Published 29 November 2009 News Review 854th article
Clare Hambleton, Geraldine and Michael at Callow Hall in Derbyshire (David Nutt)
When I cast Faye Dunaway to be The Wicked Lady, her then husband Terry O'Neill said, "You'll have to fake a first day of shooting because Faye never turns up the first day."
I'd heard on Mommie Dearest the only thing to come out of Faye's caravan for the first week were the wigs. They came out of the window, each cut into four pieces. Stories like that never worried me.
So even though Terry is a delight (we speak almost every morning at 8am) I said, "The first day of filming is on the bridge at Ecton in Derbyshire. Alan Bates, Johnnie Gielgud, me, the crew, we'll all be there. So will Faye."
Not only was she there, ahead of her call, but I have a photo of Faye sitting on her horse with a see-through plastic bag on her head as protection from the rain. She wouldn't even go to her chair in between shots, let alone her caravan. Faysie (as I called her) was the most hard-working, dedicated actress I ever employed.
I mention this en passant (as they say in Outer Silesia) because I recently visited Callow Hall, a hotel which, like Ecton, is near Ashbourne. I was on my way to Wilmslow, a flash neighbour of Manchester, to shoot Michael Winner's Dining Stars. Loved Wilmslow. Adored Callow Hall. It's an imposing, ivy-clad Victorian residence, somewhat the worse for wear. I like that. My friend Dame Diana Rigg is a great believer in leaving walls, buildings and I guess people not tarted up.
Callow Hall has the mature atmosphere of a real house. There are only 16 bedrooms. It was originally turned into a hotel by the Spencer family, who, as per the brochure, had been master bakers in Ashbourne since 1724. The brochure also said their 17th-century scones had been baked the same way for generations.
At dinner I was suspicious of my orange juice. "This comes from a bought-in canister, doesn't it?" I suggested ominously. I got no answer, but my glass was speedily removed and replaced with fresh juice.
At tea (excellent) we were given paper napkins. They shouldn't do paper napkins and bought-in orange juice. Dinner was good to superb. The bread, made on the premises, had marvellous texture and taste. Ordering lobster bisque in Derbyshire is a risk. It was hot and fresh, with a fantastic flavour. There were scallops and shrimp with it - all great.
My main course was "bone roast quail, home-made sausage and onion farce [I think they meant farcie], oven dried grapes, marinated in sweet wine, quail and red wine jus". More information than I needed. Quail is not the greatest bird in the world and nobody can make it such. This was pretty good. The vegetables were perfectly cooked.
The dark chilled chocolate souffle, summer berry compote, chocolate fudge sauce was historic. Geraldine said her vanilla creme brulee, poached plum and home-made shortbread was the best ever.
For breakfast I ordered the famous 17th-century scone. It came without clotted cream. By the time the cream came I'd eaten the scone. Which was fine, but not fully accompanied. Clare Hambleton, Callow Hall's charming manager, was a delight. I enjoyed it and her.
I've made two disastrous decisions in my life. I bought a Ferrari and installed Chubb security alarms. The Chubb alarms went wrong even more than the Ferrari. The police were endlessly called on the "secret" phone line even when the alarm wasn't on.
For some 30 years, when turned off, the thing would suddenly beep. Engineers came. They assured me it was fixed. Beeping continued. Sometimes I punched in the code, jabbed wildly at the buttons, and it stopped. Other times it didn't.
Recently, beeping rampant, I called the Chubb customer service centre. All I got was music. I found Debbie Yeates, PA to its UK president, Paul Winnowski. He'd just arrived from America. "If I want music, I'll go to a concert," I said. Debbie arranged for an engineer.
Before he left, I asked, "Can I stop this beeping myself?"
He advised, "Put in the code and push the button labelled Step." Why hadn't I been told that before? "But it won't happen now," the engineer assured me. A few hours later it was beeping again.
I called the managing director, David Byrne. "Send someone who knows what they're doing," I demanded testily.
"The man I sent knew what he was doing," replied Byrne pompously.
"Then why's the keypad beeping?" I screamed and slammed the phone down.
I wrote to Winnowski, "The best thing you can do is close the company and give clients their money back."
Two new engineers came and reported, "The fault's in the keypad by the door. We'll change it." That had taken decades for Chubb to discover.
Paul Winnowski was now my new best friend. "It's not your fault. You haven't been here. Get American efficiency to replace the English lethargy," I suggested.
While looking for a flat, Paul is staying at the Kensington Olympia, which faces Shepherds Bush roundabout.
"That's not very presidential," I observed.
"We're on a budget," explained Paul. What do I care? I've suffered for years. Let them suffer.
Lovely to see you photographed in profile. We should have a weekly rotation of mug shot, right face, left face, back view. This will enable us to get a rounded picture of what you are really like. I was sorry to see Joanna Lumley's back had gone and Michael Caine couldn't remember which pocket his car keys were in.
Alan Stevens, Norfolk
You think only 15% of your Christmas cards reach people you want to get them. How naive. Royal Mail will lose those.
Paul Rackham, Birmingham
Re your comment on impending death: you're only allowed to be a ghost if you continue as a ghost writer.
Barbara Heyman, Cornwall
At the mention of your name the lady in my life becomes combustible. Make this Christmas memorable by sending your Christmas card. By the strategic placing of same in living room the explosive reaction of my wife will be heard in Barbados.
Michael Miller, Wiltshire
My wife has the nasty habit of turning to the back of News Review to read your missives, then your article. A Christmas card from you might cure her of this affliction.
Chris Prowse, Berkshire
Calm down, dears. I've got over 300 requests for my Christmas card thus far. I'm ploughing through. If necessary I'll print some more.
Michael Winner, Planet Earth
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email firstname.lastname@example.org