Published 11 February 2001 Style Magazine 396th article
Plane sailing: Michael Winner with the Virgin crew, including captain Tium Butler and in-flight supervisor Susan Rodgers, far right (Georgina Hristova)
I thought Richard Branson should know I was flying Virgin for the first time. Normally, I take Concorde to Barbados, then a private plane to St Lucia. With no Concorde, the quickest way was Virgin from Gatwick. Sir Richard and I are neighbours. I'm a fan. I see him in local restaurants and sometimes we have a natter. I told him I was an eccentric traveller.
Richard rang soon after getting my fax. He seemed concerned at my use of the word "eccentric", but offered a nice lady in his office, Sarah Ireland, to help. I like to choose my seat and know the names of the pilot, cabin staff and people who will receive me at the airport. As I take only carry-on luggage, I have to be assured it will go in the cabin passenger locker. This saves hours waiting by carousels, and your luggage can't get lost. Girlfriends have to be inventive with their packing. They manage.
I took Virgin's airport "limousine" - a small Volvo. It was like those television commercials where they show how roomy a car is by having 16 children in the back. Mine may have been spacious for 16 children - it certainly wasn't for me. The twisting journey through the suburbs took an hour, stopping at endless traffic lights. Coming back on the motorway with my chauffeur, the smoother drive took the same time. Ms Pat Marzetti was to be at Gatwick to greet me and take me to the Virgin lounge. She wasn't. We phoned the Virgin garage-type check-in place and a lady came to help. A security man by the luggage x-ray said: "Michael Wilding, isn't it? It's nice to see a film star."
"He's been dead for 20 years," I explained.
The Virgin lounge was jolly. Not sophisticated like the Concorde lounge. Not full of millionaires. But delightfully buzzy in a plebeian way. Mrs Raine Dochetty offered me an action massage. Or they could have done my nails. Then Pat Marzetti turned up to explain why she hadn't met me on arrival. "I might have been a little late," she said. John came and asked if I wanted my scruffy black suede shoes restored. "I may not recognise them tarted up," I said.
I ordered the Big Breakfast: "A succulent stack of roasted sausage, mushroom, beef tomatoes and seasoned potatoes, surrounded by crispy strip bacon and slices of black pudding." It was perfectly reasonable.
Pat Marzetti didn't hear our boarding announcement, so I reminded her. On the way out, John showed me the Kiwi suede and nubuck restorer he had planned for my shoes. I tried it at home. It's miraculous, I recommend it. Because I didn't have my shoes done, Georgina said: "What a moron."
"That's your standard remark to me," I responded.
"It's very mild compared to yours to me," she replied cheerfully, as we boarded the plane.
It was called Maiden Voyager, apparently the first ever in Virgin's 747 fleet. There was a girl in a red one-piece bathing costume, holding a union jack flag painted on it. Rather like a second world war bomber.
The Thai meal had been replaced with a turkey dinner, and the apple pie with mince pies. I had braised lamb shank. All aeroplane food is absurd, but this was okay. The carrots were good. Then I had mince pies and vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was horrific. They told me it was by Yorkshire Dales.
The Virgin cabin crew were marvellous. Susan Rodgers, the in-flight supervisor, looked after me. They all had a wonderful attitude and great charm. Unfortunately, they had no landing cards. So we wasted time after an eight-and-a-half-hour flight filling them out in St Lucia.
My return was on British Airways from Barbados. I admire BA. But the seats, where you supposedly stretch out as if in bed, were immensely uncomfortable. I can sleep anywhere - in the office, in cinemas, in theatres, in the middle of a conversation, during a meal - but not in these seats. Which was unfortunate, because it was a night flight. I checked the other passengers, all sleeping in their BA pyjamas. They looked ridiculous.
The little food I are was quite good. Mrs Diana Short - "I'm only a purser, nothing grand" - did a terrific job serving me.
But, please, bring back Concorde, Rod Eddington. He's the BA boss. I'm sure he's doing his best, poor thing.
As an avid reader of Winner's Dinners, I could never understand Mr Winner's use of the word "historic" for any dish. Until now. The revelation came not at an upmarket restaurant in London or Venice, but at the Varadero restaurant overlooking the harbour in Playa Blanca, Lanzarote. With the setting sun over Fuerteventura providing the view, the seared tuna was "historic", as was the creme caramel de la casa. Too many of the great unwashed for Michael Winner's taste, but then such are the trappings of fame.
Colin Paterson, Crawley
Two weekends ago, we went to London for a break. We stayed in a five-star hotel in the centre of town, and then on the Friday night went to a well-known West End eaterie. Each disappointed us. The hotel room was shabby, and not worth its five-star rating. We arrived at the restaurant only to be offered a table for two that would not even accommodate one comfortably. Only after my wife complained were we moved to a larger table. My main course consisted of two sausages with mashed potatoes (no sauce). The lavatories were filthy. On complaining, we were told, "Well, this is London, what do you expect?", a refrain we heard many times over the weekend. I am a Londoner, living in Brussels these past 15 years. Hotels costing £200 per night (with breakfast an extra £45 for two), a simple meal costing £90 without wine? I expected more from my home town. Next month we are off to Rome for a weekend. It will be a long time before we come back to London.
Steve Goodall, Brussels
I enjoyed J Hobbs's letter about the soup of the day and the microwave (Style, January 28). Four or five years ago, I was in Deauville with my wife and bored mid-teenage children. We were having lunch at a restaurant featuring a well- known local chef, and I was waxing lyrical about how fresh and wonderful the food was going to be. My words were interrupted by a gleeful younger daughter: "Did you hear that ping, dad?"
John Gould, by e-mail
Living near T'Hawes in North Yorkshire, watsup wi Inz soups (J Hobbs's letter, Style, January 28)? If tha knows where to look, tha can get owt tha wonts, from roast beef and Yorkshire pud to a prize- winning fish owse, and tha dunt need t'wear a flat cap, clogs and ave a ferret down thy trouser leg.
M B Empsall, by e-mail