Twice as good as it was - half as good as it should be
Published 6 March 2005 News Review 608th article
'Mr and Mrs Winner' as they appear in the new esure commercial (Stephen Morley)
Joy has returned to the nation with my new esure commercials in which I play Mr and Mrs Winner. When I shot them recently at Shepperton Studios I feared the lunch break.
On my visit in October 2003 I suffered one of the worst meals ever. The catering company was then replaced. That could be one of my minor achievements.
But I was not encouraged when, after the change, Ian d'Ath wrote to this column about Pinewood Studios, which has the same caterer as Shepperton. "The restaurant food and decor has plunged to the depths of a vastly overpriced works canteen," he intoned. Mr d'Ath invited me to join him at Pinewood "to force the studio's catering management to take some action".
Stuck at Shepperton for a one-hour lunch break I found myself facing the replacement catering company, the Missing Ingredient. I can tell them what's missing right now. Quality. I wouldn't call the new regime out of the frying pan into the fire.
But if you make a change at least let it be more positive.
Exiting from lunch my producer, Ron Purdie, asked: "Out of 10, how much?" "A weak five," I answered. "What was it before?" queried Ron. "A weak two," I replied.
"Well, that's an improvement," said Ron. "Not exactly gargantuan," I declared, heading back to don my exquisite female clothing from Evans in Oxford Street. They used to be called Evans Outsize. I rather liked that.
The studio restaurant is now named Oscars. It looks better than it did before.
There's a lounge area as you come in, the white walls appear to have been repainted and there are framed film stills including one from The Third Man, my favourite movie of all time.
On my first lunch I was with Sian and Chris Wilkins, highly bright and experienced advertising people, who wrote my two very funny commercials.
At ten to two, having ordered in ample time, we still didn't have our desserts. I had to gobble down my dreadful chocolate fudge gateau. It lay heavily on me for the rest of the day.
I'd started with Thai style crab cakes with sweet chilli and hoi sin sauce. If there was any crab in them I couldn't identify it. They tasted like extremely dreary potato cakes.
My main course was pork and leek sausages on a bed of creamed potato finished with crispy leeks and red onion jus. I dictated into my tape: "There wasn't anything appetising, so I left nearly all of it."
I asked the restaurant manager, Mark Palmer, if the potatoes were cut up, mashed and cooked in the kitchen. He answered: "I think so." I said: "Please be sure." He said he'd check and come back to me. He didn't. So I assume they were from a packet.
My lunch the second day was with insurance boss Peter Wood. He made almost everyone in the nation richer by creating Direct Line insurance and cutting out the middleman. Now he does the same with esure. I saved £3,000 a year when I first went with him.
Peter ordered the most expensive wine, a Medoc, sniffed it, said "It's off!" and sent it back. The bread, though, was superb. It would have graced any posh restaurant. My leak and potato soup was tepid.
The main course was cleared at 1.45pm. Not much use when you have a tight hour for lunch.
I'd had chicken pie, which was unspeakable. The pastry was not flaky as described on the menu.
It was gooey.
Peter Wood said of his steak: "It's okay, it's edible." Sian liked her cod. She'd had it the day before. My dessert, spotted dick, was remarkably pleasant. My cameraman, Ousama Rawi, reported it took him forever to get the bill and when it came it was wrong.
Back on the set my first assistant director, Marcia Gay, said: "Our lunch in the canteen (same caterers) was disgusting, I sent it back." I asked Dinah May, my hair expert, where she had lunch. She said: "The canteen, it was terrible." "What did you have?" I asked. She replied:
"Leek sausages that were hardly cooked and red cabbage, which was tasteless."
My beautiful wardrobe lady, Tamlin, said: "We had to queue for a very long time."
Alan, expertly applying lipstick and rouge to me, had complained because the plates were cold.
"I was told there were only two people who knew what they were doing and they were short staffed," he recalled. So if you think filmmaking is all glitz and glamour, eat at Shepperton Studios - that'll reveal the reality.
PS: Shepperton as a workplace is fine. That's what matters most. But in Los Angeles studios the food and ambience are great too.
Delighted to read last week that you so enjoyed your prune tart. It takes one to know one.
Will Johnson, Suffolk.
As a "poor boy from Willesden" you may let the side down in many ways, but not (Winner's Dinners, last week) by eating cheese from your knife. My grandmother, born 1890, educated "sur le continent", family house on the Champs Elysees, knew about these matters. She was fond of declaring that cheese is the only thing one may eat off a knife.
Robert Holland, Birmingham.
I'm concerned. What was a man called Arnold Crust doing in your George V hotel suite (Winner's Dinners, last week) on St Valentine's night of all nights? And taking photographs too! Perhaps he's an honest member of the Crust family trying to earn a living in that hotel?
John Henty, East Sussex.
I'm glad you more or less liked Valentine's Day dinner in Paris. It's amazing, given your years and dining experiences, you've not learnt to enjoy a leisurely meal! The chef may have been discourteous in terms of time, but he is French and you are only English regardless of your wealth and profile. Also your reference to a spin drier indicates your distance from things domestic. I think you'll find your housekeeper, like most of the population, uses a tumble drier.
Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta.
Michael Winner is a bad influence. I swore I'd give him up for Lent, accounting him responsible for my weight. What happens? I put on weight. Lured back by his exploits in the George V, his "souffle of chocolate and blue mountain coffee" had me rushing to the kitchen to make something delicious. Now I'll roast in hell for breaking my Lent resolution. There I'll meet popes, bishops, sinners . . . Winners. They do say "Heaven is for the lighting. Hell for the company."
Ciaran MacGonigal, County Meath.
The only "jarring note" in last week's column, after your grumbling about the misspelling of "Welles" and "Vivien", was your inability to spell the name of an Agusta helicopter. "Augusta" is the name of a large American golf course. Surely you don't need to fly around in something that size? On second thoughts . . .
Geoff Ford, Durham.
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