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Roll up! Roll up! The Palladium is back in style

Our critic heads to the West End to dine at Vasco & Piero's Pavilion and watch the opening night of The Wizard of Oz

Published 6 March 2011
News Review
920th article

Michael and Geraldine arriving at the Palladium to see The Wizard of Oz (Jeff Spicer)

I was brought up at the London Palladium. In the 1950s, American stars headlined twice-weekly variety. I was 14 and wrote a column in 23 west London newspapers. The Palladium publicist, John Carlson, who had an enormous moustache, said, "You come in on Monday and on Thursday I've got 23 columns to show the star. They think you're like Earl Wilson." Wilson was America's biggest syndicated columnist. I was Britain's smallest. Two and a half readers on a good day. Thus I met Bob Hope, Johnnie Ray, Gracie Fields, Nat King Cole, Eddie Fisher and many more.

The boss of the London Palladium was one of my parents' best friends, a wonderfully tall, quiet man called Val Parnell. The only time I saw Val really cross was with Al Martino, a Palladium bill topper. "That Eyetie was cooking spaghetti in the star's dressing room," said Val, apoplectic at the dishonour to his lovely theatre.

Val died. The lovely theatre went into decline. The walls were grubby; the whole thing looked tatty. Until Andrew Lloyd Webber turned up and did an incredible job of glamorising the place, finding old plasterwork, restoring, adding 20 ladies' loos and creating the Val Parnell room, which leads up to the Cinderella bar - the most beautiful in any London theatre.

During the final previews for The Wizard of Oz, Andrew and Madeleine (his beautiful, bright wife) wanted me to see the Val Parnell room and have dinner.

On the wall in the pink-lit Cinderella bar is a fascinating oil painting by Dame Laura Knight, which Andrew found in the basement of the Palladium. It depicts a royal lady (they can't figure out who) watching the Crazy Gang on stage.

I also saw the first 10 minutes of Wizard, in which Dorothy - played by Danielle Hope, who was found through a television talent show - sang Over the Rainbow. Very moving.

We dined close to the theatre at Vasco & Piero's Pavilion so Andrew could rush back and check on things. Vasco's offered good, plain food. As Andrew, once a brilliant food critic, said, "There's nothing about this place remotely saying it wants to stand up and be a great restaurant."

My guinea fowl tortellini with Umbrian black truffle butter main course was exemplary, but took for ever to arrive.

Andrew used my line and asked the co-owner and restaurant manager, Paul Matteucci, if the kitchen was serving food. He also looked at me and observed, "You have a very celebrity life, Michael, like me."

To which Madeleine responded, "Two old farts make 10." I'm not quite sure where that fitted in, but it made me laugh.

Starter was carpaccio of pear - very good. Dessert came like lightning. It was panna cotta with cherries from Umbria. Fine.

PS Last Tuesday we went to the first night. The Wizard of Oz is fantastic. Amazing special FX. Cast, great; Danielle Hope, wonderful; Michael Crawford (nearly 70) underplays excellently. Always liked him. We did two movies together. One of my Twitter followers described the show as "magical". I agree.

  • I arrived late at Scott's in Mayfair after appearing at the National Film Theatre, which is now BFI Southbank. I was going to Sir Michael Caine's birthday dinner for his wife, Shakira. I ate soft roe on toast. I know nowhere else that does it. Absolutely fabulous. Followed by excellent rhubarb cheesecake.

    The old Scott's was a waste of space. Richard Caring turned it into one of the best places in London. But why is it like MI5, MI6 and the CIA rolled into one? I wanted to tell Shakira I'd be late. All numbers to Scott's produced hideous recorded messages or referred me to its website. Why can't it have a number for the restaurant desk like the Wolseley does? By the time you've listened to crap music and a recorded voice talking drivel you may as well top yourself. A call centre in Bangladesh is preferable. I can hear it now. Yahya calls Shakira Caine at Scott's, says, "This is Yahya Rahman speaking from Chittagong. The people of Bangladesh greet you. My family salute you. Very important man Winner says he'll be seven minutes late for dinner. You don't care? Never mind; great honour talking to your ladyship. Salaam alaikum."

    Geraldine and I have an intellectual new pastime. Geraldine asked me in the Wolseley, "What's the time?" I checked my watch, said, "2.30pm." She said, "Time for your bash," and slapped my face lightly. I found that hilariously funny. She did it again. I cried with laughter. A man at the next table had no idea what we were laughing about but started roaring with laughter too.

    Turns out he was Thomas Lewis, former head of Fortnum & Mason.

  • Tom sent me this: Hymie meets Mrs Cohen in the street. "Noo? What's going on?" he asks. "Vell," says Mrs Cohen, "I've got good news and bad news." "What's bad?" asks Hymie. "My son Jacob, he just told us he's gay. My boy, suddenly he's a gay." "That's not serious," says Hymie. "Lots of talented people are gay. Nothing to worry about. What's the good news?" "He's marrying a doctor," says Mrs Cohen.

  • As you read this I'll be in Los Angeles for the American Cinematheque three-day tribute to me and my movies, staying at the Beverly Hills hotel.

    I spent years there in the Seventies and Eighties. It used to have wallpaper with enormous banana tree leaves on it.

    I was once in the lobby when a rather scruffy girl, with an equally scruffy friend came over and asked, "How are you, Michael?" I was rather dismissive.

    My London assistant whispered to me, "It's Julie Christie." I knew her well.

    "Why are you here?" I asked. "I've brought my friend to see the wallpaper," replied Julie.

    There's also a famous pool where Marilyn Monroe swam. And a narrow coffee shop where a friend recently saw Leonardo DiCaprio breakfasting regularly. A man called Gary ran it and made the best waffles ever. Can't wait.

    Michael's missives

    Your friend suggested you become a rent boy to clear your £9m debt and offered an opening bid of £5. A bit ambitious, don't you think?
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    Despite your arrogance and southern bias I quite like you. A bit like Tony Blair liked Gadaffi. Anyway, carry on eating. You're a beacon of anti-austerity behaviour.
    Graeme Dodds, Essex

    My wife wanted bearnaise sauce for her fillet steak at the Michelin-starred Elephant restaurant in Torquay. She was told it had none and the "chef isn't able to make any". So much for Michelin-starred prices!
    Steve Long, Torbay

    At the River Cafe my soup was as thick as porridge. The dover sole had skin on both sides. The caramel ice cream was burnt. Asked if I had enjoyed the meal, I said no and told the staff why. They said the restaurant's food was always served like that. The meal was very expensive. Why the River Cafe thinks it "discovered" Italian food in London, I don't know.
    Charles Edwards, London

    Trying to book for seven people at Midsummer House, Cambridge, I was offered the private room upstairs - unsuitable as we had a diner in a wheelchair. I asked if we could have tables for three and four. I was told: only at different ends of the restaurant, with food served at different times. So much for two Michelin stars; what about customer service?
    Julie Watson, Essex

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk