'Unless the accolade comprises la plume de ma tante, I won't know what the hell is going on'

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The Independent Culture
Wednesday, and a startling invitation arrives requesting my presence at the Institute Francais, where Michael York and Peter Greenaway are to be awarded Les Lettres d'Honneurs in the presence of ambassadorial notables. Convinced that my name has made it to the list wholly by error, I do the gentlemanly thing and phone the French Embassy to check that they've got it right.

"Oh yes, please come," drawls Cyril, the French cultural attache. "You are most welcome." And then he adds, "And it would be very nice if you could find some time to say hello to Michael York."

This isn't the offer of an informal chat, of course. This is every schmoozer's worst nightmare: The Mandatory Showbiz Interview. I have nothing against Michael York, but the notion of being part of an international journalistic gang-bang fills me with dread. Also, my knowledge of French is lamentably limited, and unless the accolade being bestowed comprises la plume de ma tante, I won't know what the hell is going on.

But I swallow my pride and head to the reception, which is packed with sophisticated French attaches and a sorry-looking Romanian journalist. Michael York is the centre of attention - Peter Greenaway is nowhere to be seen - and a gaggle of French journalists (and the Romanian) surround him, interviewing him in only the way that the French (and Romanians) can.

"Monsieur York," begins one. "First let me say that it is the highest privilege to be interviewing you at this time."

"Thank you," says Michael York, and adds, "but the honour is all mine."

"Let me add," says another, "that your influence upon the industrie cinematique is inestimable, and, on behalf of the French people, I must offer my respect at this moment of honour. And, also, did you enjoy working with Jeanne Moreau?"

"Very much so," says Michael York.

"Tell... me," begins the Romanian, with interminable slowness, "I... have... a... question... for... the... population... of... no... that... is... wrong..." "Hmmm?" says Michael York.

"People!" exclaims the Romanian. "I have a question for the people of Romania!" "Hmmm?" says Michael York.

"Your question, sir."

"Ah!" says the Romanian. "Yes! It... concerns... Liza... Minnelli... um..."

But there is no time, the ceremony is about to begin, and we hurriedly take our seats. Peter Greenaway is still not here, which leaves Michael York standing alone to the left of the stage. After a few choice words - and a promise that after the ceremony we will be shown a lengthy 1895 silent film portraying street scenes from around the world, Michael York is given a medal, which he pins to his chest. There is a rapturous applause.

"I very much like France," begins York, "so thank you very much for this marvellous honour."

Then the lights go down, and we are shown the 1895 film, which begins in Paris (lots of people with big moustaches walking very quickly down the street). After Paris, we go to Berlin (also lots of people with big moustaches walking very quickly down the street), followed by Mexico (lots of people with big hats and big moustaches sitting around in dirt). Thirty- five minutes later (Tokyo - very thin moustaches), and I'm afraid to admit I sneak off home.