Published 27 December 2009 News Review 858th article
Michael at Homewood Park, near Bath, with, from left, Denis Verrier, Andrew Davis and Andrew Onraet (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
There are people who spread joy and happiness. I'm one of them. Wha'd'ya mean you never noticed? Another is Andrew Davis. When I emailed asking what Andrew did, his PA Sarah responded: (a) farms, (b) diamond, silver and art business, (c) property, residential development and commercial development and investment, (d) retail, (e) aviation and airports, (f) hotels.
Sounds boring, doesn't it? Snooze time at best. The one thing you'll never do if you're with the ebullient, over-energised Andrew Davis is snooze. That'd be as difficult as getting a word in edgeways. Andrew owns 29 of the greatest hotels in the world. From Château de Bagnols, near Lyons, to Cliveden (long lease from the National Trust), Sharrow Bay, the Royal Crescent Bath, Amberley Castle and so on. He owns more Relais & Châteaux hotels than anyone else in the world. Has the largest helicopter business in the UK, owns Battersea heliport and the vast new hotel beside it. He's a serious contender to buy the Orient-Express group. I hope he gets it.
He's also wonderfully politically incorrect. A cross between Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill on speed, with a perfect foil in his posh, somewhat disdainful, highly efficient PA, Sarah Taylor. He was perfectly described by the former schoolteacher Joan Reen, whose hotel Ynyshir Hall he bought for many millions, but who still runs it, as "the naughty boy at the back of the class".
At 45, Andrew personifies the gloriously vulgar enthusiasm of the school show-off. Beneath the veneer of lunacy he's a brilliant businessman, a person of great taste, as serious a player as you could meet. He's about to buy two private jet companies. You could say he's acquisitive. Andrew's hotel group is called von Essen. The name has something to do with an aunt.
We flew in one of his vastly luxurious helicopters - Geraldine, his creative director Andrew Onraet and me - to lunch at Homewood Park, in Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath. It's a typical von Essen hotel in that it doesn't look like a hotel. It has the charm of a Victorian house, set in 10 acres of stunning gardens, that happens to take paying guests. The brochure describes the place as "the perfect environment to do absolutely nothing".
No chance of Andrew doing nothing. He's got 3,000 employees. I've met many of them; they adore him. He knows all their names and all the gossip. He knows where they've been for the past 50 years.
Even if they're only 21 he knows where they've been for 50 years.
The general manger, Denis Verrier, came over. Andrew explained: "French, dear. Denis, before he got married, slept with half the female staff of the company. There's a photo of Denis completely naked at the staff party. He's on the straight and narrow now he's a married man with a six-month-old child."
Andrew switched course: "We're increasing this to 35 rooms with a new spa. Spend of £2m. The rooms directed by Andrew Onraet are absolutely fantastic."
Commercial over, Andrew turned to me. "Geraldine deserves a Nobel prize, looking after you," he said. Then to Geraldine: "He buys you more diamonds because you got him at the wrong end of his life. He's not young, cute and thrusting at the moment." God, the truth hurts. "Sarah [his PA] is the great-granddaughter of Sir Francis Drake," Andrew continued. Sarah said nothing.
I ordered from the set lunch menu. My caramelised white onion soup was fantastic. I scooped it up with bread, which I never do. The bread was excellent. Then I had Wiltshire duo of pork: braised cheek, chargrilled tenderloin and apple. I was glad I'd eaten a lot of bread because it was a small main course. Andrew tapped me on the right arm. "Margins, dear, profit margins. You're on the economy menu, not the à la carte."
He bashed my dessert of vanilla panna cotta with a spoon and said, "Too much gelatine." He was right.
Andrew has a sweet tooth. All his helicopters are laden with toffees, sweets, chocolates. I used his company PremiAir to get around on my television show Michael Winner's Dining Stars. Miraculously I resisted the sweeties and stayed slim. When you're a star you have to watch these things.
For the first time in 28 years I'm not at Sandy Lane this season. Geraldine and I are at South Beach, Miami, with Michael and Shakira Caine. I hear the new Sandy Lane chef, Conny Andersson, is terrific. His pastry chef, Claire Clark, used to work at the French Laundry in California and with my favourite hotel chef, John Williams of the Ritz. Bet she does great mince pies and Christmas pud. No one could last year.
To celebrate 2010, the year when I become a big TV star, I've borrowed an extra £3m. I'm now £9m in debt. I'll spend a bit of it flying back from Miami in a Gulfstream private jet. From today, I'm at the Setai, a hotel that I was told is very posh but under-lit. I've taken a torch. Oh, and happy new year to you all.
Last week's Michael Winner photo at the Ritz was stunning: sophisticated, elegant, charismatic, not to say handsome. Who was the model?
Dennis Pallis, Kent
I'm glad you found the Ritz "tastefully Christmassed up". I couldn't believe what I saw at Claridge's in the way of a Christmas creation - 20ft high, in baby blue, instead of a traditional tree. It's in such bad taste and has eliminated the elegance of the hotel entrance. A far cry from Claridge's as we knew it. What do you think?
Gemma Levine, Mayfair
You're very busy moaning about the BBC's inability to send its cheque to the right charity for your appearance on Celebrity Mastermind. No mention of how you did on the programme. Could that be because your brainpower was also at a particularly low wattage?
Shuana Donaldson, London
I notice the cameraman on the cover picture of your tasteful Christmas card isn't wearing any shoes. I was so puzzled by this I almost forgot that you were there.
Tom Tree, Cambridgeshire
Steve Trebor, a reader, offered an anagram of your name. I suggest: whale in mincer.
Paul Davis, London
My anagram of your name is: we march in line.
Paul Stephenson, Lancashire
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