Michael Winner and Marcin Kot flanked by the Normintons (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
My role as insurance salesman is multiplying. Esure has formed a sister company, First Alternative, which will take on posher cars and less-careful drivers.
For their new commercial I needed a stately home. So I set out with my producer (me), my director (me), my writer (me), my production manager (me), my location manager (me). my art director (me), my butler (me), and my minder (Miss Geraldine Lynton-Edwards). Some of these functions will later be performed by real people, but to choose a stately home, I was enough.
I ﬁrst clocked Chiswick House. Beautiful, but very small, close to a noisy main road and on the Heathrow flight path. Then we went to Ham House, with considerable difficulty, because the signs to it are rare and unclear. Very nice, but too brown. Thence to Osterley Park, a massive mansion surrounded by endless grounds but still blighted by the heavy sound of traffic and a bit unrefined.
So it was south to the Surrey hills and Polesden Lacey, a beautiful National Trust property near Dorking. "Lovely, but maybe too domestic," I thought as I photographed it.
It was now past my lunchtime, which is promptly at 1 o'clock. We were in the middle of nowhere. A charming lady, Kate Jackson, managing the gatehouse at Polesden Lacey, suggested the Stepping Stones pub in Westhumble, down narrow, winding lanes and past Boxhill, a picturesque, toytown railway station. "Like nearly every location lunch I've had - and I've had thousands - this'll be a disaster," I thought as I looked at a large display of boots outside the pub door.
It was extraordinary. The whole area seemed deserted, yet we entered a packed bar and restaurant area. "Where did all these people come from?" I wondered.
I must have been bemused because I ordered a draught Guinness. Don't think I've done that before. I enjoyed it immensely. I peered over the bar into the kitchen at what seemed a highly efficient organisation. Plates were passing by. The food looked terrific.
I was hypnotised by some long sausages. I walked through to the other side of the bar and examined them closely in the kitchen. "They're from James Harris, a butcher in Reigate," said the owner, Sharon Norminton. With her husband, Roger, she was doing a lot of work.
"You want steak and kidney pie," advised Sharon. "I was about to order the sausage," I said. "You can have sausages everywhere," said Sharon with finality. I ordered a sausage as well. We were led past 20 people, celebrating a lady's 90th birthday, to a table by the fire, except it wasn't going.
Geraldine ordered home-made fish pie. The next-table group were eating prawns in a jacket potato. We got an old-fashioned prawn salad with pink sauce and salad. It was very good.
The steak and kidney pie was enormous. It had excellent pastry on top. I dictated: "As steak and kidney pie goes this is historic. Very good gravy, very good steak, soft and tasty kidney."
But the sausage beat it. I've never had such a superb sausage ever. It came with a bread roll and butter. The sausage was really light and tasty. Later, I congratulated Mr Harris the butcher. He said Judi Dench was one of his customers.
Geraldine said, "Instead of having dessert I'll finish your sausage." Then she observed, "The 90-year-old lady's got steak and kidney pie. Let's see if she eats the whole thing." "She'll be 106 by the time she finishes it," I said.
I continued with apple crumble. They'd put three dollops of ice-cream on top, so I wasn't able totally to test the crumble. "You could have taken the ice-cream off and put it on the plate the sugar bowl's sitting on," said Geraldine. "Well, I'm dumb, I didn't," I replied. "The only thing that lets them down is this ghastly looking coffee," said Geraldine, pulling a face.
Outside a group of hikers were putting on the boots I saw on the steps when I came in. There's a notice saying, "The management reserves the right to refuse admittance to those unsuitably dressed - sleeveless vests, muddy shorts or shirts, etc." Lucky I got by, really.
Roger brought their Polish chef, Marcin Kot, out for the photo. He did well. He deserves his moment of fame.
Here's an addendum to last week's piece about Skibo Castle and their ace manager, Peter Crome. We were going to investigate the Highlands in our rented Land Rover. Peter gave us an emergency carrier bag, containing a torch, water, banana, Mars bar, other fruit and chocolates. "I see there's no flare, Peter," I said. "Obviously you don't want to find me."
Last week Michael quoted £900 per night at Skibo Castle, which included bagpipes. Would it be safe to assume that more expensive accommodation would be minus bagpipes?
Edna Weiss, London
I noticed from the photograph taken outside the great Skibo Castle that Michael Winner was the only person not sporting a kilt or sporran. Does this have anything to do with protecting endangered sweetbreads, or is this too offal to mention?
Derek Ellis, Hampton Court
Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds to restore a swimming pool at Skibo! You should put the manager in contact with the burghers of Bath. They're spending circa £25m on their town pool, so could do with advice. And regarding last week's correspondent Ms Caplan, who suggested you take lady readers to dinner - why not include a male or two to keep you all company? I'm an ugly Welsh git but still more handsome than you.
Chris David, Penarth
You said at Skibo you "dined in a lovely lounge with a log fire". Didn't you know that educated people don't say "lounge" unless they're travelling first class between airport destinations.
Brian Masters, Oxfordshire
I disagree with your view last week that Peter Crome is the best hotel manager in the world. While he was at Chewton Glen I met him several times. I found him to be patronising. Maybe not to you due to your celebrity status, but to most others. His predecessor, Robin Hutson, was truly exceptional.
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire
One of John Gielgud's published letters tells us of "a mad nut called Michael Winner, a foul-mouthed creature with a certain charm - at least very respectful to me. A restless, maniac mixture of George Cukor, Harpo Marx and Lionel Bart". Do we detect skeletons lurking in the Winner family cupboard?
Tony Fell, London
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