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A high time with Cleese on the Fulham Road rollercoaster

Published 21 November 2004
News Review
593rd article



Winner with John and Alyce Faye Cleese and, right, Geraldine Lynton-Edwards at Bibendum (Richard Pereira)

It's the fault of the late Lord Hamlyn, originally at my strange school, St Christopher, Letchworth, under the name of Paul Hamburger, that I got into newspaper writing and movies.

I won't give details, because I know you've bought, or are about to buy, my autobiography, and everything's in there. Suffice it to say (a stupid phrase if ever there was one) in 1987 Paul opened a restaurant called Bibendum in a spectacular building he owned in the Fulham Road. He was partnered by Terence Conran and the chef Simon Hopkinson.

For a while Bibendum was the "in" place. The food was excellent, even though it was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. When I took Michael Caine he ordered grouse and got pheasant. When I took Joan Collins their caviar was massively off. And to bottom it all, in October 1995 I wrote of Bibendum: "I have recently had the worst meal I've ever eaten."

But in spite of wobbles I was, and remain, a great admirer. The original Bibendum chef left. Others followed. In general it remains very good.

They once let a fan in to annoy Burt Lancaster when I took him to dinner. Burt was unusually becalmed. It's where Marlon Brando declined the corner seat looking into the room, which I'd offered, and sat with his back to everyone (except me) in case he was recognised. OJ Simpson couldn't get any mustard. So I said, very quietly, to the wine waiter: "If I don't see mustard on this table in two minutes I'm going to get up and scream so loudly the entire restaurant will fall silent in shock."

That threat did it.

My favourite star moment was when Joanna Lumley, my date for the evening, reduced a major Hollywood director to an oil slick when he became boisterously male chauvinistic.

I hear you mutter "Winner's name dropping is pathetic", so I'll tell you of people recently attending the birthday party of adorable Alyce Faye Cleese, hosted by her devoted and very tall husband John, ex of Weston-super-Mare, now resident in California. There were playwrights David Hare and Tom Stoppard, congenital traveller Michael Palin and my hotel hero, Jim Sherwood, boss of the Orient-Express group.

Geraldine sat between Cleese and Michael Palin, I next to Mrs Palin. She told me the nice young man from Country Life who wrote about my house was her son William, assistant curator of the Sir John Soane's Museum.

John wanted the speeches to be a US-style "roast". Mine started: "I met Alyce Faye 20 years ago. I walked to High Street Kensington from my house and turned left.

There were John and Alyce. We exchanged a few words. When we walked off my girlfriend said, 'John didn't introduce us to the lady he was with.' 'Why should he?' I responded. 'She was a one-night stand.' I reckon Alyce has now had 3,460 one-night stands. A record for her. And very tiring for John." No, I'm sorry I don't have a recording of the whole speech for you.

Let's now deal with the food. I bet you erroneously thought that was my function.

It was the best mass-catered meal (100 people) I've ever eaten. The terrine of foie gras with Armagnac was excellent, the bread warm and crisp. My main course of roast lamb with some sort of veggie tart was almost historic, the mango and coconut sorbet superb. Alyce's birthday cake was sponge with marzipan and thick white icing. Just as I like it.

To show respect for our hosts I kept my real bow tie fully tied, only loosening it, a la Frank Sinatra, after the speeches.

The previous day I'd joined John at Miller's Residence, a hotel in Notting Hill, owned by Martin Miller, founder of the famous Miller's antiques guides and who now makes gin. It's like a film set, marvellously overdressed. Crammed full of Victorian artefacts. They have eight bedrooms, a dining room (breakfast only) and a lounge.

John was hosting the launch of www.thejohncleese.com, his website. From his studio in Santa Barbara he's offering "laughs, sketches, videos, audios, texts and chats with fans". John introduced me by name, with no reference card, to 15 fans assembled in funny hats. That impressed me. I can never remember anyone's name or who they are.

Martin gave me and my receptionist Dinah miniature bottles of his gin. I passed mine to Dinah. Martin said to her: "Have a full bottle!"

"Not likely," I protested, waving it away, "she'll be drunk on duty."

If John's website makes a fortune I'll set up www.michaelwinner.com. You'll see me overweight, with my shirt hanging out, no socks and talking nonsense. If that doesn't pull 'em in, what will?



Winner's letters

Has anyone noticed the uncanny resemblance of Michael Winner to the late Barbara Cartland? The bouffant hair, the inflated ego and tortuous prose are all reminiscent of the Grande Dame. Is there a family connection?
Freddie Witney, Isle of Wight

For really decent "fries" (Winner's Dinners, November 7) come to the Gers in southwest France where, in traditional establishments, they're cooked in goose fat, which gives a delicious flavour and contains no cholesterol.
Gabrielle Cleasby, Larroucau

I'm extremely worried. I used to think Michael Winner was an objectionable, arrogant, conceited, self-opinionated individual who threw his money about in the most ostentatious manner. Despite myself, over the past year I've warmed to Mr Winner. I'm even starting to like him. I admire his stand against the discourtesy of unpunctuality, snooty restaurant staff, rowdy fellow diners and much more. Is there any hope for me?
Keith Barnes, West Yorkshire

The photo of you with Villa Feltrinelli staff is a gem. Your footwear indicates you arrived via Lake Garda by private yacht. The fact your stomach is hidden behind the manager is a masterpiece of deception.
Dr Colin Key, Portugal

Last week's photo on the steps of the Villa Feltrinelli proves your name is most definitely not an anagram of "beautifully tailored coat and hand made leather shoes"! You'll never get an upgrade to the best room dressed in a "train spotter jacket", not withstanding assassins in magnolia trees.
Heather Tanner, Suffolk

Heavens! Winner in trainers? Whatever next - shell suit?
Stephen Caunt, Buckingham

Your get-up in last week's photo surpassed everything! Anorak and trainers indeed. Please tell me your luggage was mixed up with an American teenager's on the flight over. I've always held you up as a fellow advocate of fine tailoring. Come back, huntsman jacket and untucked shirt. All is forgiven.
Maxwell Kennedy, Surrey

You can hardly expect the Feltrinelli manager to give you the best room when you turn up looking like a plumber. Mind you, that will get you the best table at the Wolseley.
Norman Coxall, Weybridge