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Call Johnny Hallyday - the dancing girls are in town

Published 5 August 2012
News Review
993rd article

Wendy Johnson and Geraldine give Bonifacio Brass a chorus of approval (Arnold Crust)

Kiddies, take up your schoolbooks and concentrate. In the 10th century, Torcello, a small island off Venice, had a population of at least 10,000 and was even more powerful than Venice. From the 12th century on, it became a swamp, malaria was rife and the inhabitants abandoned the island and went to Murano (now a tourist trap because of its glass products), Burano (where old ladies sit in doorways making lace, although the stuff in the shops largely comes from Japan) or Venice, a city of great beauty whose main function is to fleece the tourists.

Torcello is left with a population of about 20. It also has an old inn, Locanda Cipriani, one of the best restaurants in the area, if not the world. The owner is Bonifacio Brass, son of the soft-porn movie director Tinto Brass. His late mother, Carla, was the sister of Arrigo Cipriani, of Harry’s Bar fame.

Parallel to this - it's most important you get the facts down correctly - in 1987 Wendy Johnson, Geraldine's sister, formed the Bendy Dance Studio in Milan with her husband, a choreographer called Ben. If you feel like learning a bit of tap, flamenco hop-de-hop or any other form of musical gyration, I recommend it.

Geraldine at this time was a considerable star of French theatre and television, where she cavorted with Johnny Hallyday, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Sacha Distel, Petula Clark, Francoise Hardy, Gilbert Becaud and Brigitte Bardot. She later abandoned fame and fortune to marry me, which, strangely - and thankfully - she declares the best decision she has ever made.

Wendy flew from Milan to Venice to be with sis for her birthday. I suggested we go to Locanda Cipriani, a delightful 30-minute boat ride from Venice. You end up chugging along a narrow canal with flowers and trees on each side. At the end you have to stop, because there’s a walkway bridge and you’ve reached the Locanda.

You know it’s very posh when you get the menu, which is only in Italian. I hardly recall what we ate - are food writers supposed to remember things like that? Then count me out - but I do recall that Wendy had fried soft-shell crabs. Then somebody, must have been us, had tuna tartare, risotto with vegetables, mixed grilled fish and other things, all totally superb. It was served in a leafy arbour in lovely gardens facing the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with its incredible Byzantine mosaics, and the church of Santa Fosca - almost all that’s left of Torcello's numerous palazzi, its 12 parishes and 16 cloisters, as the Venetians recycled the useful building material.

The Locanda Cipriani is where Ernest Hemingway stayed while he wrote Across the River and into the Trees. I know a very nice couple of TV commercial writers who stay there every Christmas.

That’s about it really. Except to tell you that both Geraldine and Wendy retain great tap-dancing skills. For me, it takes extreme effort just to sit down.

  • It started with an excellent weekend meal at London’s Le Caprice, which has a special brunch menu. Totally historic duck salad with oriental veggies and watermelon, a combination of great flair, and then some first-class liver.

    Then I entered la-la world. On the menu it offered bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

    "Could I have one of those to take home, please?" I asked Jose Torres, the general manager.

    "You can have the bagel but I can't give you the smoked salmon," he responded.

    "Why?" I asked.

    "Health and safety," he said.

    I went into convulsions: "Health and safety? What’s that got to do with handing over smoked salmon? The Wolseley gives me a smoked salmon bagel endlessly."

    "It's a hot day," said Mr Torres, getting nuttier than ever.

    "You mean the Caprice smoked salmon goes off on a warm day?" I asked. "And it isn't even very hot. All over London shops are selling smoked salmon and passing it to customers. What's health and safety got to do with it?"

    "I'm sorry," muttered Mr Torres, and he fled.

    Geraldine said: "Ask if they do doggy bags." To that, Mr Torres answered yes.

    I said: "So if I order a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese, eat the tiniest bit and ask you to put the rest in a doggy bag, you will?"

    Mr Torres looked thoroughly discomfited, as well he might, and responded: "When you leave, I have a surprise for you."

    The surprise was a takeaway bag with a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. I guess he'd been on to the health and safety people and got special clearance.

  • From Nick Adams, of Co Clare. Hymie is working as a mortician, preparing a body with the largest penis he's ever seen.

    "I have to show this to my wife," he says. So he cuts it off and takes it home in a box.

    "Becky," he says. "Take a look at this."

    Becky opens the box and screams: "Oh, my God! Schwartz is dead!"

    Michael's Missives

    After last week's comments about the Queen and whales, I'm concerned that during your recent hospital stay they surgically removed the last remnants of your good taste and sense of humour.
    Nick Peeling, Worcestershire

    Last week's photo was the best for yonks. Just two gorgeous ladies and no sign of the scruffy tramp who usually manages to intrude upon proceedings.
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    Were it not for the ever-lovely Geraldine, your pictures would be most depressing. Move to Hexham. Apart from the benefits of life in Northumberland, you'll find a better grade of charity shop from which to select your jackets and shirts.
    Al Rose, Northumberland

    The Chewton Glen reception failed to answer my calls. The crab salad was full of shell, the wash basin clogged. Once there was no marmalade or jam at breakfast. The watercress and smoked salmon soup looked unbelievably filthy. Grip is the word and there was little to be seen. The managing director, Andrew Stembridge, wrote, apologising. He referred to me as "Mr Shipman" (the murderer?). The sloppiness seemed all pervasive.
    John Shipton, Kent