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MICHAEL WINNER’S DINING STARS
For the first time, the Sunday Times’ notorious restaurant reviewer – is stepping away from his millionaire lifestyle and into the homes of amateur cooks. He’ll assess their food according to his normal exacting standards, and will present them with a brutally honest review of their performance. For the best, there is the chance to win a ‘prestigious’ Dining Star Award. But for most, just surviving an evening in the company of their extraordinary guest will be an achievement…
BEHIND THE SCENES
At the end of my first day with Michael Winner, he invited me to join him for a drink. That drink was champagne. Our location was the terrace of an exquisite hotel in Beaulieu sur Mer on the Cote d’Azur. A vast sun was setting into the sea, turning everything it touched to scarlet. “I could get used to this millionaire’s lifestyle”, I thought to myself as a waiter in a tuxedo began ironing the tablecloths around us – just in case the gentle breeze had ruffled the fabric in the last ten minutes.
“You know, Nic” said my esteemed host. “You remind me of a young Burt Lancaster”. I felt myself blush. There was an embarrassed pause as I took his compliment on board. And then he continued… “He was an irritating shit as well”.
Michael Winner is undoubtedly one of a kind. An unpredictable, no nonsense, whirlwind of a man. Part angel, part monster, part pantomime dame. As a television presenter that makes him an exciting prospect. But I dread to think what was going on inside the heads of our contributors as they realised what they’d let themselves in for. He simply is not of our world, and the bomb-like clangers that he dropped along the way never ceased to amaze.
It was crucial that Michael’s reviews of the food were of the same no-holds-barred nature as those he presents in his newspaper column. But test filming revealed that, if he was asked to present his feedback directly to the cook at the time of the meal, he would wrap his criticisms in protective padding. Such is human nature, but this isn’t what I was looking for in the series. “The nation’s toughest critic” can’t be soft.
I had noticed that, wherever Michael went, his Dictaphone was always close at hand. This would provide my solution to the dilemma. By having him record his thoughts in private throughout the meal, he was able to speak freely, and as fiercely as he liked. He might not have wanted to risk causing offence to the cook in their own home, but I was confident that he would defend his remarks to the death on neutral ground.
I firmly believe that even the silliest of ideas can end up being brilliant if they’re carried through with absolute conviction. To my mind, the cinema sequence at the end of each programme is a great example of this. By bringing everyone to London for the ‘grand review’, by picking an extravagant venue, and by using the cinema screen to reveal the outcome, an atmosphere of genuine expectation and tension was created. Yes, it was indulgent, but it was an original way of dealing with an otherwise familiar ‘results process’. Plus, it helpfully added an extra layer of campness, while simultaneously giving the series a sense of ambition and scale.
I mentioned earlier that Michael was part angel. Admittedly this is a part that he seldom reveals. But Justine’s story did genuinely affect him and, since the series ended, he has been great support in her attempts to turn her “superb” chocolate brownies (and they are) into a business.
For all his high expectations, Michael Winner is most definitely is not a food snob. I observed on many occasions both on and off camera that, for him, the success of a dining experience has more to do with the atmosphere of the meal than the food itself. I also observed on many occasions that he knows less about food than a restaurant critic might arguably be expected to know…
Back on the Cote d’Azur, the day after our champagne sunset, I filmed Michael dining with his fiancée, Geraldine, at one of his favourite restaurants. It was the site of one of his more memorable reviews:
Michael: “Geraldine, darling, this chicken is unbelievably good”.
Geraldine: “Michael, darling… It’s haddock”.
Series Director/ Edit Producer: Nic Guttridge
Camera: Richard Farish/ Nick Brown
Series Producer: Mark Leslie
Production company: 12 Yard
First broadcast: February 2010 at 9.00pm