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Who can outdo my 70th birthday? Me, on my 75th

Published 27 June 2010
News Review
884th article

Geraldine and Michael at the Locanda San Vigilio on Lake Garda (Nic Guttridge)

In one of my regular late-night telephone calls from Marlon Brando, he said, 18 months before he died, "I now realise nearly all my friends were good-time friends. I think I've only got five real friends in the world and I like to think you're one of them."

"If you've got five real friends, Marlon, you're doing very well," I responded.

This comes to mind as I plan my 75th birthday party, to be held, not on October 30, my real birthday (then I'll be in Venice with my real friend John Cleese because it's his birthday too), but on October 9 and 10, when JC is performing his one-man show in Denmark.

For my 70th I flew a group of 30 people to Venice. This time, assuming I'm still alive, I'm taking over Europe's best hotel, the Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, for 11 couples.

They're not all real friends in the full sense of the word. I'd say four of them are, including my very special fiancee, Geraldine. The others I greatly like but couldn't rely on if poo hit the fan. Add Cleese and it's five.

We'll private-jet out on Saturday morning, dine in the Feltrinelli and on Sunday cruise the lake to Locanda San Vigilio before returning from nearby Verona. San Vigilio is a splendid restaurant which featured in my TV show. A stunning location, lovely old building, great views.

When I went with the TV crew, there was a hiccup. The visit had been arranged by Markus Odermatt, boss of Villa Feltrinelli. The receptionist, Emma Simonelli, viewed us as criminals intent on nicking the cutlery. To get the TV people in I had to phone the superb general manager, Adriano Girardi, who was with his family in Venice. Family above me? Ridiculous. Then, with his blessing, we proceeded to the lakeside terrace. Only four people were lunching there. The TV director asked if Geraldine and I could sit where they were. The difference was about three feet. The two tables were adjacent.

I suggested the waiter, Aliv Zilbehar, please ask this group to move. He looked at me as if I'd ordered the murder of his mother, father and children. So I spoke to the diners myself, a delightful Austrian family led by Dr Heber from Innsbruck. They'd all seen and loved Death Wish, were totally pleasant and didn't mind swapping tables. I gave them a bottle of champagne. We chatted throughout the meal. Zilbehar thawed from hostile to neutral.

The food from the chef, Giorgio Tomasini, was, as always, fantastic. The starter, a courgette pudding on a bed of tomatoes, was soft. It featured cheese plus pasta or chicken. Geraldine said haddock. "It's white, that's all that matters," I said, dictating, "This was absolutely outstanding. A revelatory new experience." We followed with lavarella, a fish from the lake. There was, mercifully, no attempt to lay out the veggies in decorative precision.

"What's this?" I asked Geraldine.

"Sweet peppers," she answered.

"They go very well with the fish because the fish is white and the sweet peppers red and orange. It's called colour contrast," I reflected.

Dessert, white mousse surrounded by peaches, raspberries and other berries, was perfect. The chef then produced his speciality - ice cream inside kumquats, walnuts, greengages, everything. Just extraordinary. A spectacularly good meal. Chef Tomasini is a hero.

My movie The Jokers just played at the Edinburgh film festival. The programme described it as "using comic dexterity to hint at the era's underlying distemper. Michael Winner divines magic from a restless script ... effervescent and breathless". On top of that it still earns me Universal Pictures profit cheques. It's at the National Film Theatre in 2011. I'll try to remind you on time.

The film provided a memorable meal in 1966. While filming in Curzon Street Michael Crawford, not a big spender, invited Oliver Reed, me and that great actor Harry Andrews to lunch at the nearby "in" place, the White Elephant.

"He won't turn up," I warned Oliver.

As lunch approached, Michael vanished. I saw a distressed Oliver running up the concrete back stairs of the office complex above the Curzon cinema, searching for Michael.

"Don't worry, Oliver, I'll pay," I said. The lunch took place minus Michael.

That night, Michael and Oliver wore evening dress for our shooting in Trafalgar Square. As Michael came on the set, Oliver rushed up, grabbed him and held him above one of the fountains.

"Pay up for lunch now," he said, "or I'll throw you in."

"Oliver, no," I begged. "We have to shoot - you'll ruin Michael's clothes." Michael paid and stayed dry. He now makes jam in Kerikeri, New Zealand. He's a great talent. Oliver's acting in the sky. I miss them both.

  • I may be getting a multi-million-pound offer for my house. "If I take it," I told Andrew Davis, owner of von Essen hotels, "as it's owned by my company, the tax will be enormous. I'll have to live abroad."

    "No country would take you," said Andrew. "They only let you stay here because they don't know how to get you out." God, the truth hurts.

    Michael's missives

    Sorry Tickle didn't stand to attention when a lady entered the hotel. Was he exhausted from the night before or do you think all von Essen dogs need retraining?
    Peter Stancomb, Wiltshire

    For once I agree with you: Marco used to be a maestro; now he's just a bore. His best boring moment was getting out of the driver's seat on TV after admitting he couldn't drive.
    Geoff Smith, Cardiff

    Wikipedia is generally accurate. But you've been a victim of one of its few weaknesses - the biographical details of minor celebrities can be very poor.
    Nick Peeling, Worcestershire

    You never mention having a paid occupation. So presumably no pension to maintain your extravagant lifestyle. If, like me, you're pulling in £130 a week state pension, how do you do it? Or is your column just imaginary rantings from your secure care-home bed? If you are in care, that would explain the dramatic weight loss. PS: is matron stealing your clothes? They do, you know.
    Peter Kealey, Manchester

    So you think John Cleese is from another planet? It takes one extraterrestrial to spot another.
    Nick Jones, Mollans, France

    I ordered beer at a chateau in Chalais. "We don't have beer: it's not in keeping with the philosophy of our restaurant," said the sommelier. A place after your heart, Michael, but not for those of a lower order!
    John Sims, Charente, France

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