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Stately progression after scandalous shortcomings

Published 13 September 2009
News Review
843rd article

Michael outside Cliveden with Stefan Georgescu and Sue Crowley (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

The worst-run hotel I ever visited was Cliveden. I went in June 1999 foolishly thinking, as it was in Berkshire, it would be near Chequers, where Tone had asked me to lunch. In fact it was further from the PM than my house in Holland Park.

The managing director of Cliveden was John Tam; the manager, Ross Stevenson. Mr Tam has thankfully vanished. Stevenson roams from one minor hotel in the Caribbean to another. Cliveden is now part of the von Essen group, run by Andrew Davis. It's gone from disaster to triumph.

In 1999 my tea arrived minus sandwiches, scones and cakes. When they came they were old and tired.

A guest said to me, "You're not going to write about this dreadful aeroplane food, are you?" Ten years ago the room was an astronomical £450 a night. There was dust on every surface I ran my finger along. The breakfast came without toast. Vanessa, my then girlfriend, tried to eat melon with a teaspoon because the staff had brought no proper spoon. Your name was displayed on the bedroom door. No confidentiality. The lunch menu said, "Half bottles page 31". There was no page 31. Vanessa looked at our buck's fizz glasses and said, "They're filthy." We walked out and had lunch in Chelsea.

Mr Tam, knowing he was going to get slated, issued a press release banning me. The Daily Mail sent someone down and ran a two-page headline, "For once Michael Winner got it right". They found shoddy service, third-rate food, dirty crockery, inedible pastries, no jam or marmalade for breakfast, pan-fried mullet which was raw in the middle, ducks fornicating in the swimming pool. They wrote, "There are Corsican bandits who relieve people of their money more graciously."

Letters from Sunday Times readers poured in. One called it Fawlty Towers revisited, another said that on her daughter's 30th birthday the glasses were all filthy. Present and former kitchen staff wrote describing filth that defied belief. I should have passed the missives on to the health inspector. I was going to, but the News of the World took them, promising an expose, which it never pursued.

John Tam, worst hotelier ever, wrote to me, "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." Pass the sick bag.

On my recent visit it was immaculate, no dust anywhere. We stayed in the Astor suite, a large, beautifully furnished room with a grand terrace and sweeping views of the stunningly kept grounds. The food in the imposing Terrace restaurant was a bit fancy for me, but excellent. At the next table people were eating what looked like very good roast beef and yorkshire pudding. Downstairs is Waldo's, also good. It has a framed sketch of Christine Keeler by Stephen Ward.

Cliveden was the home of the Astors. The place where scandalous orgies involving war minister John Profumo, a Russian embassy official and Swinging Sixties girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies contributed to the defeat of the Macmillan government.

Geraldine and I went on a tranquil boat trip up the Thames on a 1911 vessel with a butler serving tea. Superb chocolate eclair, fresh finger sandwiches, lovely scones, Earl Grey tea. We passed Spring Cottage, where Keeler stayed with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, assistant naval attache at the Russian embassy. John Profumo lied to the House of Commons saying he had no relationship with Keeler. Then the Daily Mirror printed love letters he'd sent her on War Office stationery. Those were the days.

A taxi driver said to me, "I think it's wonderful. I thought the Conservatives were all homosexual." A sex scandal involving our Gord might spice up his poll ratings. A ding-dong with Katie Price, perhaps? Or Ann Widdecombe.

What a difference at Cliveden now from the pathetic John Tam era. The general manager, Sue Crowley, is down to earth, practical, highly efficient, very charming. Her food and beverage manager, Stefan Georgescu, took great trouble to see we were happy.

In 1999, some strange German under-manager noted everything I said and did. He was useless. The general manager, Ross Stevenson, was too important even to show himself.

I've been to a number of Andrew Davis's hotels. The staff love him. He knows all their names. He's a detail man; he genuinely wants his guests to be well looked after. Not just difficult ones like me. At Cliveden, he's about to spend millions on a new spa and a casual brasserie.

Do I have any complaints about the current Cliveden? A couple. Guest names are still displayed on room doors. That's naughty. They should check with guests first. I don't need late-night drunks screaming, "Calm down, dear" or "Enjoy your dinner, did you?" as I try to get well-earned rest. And they have piped music. That's naff beyond belief.

Stefan explained, "At breakfast time people need waking up." I'd have thought if they were in the restaurant it would be reasonable to assume they were awake. It was lunchtime when he said it. They kindly took the music off to shut me up. That's always wise.

Michael's missives

How do you do it? Past your sell-by date, not particularly good looking and there you are out with two beautiful ladies, Geraldine and Dinah. You even get them to salute you. Write a book on your secret.
Barry Mason, Staffordshire

I note last week's photo of the delightful Geraldine and Dinah was taken by Arnold Crust. Is this a pseudonym for you? Since being £6m in debt, are you down to your last crust?
Bob Mitchell, West Yorkshire

You're now 75-ish though you don't look that age. Yet you're doubling or tripling your public appearances and workload. Your make-up artist must be worn out. Has someone "Madoff" with your money?
Don Roberts, Cheshire

I wrote to the BBC suggesting you should be on Strictly Come Dancing. I was horrified when it released its choice of minor personalities. No one near your status of self-importance and self-praise. If you did it, who would you choose as a dancing partner? If the girls had the choice, would any of them pick you?
Peter Stechman, London

Lots of restaurants list chargrilled meats. I'm convinced they wouldn't recognise it if it was put under their noses. I phoned a pub in Dorset to confirm the food was chargrilled. I don't think it was. I hope you haven't used up all your gripes. Focus on this.
E T Prout, Hampshire

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk