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A birthday celebration with that certain X factor

Published 4 December 2005
News Review
647th article

Michael with Julie Cowell, left, and Dinah May at Julie's 80th bash (Vincent Evans)

I'm not a party person. I hate large gatherings. Bar mitzvahs are the worst.

Philip Green's historic bash for his son in the south of France was an exception.

Weddings are just awful. Halfway through the first hymn my mind has left the church. You could say I have a short attention span, although I enjoyed the nuptials in Norfolk for Lord Glenconner's daughter Amy. At dinner I sat between Lady Raine Spencer and Lord Lichfield. Two highly entertaining people.

So even though I think she's marvellous, I viewed with misgivings my invitation to Julie Cowell's 80th birthday party at the Savoy. Who would I be sitting next to? How long would it go on? Would the catering be mediocre as it usually is? Would I rather be at home watching the spin dryer? Fortunately it turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant event.

The Savoy is an odd place. It was bought earlier this year by Fairmont hotels. But its best venue, the River restaurant, has been closed for two years. The Grill, part of Gordon Ramsay's sprawling empire, offers an uninterrupted vista of the front car park. The room with the splendid river view sits sad and vacant. Why?

Julie's party, organised by her son Nicholas and his brother Simon's beautiful girlfriend Terri Seymour, was in the Lancaster ballroom.

We arrived early because we were Julie's surprise. Simon, well-known high court defendant, was accompanying his mother.

Since Simon is incapable of turning up anywhere on time I muttered to my lovely receptionist Dinah May: "It'll be a miracle if she's here by midnight."

My pessimism was misplaced. At 7.30 Julie appeared, to find a room full of 150 friends. She thought she was dropping in to see Simon get an award ("Most famous latecomer" perhaps?) before going on to Billy Elliott.

Seated on my left was Dinah, on my right a glamorous young Russian beauty, Oksana Kolomenskaya. Great name. Next to her, the magical Philip Green, retail genius and no-nonsense billionaire. His beautiful wife Tina was stacking shelves that night at their new Bhs store which was opening a few days later in Chichester.

After dinner with Philip last year he said: "I'm going to stack shelves at Bhs in Oxford Street. Would you like to help?" Luckily for him I declined.

At the Savoy I was offered horrid Hildon water. "Do you have Evian?" I asked the waiter. "Please get some. Just for me." He did.

Then there was smoked salmon. I didn't have my tape recorder so treat this report with suspicion.

It could have been beetroot soup. But I'll stick on smoked salmon.

It was served promptly. The bread was good.

The main course was turkey.

The waiters kept offering extra gravy and cranberry sauce. That was clever. Then we had a purple sorbet. It probably had a named flavour but as I didn't keep the menu I can't tell you what it was.

I enjoyed it all.

The birthday cake, from the Little Venice Cake Company, had nice marzipan, a good, white icing and fruit cake base. If I wasn't borderline diabetic I'd have asked for more.

In the screened video compilation I said: "Julie, as my private life is in a mess, I'm coming your way." Laughter obscured my next line: "I fancy being Simon's stepfather. We could sort him out."

The event was populated by adorable old ladies, many from around Ovingdean, where Julie lives in East Sussex. Her vicar. Her family. Brendan Cole, the champion ballroom dancer who won Strictly Come Dancing, immaculate in white tie and tails, led Julie (an ex-professional dancer herself) onto the floor.

A large swing orchestra backed the Rat Pack show cast imitating Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

For my birthday in Venice, where Julie was everyone's favourite guest, I was prepared to pay the Everly Brothers half a million quid. But they were in America.

I'd have given James Blunt a fair whack, but he too was in America. So I ditched the cabaret and saved a fortune. Instead I went to see James Blunt at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Much enjoyed it. And met his marvellously British, old-school parents. Liked them a lot.

  • PS: Simon Cowell is a delight really. He and brother Nicholas tell anyone meeting their mother for the first time: "You have to speak very loudly because she's deaf. She's also an alcoholic."

    Julie opens the conversation with: "In spite of what you've been told I'm not deaf and I'm not an alcoholic." I met the Cowell family years ago at the Jalousie Hilton, St Lucia. That's recently been bought by Craig Barnard. He's renamed it the Jalousie Plantation. I'll be there soon, expecting great things.

    Winner's letters

    Don't let ex-pat Nick Jones (Winner's Letters, November 20) fool you. Although it's true the cake sable has a sandy texture, that is nothing to do with its name. Like the eccles cake it's named after its place of origin, Sable in the Sarthe area of France.
    Frank Doyle, Liverpool.

    Having recently purchased the pub in Chichester I was amazed the pub sign pictured you looking through an opening in a brick wall! Local people told me you posed for it. I'm sorry to tell you, but you're coming down! I'm replacing you with something more traditional.
    Nick Rowe, Chichester

    You said last week any "do" given by Dermot Desmond, principal owner of Sandy Lane, would mercifully have no journalists to be seen. I think you should be proud to be considered among this professional, hard-working and tenacious grouping. Remember, Michael, you write therefore you are -a journalist. Congratulations.
    Dave Bethell, Wiltshire

    I take great exception to last week's letter from Ian Bradwell, saying your birthday group was so badly dressed they looked like a gang of plumbers on a golfing trip to the Algarve. Here in the Algarve we receive a great number of plumbers, bricklayers, used car salesmen, estate agents, scrap metal merchants, golfers and other groups of "ordinary" people. All of them are much better dressed than you.
    Dr Colin Key, Portugal

    I am sorry to read you're unattached again. Does this mean you'll be eating alone with a single plum pudding this Christmas?
    Will Johnson, Suffolk.

    I understand you've received criticism regarding the fact that you always go out with much younger women than yourself. My feelings are, why on earth would you want to go out with a woman of your age?
    Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire.

    I disagree with you (Winner's Dinners, November 13) that Beluga caviar is top of the line. When I catered for the late Shah of Persia he instructed only the best caviar be used, which was Imperial Black, and it should be extracted from sturgeon caught in the southern, warmer, waters of the Caspian sea.
    Edmondo Paoloni, Somerset.

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk