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The smooth guide to the perfect party

So you want to throw your Millennium bash at the North Pole? `How are we getting there: planes and helicopter?' asks Alison Price, quite unfazed. She also provides some more down-to-earth advice for your next celebration.
Does the thought of paying pounds 200 to sit in a pub garden on New Year's Eve leave you cold? Has your ticket for the Dome got lost in the post? Perhaps you should consider hosting your own party. Naturally, you don't want your guests dropping fags in your cactus collection, or throwing up in your herb garden, so you need to find a venue slightly further away from home... say, the North Pole.

I put the suggestion to Alison Price, party planner to the stars: it doesn't faze her for a moment. "We will have to carve out Arctic ice and put bottles of vodka in it. Serve with some beautiful caviar, really nice fish and warming soup," she advises. "The staff can wrap up like Ranulph Fiennes. We'll need a marquee. How are we getting there: planes and helicopters? I can take my ovens, and run them on Calor gas."

Alison Price believes the North Pole is "a perfectly feasible" location for a Millennium party. "You just have to be practical. Work with what you've got, and be well organised. Even souffles are possible."

While most of us might wheel out an M&S quiche and a packet of crisps, Alison would gaily produce 300 souffles, timed to perfection and tasting marvellous. Her approach to mass catering has spawned an impressive list of customers, including George Michael, the Getty family, and the King of Greece. Another fan, Sir Elton John, has written the foreword to her new book, Perfect Parties (Kyle Cathie Ltd, pounds 19.99), in which he declares: "Alison Price has been responsible for some of the best parties I've ever given. She never ceases to amaze me."

If you book Alison Price, or follow her advice, a typical buffet dish for your Millennium party might be chicken satay sticks with a homemade peanut dip, served in bamboo steamers lined with banana leaves. But chicken drumsticks? "Never," she says.

"Alison is just so incredibly chic," says TV presenter Emma Forbes, who has twice hired Price for parties in her home. "She did me these dinky little bowls of noodles, which we ate with chopsticks and shot glasses of gazpacho. My friends loved it." For Elton John's 50th birthday party she concocted a white-chocolate tower filled with mousse to feed 600, and arranged a ballroom-dancing display.

"It all depends on the customer," says Price. "Elton just leaves everything to us. We know his tastes. I do try to persuade people off some ideas, though, such as a strange mixture of foods, or games that would not work. Or if they want to serve canapes at 8pm: I tell them people need something more substantial at this time, otherwise you'll just end up with a room full of drunks, which is horrid."

Alison brims with such advice after 18 years experience in the party business. Her book, packed with her favourite tried-and-tested recipes, also provides some marvellous hints. For instance, when applying gold leaf to your rosewater cream pudding - for your Moroccan-themed party - it should be 22 carat, and should be allowed to "flutter on to the dessert" from a squirrel-hair gilder's brush, and always in a draught- free room.

Yes, well, I suppose there are bound to be some takers. It's the kind of book that people who drive Range Rovers will display on their coffee tables, faithfully reproducing her party ideas right down to the last finger-bowl with a gerbera in the middle, the napkin tied up with lengths of ivy, and the candle placed in a hollowed-out artichoke.

The more pretentious arty folk will probably hide it behind a copy of Mrs Beeton, then draw on some of the presentation ideas, such as writing place-cards on glossy leaves, and pass them off as their own. "It's about inspiring people," explains Alison. "They can read my book, then look at what they have and adapt it to their own style and needs. You don't have to spend a lot of money. A bowl of soup and warm bread is fine for a dinner party, if that's all you can afford." Please note: warm bread. And don't forget the lemongrass-and-coriander garnish.

Despite countless articles purporting their imminent come- back, cheese fondue recipes are conspicuous by their absence. "Fondue parties? People don't still have those, do they? I have no idea what people should do as a forfeit if they drop their bread. Very Sixties and very out," is her tart reply.

So how can we see in the Millennium in style? "The emphasis is very much on fun these days," she says. "And colour." She recommends hosting a small drinks party or a supper party for select friends. "Save your big celebrations for January," says Alison. "On New Year's Eve you won't get the staff, and everything will be at least quadruple the cost."

If you cannot afford "staff", Alison suggests persuading relatives to wait on your friends. And get your friends to help clear up afterwards. "Or hire a cleaner for the following day," she advises.

Alison recently threw a party of her own. Well, she did have a book to launch - and with a title like Perfect Parties, certain standards not only had to be met, they had to be set. She booked the Hamilton Gallery in Mayfair - a sparse, white, ultra-cool venue - which she adorned with pyramids of kumquats topped with globes of gerberas.

Alison Price, who is slim and blonde, looked younger than her 51 years in her party stalwart, the little black dress. She greeted every single guest on arrival with an air kiss, a hug or a handshake according to whether they were friends, close friends or strangers.

Greeting guests is an important part of the Alison Price style. Everyone must be made to feel relaxed and welcome: "otherwise how can they possibly enjoy themselves?" She was surrounded by acquaintances, clients and associates, all eager to tell her "how wonderful you are darling, how fantastic your book, and how perfect your party". Elton John may not have made it, but Nanette Newman and Emma Forbes kept up the celebrity headcount.

Champagne and rum punch flowed with the generosity of tap water. "And look at that," said Christian Cokerton, her vegetable supplier and a guest, "more than two hours into the party and the food is still coming at us." Indeed, we were surrounded by smiling staff offering impossibly perfect rows of sushi and bite-sized canapes.

Mr Cockerton, who also supplies Prince Charles and Gordon Ramsey, once called on every south-coast farmer to track down 300 identical pumpkins for Alison, to be used as soup bowls - an idea later copied by Posh Spice and Beckham for their nuptial feast (although they did not have the good taste to actually hire Alison). Last week, Alison demanded four trays of rare yellow raspberries for a celebrity gathering.

Alison was clearly pleased with her party: "I haven't thrown one of my own for four years. I simply don't have the time." As the last guests left, one reveller helped herself to piles of kumquats being carried out to Alison's company vans. "That's marvellous," she said. "It shows people are appreciative when they take the displays."

One last tip. Don't forget to invite a few people. As Alison says: "It's people who make parties, there's absolutely no doubt about it."


Decide on a theme: Alison Price says: "Creating a theme for a party gives it an element of fun and can even add a sense of magic to an occasion." Her suggestions include a "pool party" with aquamarine tablecloths and goldfish in bowls as centrepieces; and a circus-themed party, with popcorn and toffee apples, and clowns' wigs for guests to try on.

Book your venue now and send out invites at least four weeks before the big day. Alison says: "It is a lovely idea to send a `save the date' teaser card." Say so on the invitation if you cannot accommodate children at your party.

Cheat: consider ordering from your favourite local take-away for hassle- free catering.

Sober control: make sure you haven't drunk too many watermelon margaritas before the guests arrive. "You need to be in control," insists Alison.

Talk on: store up interesting items of news to impart to guests during awkward silences.

The perfect host should make introductions and go to the aid of any guests sending out `help me' vibes. Alison adds: "Be confident, never apologise for yourself, the food, or draw attention to guests who do not drink alcohol or are vegetarian."

Aromas: Burn scented candles and put out ashtrays if your guests are likely to smoke.

Now it's goodnight: If you want to encourage your guests to leave, stop offering them drinks: "Our experience is that as soon as the bar closes, guests depart very quickly." If your guests are still in full flow at 3am, offer to book taxis. "If all else fails, say good night and go to bed," suggests Alison.

Book a cleaner for the day after if you're rash enough to host a party in your own home.