Home - Browse reviews - Bibliography

Lights, camera... and drop the dead ostrich

Published 13 April 2003
News Review
509th article

Location lunch: Winner and cameraman Tony Imi at sweet potato (Simon Crook)

I like knocking on strangers' doors. I've been doing it for 47 years. I performed recently in Reigate looking for a living room in which to shoot my new esure commercial, currently premiering on a TV near you.

I'm again partnered with that brilliant actress Julia Foster. The first one became a cult item. Frank Skinner impersonated me saying "Calm down dear, it's a commercial" on his TV show. And Chris Moyles, on his excellent Radio 1 programme, "pirated" the same phrase from my TV spots and plays it regularly. Long may he do so.

Thus Greg Delaney, head of esure's posh advertising agency, who thought my commercial script rubbish and resigned the account rather than be associated with it, looks sillier every day.

I knocked on one door at 4pm. Two elderly couples were finishing Sunday lunch.

"We've just read your column," a man said. "I'm glad someone reads it," I replied.

They invited me to join them in sipping port. "I can't, thank you," I responded, "my girlfriend's outside." "Oh, the memsahib's outside, is she?" said the man.

I checked out the living room. From the window I could see weeds 3ft high. "You're not a keen gardener, are you," I murmured to the lady showing me round. I settled for a nearby residence owned by a lovely man who does something with violins.

Later I returned to esure's Reigate offices, where we were to shoot a second commercial, and then on to my chosen house. The memsahib was replaced by my production manager, a lighting cameraman, an art director, a gaffer (chief electrician, to you) a location manager and a health and safety officer. They needed lunch. Mary Davidson, esure's head of marketing, suggested sweet potato.

"Peter Graham's eaten there," she said in reverential tones. Mr Graham, who has a marvellous, giggly laugh, is esure's chief executive.

"We'll see what he's like on food," I thought. Sweet potato (they rather pretentiously don't use capital letters) is a simple place with wooden tables and 1950s-type chairs. "They're beech," said Crispian Sallis, my art director. Then he changed to "plywood".

"Perhaps it's beech plywood," I suggested. Crispian reconsidered. "It's plywood laminated with beech, I swear," he said with finality.

Tara Unwin is the welcoming co-owner. Her husband Carn does the cooking. A large menu included a selection of sausages and mash. I chose "ostrich steak served with a red wine cappuccino on a bed of dauphinoise potatoes with roasted vegetables".

"This ostrich steak is seriously horrible," I dictated into my tape recorder. "I can't quite make out what it tastes like. But certainly nothing like I've ever eaten before or will ever eat again."

My film crew had sausages or fish cakes. They liked them. Although Tony Imi, the cameraman, said he couldn't taste the boar in his boar sausages.

"Just shows, Michael, you shouldn't go for the most expensive thing on the menu," admonished Alan Martin, the gaffer.

He was referring to a story I'd told them. In the mid-1950s I was first assistant director on the second unit of a TV series called Mark Saber. It starred Donald Gray, a handsome South African newsreader with one arm, playing a detective. We'd go round London filming a double for Mr Gray entering and leaving buildings. I had to take the crew to lunch. They never checked what the food was. They just looked at the prices on the right and ordered the most expensive items.

I now flashback to sweet potato's home-made tomato and basil soup, which was unquestionably superb. There was very good pitta bread with it. Ron Purdie, the production manager, later decided it wasn't pitta bread, it was ciabatta. I have no opinion on the matter. If I did, it would probably be wrong.

I can, however, give an expert view of the desserts. I had a raspberry cheesecake.

"It's definitely heavy with whatever it is," I dictated. "Crispian's white chocolate cheesecake is also rather heavy. They're both cloying."

As we left, Tara assured me ostrich was really popular. Carn added: "It's quite a strong flavour, isn't it." I remained silent.

Two weeks later I arrived at the esure offices. Filling the parking area were artistes' caravans, portable toilets, catering wagons, a camera car, a bus for the unit to eat in, generators - all the usual film-making detritus. I immediately ordered a toasted fried egg sandwich and some tea from "J&J caterers to the film industry".

A fried egg sandwich and a cup of tea are always terrific. At 6.30 in the morning, having got up at quarter to five and been an hour on the A3 and the M25, they become totally historic.

Winner's letters

Described as "a small hotel with distinctive charm and a refined atmosphere", Les Muscadins in Mougins, France, didn't live up to its promise. We were greeted by a bored-looking teenage girl who showed us to our room tucked away at the back, which we didn't like. There was no soap. And no water in the mini-bar. The dinner service was sloppy and breakfast was ruined by the sound of maintenance work. We couldn't wait to leave.
Kay Parton, Marlow

We found all the Connaught staff to be kind and courteous, including the doormen (Winner's Dinners, last week). They whisked our car away and whisked it back when needed. Maybe they recognised you and turned on the surliness!
Liz Engel, Northamptonshire

British Airways coffee (Winner's Letters, last week) pales into insignificance compared with the quite pathetic attempts by Air France, the so-called gastro airline, to provide vegetarian food in its business class. After many weeks of writing to complain, all I got was a condescending brush-off.
Pierre Richterich, Leeds

I really do enjoy your comments, even if they're a bit uppity at times. I can't understand why people get angry with some of the things you write. I'm sure underneath all that veneer you're really a nice old gentleman.
Claire Jamouille, Belgium

Will someone please tell Michael Winner that restaurants like Sketch in Mayfair (Winner's Dinners, last week) have lavatories, not toilets. Toilets is one of the nastiest loan-words from the French and should never be used in polite society.
Michael Hubble, Madrid

Is there really a Lorenzo Mustard out there (Winner's Letters, March 16)? While agreeing that Virgin's track record can be as variable as the weather, my wife and I recently travelled from Preston to London for a total of Pounds 144 return. The service and complimentary fare were excellent. Both journeys were on time, the train was clean and the toilets working. With the added entertainment of overheard mobile phone conversations, the journey was over in no time.
Seymour Relish, Lancashire