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Hosting a blockbuster of a star-studded birthday bash

Published 4 October 2009
News Review
846th article

In Michael's cinema at his birthday party for John Cleese. Front row, left to right: Michael Caine, John Cleese and Nicole Farhi. Back row, left to right: David Hare, Michael Palin and the host (Dinah May)

I was in the south of France and the phone rang. It was my friend John Cleese. "Can you recommend somewhere for my 69.9th birthday party?" he asked. "I'm having the 70th five weeks later, in California." I recommended the private room at Nobu or the Goring hotel.

Putting the phone down I said to Geraldine, "He's so generous, John. He's just gone down the pan $20m to a lousy cause (grasping ex-wife), leaving him with massively less. Yet he still wants to lavish entertainment on friends."

"Why don't we give him a party at your house?" said Geraldine. I don't know what happened for the next five minutes because I fainted.

When I came to, I phoned John and said, "I'll do the party, you invite the guests."

This was an extraordinary gesture. The last party I gave was 20 years ago, for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He famously said, after my speech of welcome, "Michael is more than a good friend to me; he's a complete stranger." We made up later.

I don't believe in entertaining at home. I called my favourite caterer, Johnny Robertson-Roxburgh of the Admirable Crichton. Menus were discussed, furniture moved, tables brought in. We had seven waiters for 34 people, champagne and canapes served in my private cinema, a beautifully cooked meal - the caterers bring their own ovens - of beetroot-marinated salmon, chicken and thyme pie, saffron-scented salad of fig, blackberry and red grape with clotted cream and a birthday cake that was a wedding cake with a bride and groom on top and, in icing, the words "Better luck next time".

A photo on the menu was captioned: "Michael Winner and John Cleese on his honeymoon in St Lucia with Alyce. Right friend. Wrong wife." Guests included Michael and Shakira Caine, David Hare, Nicole Farhi, Michael Palin and Leslie Caron, whose fascinating autobiography has just been published.

I rose to speak. "I want you to know," I announced, "what I say now comes from the heart. This party is a f****** nuisance."

I hate giving parties. Will everyone arrive on time? Will someone drop out at the last minute? Will guests stain my antique furniture? Miraculously, nothing awful occurred. The food was spectacularly good. I produced historic red wine from my cellar. White Puligny-Montrachet flowed.

Johnny rang me before the event and said, "Have you looked at the quote?"

"I trust you," I replied.

"Did you notice the garlands round the chicken pot pie?" said Johnny.

"What garlands?" I asked. "Flowers, herbs - they look very pretty," replied Johnny.

"Can you eat them?" I asked. "No," said Johnny.

"How much?" I inquired. "Thirty-two pounds per person," answered Johnny. Nobody noticed their plate wasn't garlanded.

Johnny brought lovely candelabra and lots of bits and pieces that helped the luxury look. Add my magnificent house, the beautiful Geraldine . . . and the only letdown was me. Mind you, John's guests were a load of old scruffs. The best-dressed people around were the waiters. But then what do you expect from a man brought up in Weston-super-Mare?

A couple of weeks earlier the Admirable Crichton and Johnny had produced an incredible lunch for three. I was between cooks. Since remedied by the arrival of Lulu. She's great. My guests were Alison Sharman, the dynamic head of factual and daytime for ITV, and her stratospherically important boss, Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television. We had cumin-spiced cucumber mousse, roast breast of barbary duck and treacle tart with poached kumquats, oranges, sorrel cress and yoghurt. One of the best meals ever. Great company. I learnt a lot.

As Alison and Peter climbed into my 1966 Rolls Royce Phantom V to return to work, Peter remarked, "People will think we're getting married."

I said, "Dammit, knew I'd forgotten something. The confetti."

  • An apology: it's completely untrue to say John Cleese's guests were just a load of old scruffs. They were lovely, elegant, deeply intelligent, refined, witty, brilliant conversationalists . . . and a load of old scruffs.

  • A complaint: that great executive, Peter Fincham, is causing me angst. I'm so upset I can hardly sleep during the day. I read he may leave ITV to head up Channel 4. How dare Peter place job aggrandisement and other self-serving accoutrements above me?

    If I give you a bag of Smarties and a vanilla ice cream every day, would that induce you to stay, Peter? Not enough? Who do you think you are? Tony Ball? For the non au fait group, Ball's the man considered for the ITV chief exec post who said the money wasn't enough.

    Michael's missives

    To raise funds for your debt why don't you auction your ego on eBay?
    Martin Langley, Surrey

    In last week's photo it looked like Peter Wood was holding you up outside Caraffini. Or was it one of his Winner rubber dolls? It appeared as if he was trying to make you squeak. As you're £6m in debt, I'm sure you squeak quite a lot. With the new guidelines Peter won't go down if he helps you out of your misery. "Calm down, dear, it's only an assisted suicide."
    Robert Hughes, Surrey

    So Peter Wood is worried about people choking on a bit of Michael Winner if he sends out his esure Winner dolls. Doesn't he realise thousands of people already choke on a bit of Michael Winner every Sunday?
    Tim Burton, Berkshire

    I can't believe that after paying £58,000 for three weeks at La Reserve de Beaulieu you thought your dinner "freebies" were actually free! Congratulations on irritating me even more than you usually do.
    Stephen Sewell, Northumberland

    If you considered the turbot at La Reserve to be pricy, what about Flanigans at Porta Portals in Mallorca? A menu starter read "well chosen tomato". It was a single chopped tomato. Price: £12! A dining experience combining humour with hunger!
    Ivor Nullsor, Cheshire

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