Review: Unbelievable! My Life in Restaurants and Other Places by Michael Winner
JR Books, €20
By page 40 of his new book Unbelievable!, the film director, author, critic, gourmet and name-dropper extraordinaire Michael Winner has revealed that Hollywood actor Charles Bronson used to wear women's clothes, Marlon Brando was "a pain in the arse" and the hugely powerful Howard Hughes, in a bid to prevent his then girlfriend Ava Gardner from playing away, once brought air traffic to a halt between Miami and Cuba.
And there are 220 pages yet to go. Reader, I devoured them. Given the range, the calibre, the sheer audacity of the gossip contained therein, how could I not?
Opening with a potted history of his "70-year-long food binge", Winner credits his passion for all things epicurean to his vegetarian Quaker prep school, where, to help the war effort, the headmaster instructed his pupils to eat grass from the cricket pitch, served up with salads. "Needless to say, it was completely indigestible and we all became ill," goes Winner's deadpan account of what followed. "But we produced the best milk in Hertfordshire."
Following this sparkling aperitif, Winner moves swiftly on to entrees in an "unbridled report" of his dining experiences with luminaries as diverse as Warren Beatty and Salvador Dali, John Cleese and Chris de Burgh.
However, the inclusion of HM Queen Elizabeth in his star-studded list of dining companions is, by Winner's own admission, "a slight exaggeration". He didn't dine with the Queen, he confesses, "but I did host her for two hours when she came to unveil my National Police Memorial in The Mall in 2006 ... I called her darling four times ... She was absolutely marvellous and charming, and laughed at all my jokes. What more could anyone want?"
However, not all the luminaries on Winner's dining list were as engagingly benign as Her Majesty. Despite being "as good a friend as I ever had in show business", Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster tried to kill Winner no fewer than three times, most notably while filming Lawman in the wilds of Mexico.
According to Winner: "He grabbed me by the lapels, shook me practically to death, holding me at the edge of a 2,000-foot drop, threatening to throw me over the cliff, and screaming expletives."
As you do, seemingly, when you're a big movie star on location and you reckon you're being badly directed.
Half an hour later, all was forgiven and Lancaster was inviting Winner to dinner. (As you do, seemingly, when you're a big movie star on location who can fly in the main course -- in this case, lamb from Los Angeles -- and serve it up with two veg.)
Winner follows these wonderfully moreish entrees with a pudding of restaurant reviews culled from his regular newspaper column, slating the food in multi-Michelin-starred restaurants, poking fun at pompous celebrity chefs and dissing the decor, ambience and service of supposedly luxury hotels.
No wonder restaurateurs, head chefs and maitre d's the world over quake at the sight of him. It's not all bad, however. Having once described one of England's most renowned hotels as the worst he had ever visited ("third-rate food, dirty crockery, ducks fornicating in the swimming pool"), Winner is happy to report a marked improvement -- although they still have "naff beyond belief" piped music. (No mention of the fornicating ducks, though -- as long as they didn't end up a l'orange on his plate ... )
In its rush to the lucrative Christmas shelves, Unbelievable! hasn't so much been edited as cut and pasted together (in its original format, the most recent restaurant review featured is still awaiting collection in my green bin).
No matter. Regardless of how it is conveyed, gossip is gossip and no one dishes it up with more wit, style and sheer, rib-tickling relish than Winner. Bon appetit.