With this girl's help I’m rising from the TV grave
A TV lunch at L'Absinthe in Primrose Hill provided adequate food and good company. Both a rarity in this part of London
Published 23 January 2011 News Review 914th article
Michael outside L'Absinthe with Jean-Christophe Slowik and Nell Butler (Jim Sharkey)
My spell as a TV star was killed by kindness. ITV execs were so thrilled with Michael Winner's Dining Stars they moved it from the afternoon to 9pm on a Tuesday, then to Friday night.
"You're in trouble," said Piers Morgan, after I did his Life Stories show. "Nine o'clock Friday is the graveyard slot."
The BBC came out with big guns against us: Eurovision, Sport Relief, shows that mopped up some 2m viewers who would have been floating. Enough might have settled on me to make up the numbers. As it was we were below the required audience figure. Nothing did much better in the graveyard slot until Paul O'Grady came along months later.
ITV put me with a marvellous producer, Nell Butler, to work on other projects. She devised Come Dine with Me, and is classy (rare on television), bright and the daughter of Lord Butler, the distinguished former cabinet secretary.
Nell suggested lunch near her home.
"Which restaurant do you like on Haverstock Hill?" she asked.
"I didn't know they had restaurants on Haverstock Hill," I replied. "Where is it?" Nell went into overdrive, telling me the history of the area. The highlight was that Daniel Craig lived at the end of her road.
She chose L'Absinthe in nearby Primrose Hill, owned by Jean-Christophe Slowik, a former restaurant manager of the Belvedere.
We sat in a nice little room. Then sat for longer. Finally I asked, "Are you selling food, Jean-Christophe? Because you could have fooled me." I started with french onion soup. Not very liquid. It was like solid onion and cheese.
Nell got very excited when, while she was knocking back her snails, a dark-haired man walked past the window. "That's David Miliband," she said.
"How do you know?" I asked. "Because he lives up the road," replied Nell.
"Goodness me," I thought. "David Miliband shacked up with Daniel Craig. Great story for the News of the World." I stayed silent and ate my duck confit, braised savoy cabbage, jus gras. Jus is a word I hate. It's on every menu like measles. The duck was pleasant, as were the accompanying veggies.
Jean-Christophe reported that the rum baba was off. "It's on the menu: rum baba pineapple," I said petulantly. "You should have it."
"Nobody ever wanted it," said JC. "Shows the class of client you have," I responded. "Come to the sticks and that's what I get." I settled for apple tarte tatin. Good for a local.
Nell said, "Would you like to walk to the top of Primrose Hill?" "That's like asking if I want to visit the sewers in Southend," I responded.
Nell said firmly, "It's a very good view."
Not for me. Instead we had our photo taken. Nell observed, "Maybe I should've worn some lipstick."
"Maybe you should have had a ball gown," I suggested. Everyone started on about where the sun was and where they should stand. Unbelievable. My chauffeur took the photo standing where I told him to. That's what TV needs. Discipline.
At the Wolseley, Fergal Lee was running the room. Very well. He's the one who threw out my good friend the Chinese mogul Sir David Tang, then apologised. It caused much merriment.
I noticed a Chinese restaurant manager. "How did he get in?" I asked.
"Not on my watch," said Fergal with his wonderfully quiet, deadpan Irish delivery. "My parents thought your write-up about me was very funny."
"Hope they like the sequel," I said.
Let's be clear: Fergal is not racist, nor am I. But I find it utterly bizarre we're not allowed to joke about other people.
The brilliant American Jewish comedian Jackie Mason did An Evening with... for ITV. Pamela Stephenson came over at the end and said to me, "No wonder the Jews hate him: he's so anti-Semitic."
"Pamela," I explained, "the Jews love him."
The Daily Telegraph theatre critic wrote that Jackie's jokes were just the sorts of thing he'd been taught at school not to say. Per-lease. The Americans always had Polish people as the butt of their jokes, the French had the Belgians, we had the Irish. So what? The funniest evening I ever spent was in Belfast during the Troubles. I was there on Radio 4's Any Questions?. The BBC people living in Northern Ireland came out with the most hilarious stories about the Irish conflict, all politically incorrect.
Political correctness is a disease.
Actresses are called actors. The chairman of an organisation is called the chair. It's Alice in Wonderland gone berserk. Loosen up, folks. It's only a joke.
On the subject of humour: when I started putting Hymie jokes in this column, a man, I assume Jewish, wrote from north London that it was a disgrace. No Jews were called Hymie any more (oh yeah, the name Hyman is banned, is it?). Did I think I was aggrandising myself at the expense of his race? In the same post I got 16 Hymie jokes from north London and they keep coming in from all over. My movie script girl, Cheryl, sends in some of the best. She's Jewish. A woman from Golders Green even said I should do a book of Hymie jokes.
All of which goes to show one man's fish is another man's poisson.
PS Next week: more great Hymie jokes.
Your correspondent tells of Savoy Grill guests dressed in jeans and T-shirts! Clean scruffy is the new well dressed. Everyone's doing it. You started it.
Don Roberts, Cheshire
At the Savoy Grill we refused the first table offered because it was behind a pillar. My husband's crab had two large pieces of shell in it. The beef arrived plated, not carved from the trolley. The Colman's mustard was served in its pot. A plate came with petits fours on it and the slogan "Happy Birthday". None of us was celebrating a birthday. The food was adequate, not worth a detour.
Trish Abelson, London
Marilyn Jobson-Scott's letter last week about her experience at the Imperial hotel in Torquay reminded us of a Sunday brunch there. The chicken had been roasted with its giblets wrapped in plastic inside! The chef went scarlet when he noticed and rushed it from the carvery!
Stevie Long, Devon
So you're £9m in debt. Why not turn yourself into a bank? We'll nationalise you, as you're obviously too big to fail.
Anton Shellim, Hertfordshire
Hymie says, "I'm leaving England to live in Israel." His friend Abe asks, "What will you do there?" Hymie says, "I'm going to make cheese. I'll be a cheese maker." "Make cheese?" says Abe. "What will you call it?" "I thought Cheeses of Nazareth would be a good name," replied Hymie.
Trevor Richardson, Cheshire
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