Tales Of The City: Guess who's coming to dinner

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The Independent Online

Dinner parties are back in town, apparently. It seems only yesterday that everyone was saying: "I haven't given a dinner party in years - does anyone bother any more?" Rather than send you an engraved summons, three weeks early, to partake of three courses plus salad and a cheese board to rival the front window of Paxton & Whitfield, a friend might invite you to "come round for supper" at 24 hours' notice and offer you a selection of dishes from the Wrath of Khan takeaway. That was it. Say goodbye, I thought, to the smell of beeswax candles, after-dinner mints and post-prandial slugs of Irish Mist.

Now, though, according to the television schedules, dinner parties are back in favour. One new programme features Anne Robinson coaxing fading thespians (Joan Collins, Michael Portillo) to nominate their perfect dinner party with guests from history (Jezebel, Sappho, Beelzebub). Now we get The Dinner Party Inspectors (Channel 4, Tuesdays, 8.30pm), in which two frighteningly brisk lady journalists, Victoria Mather and Meredith Etherington Smith, watch a dinner party and comment on the conversation, the napery, the ambience...

Could anything be worse than listening to two posh women tut-tutting about the gross behaviour, the social gaffes and hilarious, Abigail-like pretension of their inferiors? Surely not. Because, of course, you're not like that yourself. We are modern liberals - cool, laissez-faire, unbothered by convention, flexible about etiquette.

Well, I thought I was, until I was auditioned for the part of the token male in The Dinner Party Inspectors. I wasn't their first choice - by the time they got to me, the producers had auditioned every male journalist in London who'd ever written a style piece - but I felt I could be convincingly amused at the doctrinaire pronouncements of Meredith and the others. The audition started with a taped dinner party on screen. "Those patterned wine glasses are horrible," I heard myself say. "You serve clear glasses or nothing." Then: "That woman's monopolising the conversation. Nobody should be allowed to bang on for more than two minutes."

They switched off the TV. Do you, they asked, have any other rules? "Sure," I said. "No jokes at the dinner table. No flowers - they look confusing beside the vegetables. You mash potato with butter and cream, nothing else. Cheese goes clockwise, but port anticlockwise. Napkins must be..." I couldn't believe my ears. With the tiniest prompting, I'd turned into a gustatory fascist. Where had all this come from? Clearly years of banked-up dinner-table fury had surfaced at last.

I didn't get the job. Too reactionary and mad. I walked away from the production offices of The Dinner Party Inspectors feeling as if I'd been thrown out of the Gestapo for being too cruel.

How the BBC managed to wind us all up

London's literary grands fromages were on display at the Savoy on Monday for the Samuel Johnson prize, which, for its seriousness and £30,000 munificence, is now unofficially accepted by all as the non-fiction Booker. The only odd thing is the apparently mandatory requirement that every year the shortlist must feature at least two solid tomes about Russia or the Second World War, or both. Apart from that, it's always a terrific evening. I sat between two ladies with vivid memories of earlier decades, who gossiped about what a bitch Sonia Orwell had been, and what WH Auden considered a useful conversational ice-breaker ("Tell me, what was the first public event you remember being aware of?").

The only things that spoilt the evening were the intrusive TV cameras. BBC4 was filming live, and because of the broadcast time, we had to start eating at 7.15pm. No smoking on live TV. No idle chitchat. Turn off those mobiles. A guy with a headset and a hectoring manner yelled "... and applause" and started the clapping at the end of each segment. We obeyed like sheep. Then the winner, TJ Binyon, the Oxford don whose omniscience about Russian matters is matched only by his omniscience about classic thrillers, got up to address us. He spoke simply and movingly about Pushkin, the subject of his biography, and was in the midst of describing the death of Russia's greatest poet when the BBC sliced through his words to end the programme.

I know it was live. I know it had to end at 10pm. But there was something pathetic about the sight of the floor manager frantically describing circles in the air - "Wind it up! Wind it up!" - as Binyon ploughed majestically on, oblivious to the sign language of the corporation's merry men.

Cut and thrust of politics

I've been puzzling over a frankly bizarre claim by William Hague in an interview with a Sunday newspaper. Discussing the limits of power, he mused: "The more senior you get, you think you are about to find where power really is; then you find it isn't there. Even if you become prime minister, you are circumcised: look at John Major. It makes you more realistic about what governments can achieve..."

Well, I'll be damned. I knew that achieving high office carried a mixture of perks and troublesome requirements, but I had no idea that circumcision came into it. How extremely uncomfortable. And is it, you know, compulsory? Does someone from the Home Office call at Downing Street with a scalpel, the day after the general election? And why should John Major be singled out? Is it something to do with Edwina Currie?

There could be a simple explanation. It could be that Mr Hague said "circumscribed", but was misheard. I'm not so sure. As the Queen almost said to Paul Burrell, there's some weird stuff going on at the Palace of Westminster that we know nothing about.