, one of the world's best-located restaurants, facing King's College, produced the most wonderful lunches, teas and dinners. Two lovely old ladies ran it with all the qualities of home cooking. Now it's a self-service snack place, serving horrid, plastic-wrapped, tasteless nonsense.
There used to be an eccentric but excellent Cypriot restaurant near Downing College. It did brilliant moussaka. Above the offices of the Varsity newspaper, which I edited, was a magical restaurant run by the Arts Theatre. It had tables on areas of flat roof. You looked over old Cambridge, spires and church towers, eating very tasty food. Today, it's rubber rabbit. Then the students graduate to McDonald's and Pizza Express. Who said food is better now than it was in the 1950s? I certainly didn't.
With reference to Mr Winner's article on the launch party of the new Sandy Lane (January 27), I am delighted to be deemed his least-favourite PR. He obviously favours only those who indulge in grovelling to a select few. As far as the event itself is concerned, Mr Winner claims that the party was "meagre, even for a tennis club in Epping". Unfortunately, I know little of tennis clubs in Epping, but I'm sorry his status is now so low that he is obliged to attend such places. As for the guests looking like "bedraggled extras from a casting agency", I can only refer you to the photographs of Mr Winner that appear on this page.
Jo Vickers, London.
As I read Michael Winner's words of wisdom on Sunday evening, my son was watching The Simpsons. In this particular episode, Homer tried his hand as a food critic and, at one point, ate so much that he declared his bellybutton had changed from "an innie to an outie". Has this ever happened to our hero?
Ruairi Egan, Cork, Ireland
So, Michael Winner wears silk ties from the cash-and-carry giant Makro (March 3). How on earth did he lay his hands on the necessary trade card? Does he run a corner shop in his spare time? I think we should be told.
Nigel Galloway, Bognor Regis, W Sussex.
As long ago as 1974, Mr Winner was blazing a trail as a restaurant commentator. Here is something from the Honolulu Advertiser, January 24, 1974: "At the time of the Watergate robbery we were staying in the hotel. I didn't think much of the place. They may have robbed it, but they certainly wouldn't have stayed for dinner." An apposite comment on American political history from Mr Winner. I would say that Honolulu's loss is The Sunday Times readers' gain.
Simon Kenna, Newlyn, Cornwall.
As a fellow fan of the sadly defunct sole capri, I hope that Michael Winner can intervene to restore another great London fish dish - the dressed crab at Bentleys. My wife and I recently went to this charmingly old-fashioned restaurant. However, the crab was no longer available as a main course, and it came instead as a flavourless terrine. I believe Mr Winner's pal Marco is now involved with the restaurant. Could he have a quiet word with him?
Gerard Connolly, London
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