Friday, 16 October 2009

Queues for food and queues to meet a foodie

Celebrities are wont to bemoan the price of fame but not to give thanks for its awesome power.  Last night, I witnessed that power in Guildford. 

Surrey's county town recently acquired a branch of Jamie's Italian, the restaurant chain belonging to TV cheeky chappie and culinary campaigner Jamie Oliver.  It's in an ugly 60s building some distance from the attractive, quaint high street but only a narrow pavement away from the town's vile and thunderous one-way system.  And yet, at 7.15 on a Tuesday night, the place was packed and a queue of 40 (yes, 40; I counted twice because I couldn't believe it, either) stood patiently outside.

I daresay the cured meats, olives and pastas are perfectly nice (though a bit uneven, according to critics) but I doubt very much they're that nice.  What's more, it isn't particularly cheap, and the chances of Jamie himself stuffing your ravioli are slimmer than a fasting supermodel.  Yet, with any number of mid-priced alternatives a short stroll away, 40 people preferred to wait outside, inhaling bus and lorry fumes, for as long as it took.  Ah, the power of celebrity.

Talking of celebrities, I was in town to interview Tom Parker Bowles and Dr Hilary Jones as part of the annual Guildford Book Festival.  (Next week, I shall return to gently probe BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, chef James Martin and Radio 2 stalwart Ken Bruce.) 

For the benefit of those who've been living on Jupiter for the past few years, Tom is a food writer and broadcaster (and son of Camilla, now Mrs Prince Charles, as it happens) whilst Hilary has been dispensing medical advice from the GMTV (and, before that, the TVam) sofa for the past 20 years.

The usual format at these festivals is that an author is interviewed by someone like me in front of an audience, the members of which then buy his book and queue up to have him sign their copy. 

Tom was first on at The Electric Theatre to flog his latest work, Full English: A Journey Through the British and Their Food. 

We've met before but in a radio studio: he was one of my last interviewees when I hosted LBC 97.3's Sunday afternoon Food & Drink Show.  I was removed rather hastily from that post - and from LBC altogether - a few weeks ago for the crime of presenting a couple of programmes at deadly rival BBC London 94.9.  Tom nipped in and took the show over.  Well, someone had to, and good luck to him because, despite being Eton- and Oxford-educated and both stepson and godson to the heir to the British throne, he is the most modest, affable, ego-free guy you could ever hope to meet.  Actually, my theory is he's like that because of, rather than in spite of, his privilege.  I think, consciously or unconsciously, he uses his niceness to wrong-foot jealous souls looking for reasons to dislike him.

He arrived in casual jacket, combats and trainers with just one assistant provided by his publishers, as is the usual practice.  There were no hooray hangers-on and no security goons muttering into headsets, nor were there any pop-star demands for designer vodka or M&Ms with all the blue ones taken out.

We chatted before the performance about Leona Lewis who, only the day before, during a book-signing session at Waterstone's in London's Piccadilly, had been punched, and punched hard, by all accounts, by a deranged male 'fan'.  Was a rabid class warrior or the maitre d' of Simpsons on the Strand (about whose breakfasts Tom waxes less than lyrical in the book) waiting to give him a good whack in the kisser, we wondered? 

We agreed there's little you could do to eliminate the possibility; you could check fans for concealed weapons as stringently as if they were about to board a plane, but Leona's assailant just used his fist and you can't ban those.  And a security guard would need reflexes like lightening to get between a fist employed without warning and an author's face.

The interview and the subsequent signing passed off without incident, needless to say, as did the following sesssion with Dr Hilary Jones, another charming, articulate interviewee who turned up without even a publisher's assistant.

The only blip in this otherwise silk-smooth excursion involved my suitcase - again!  Regular readers may remember that Iberia recently flew me to Gran Canaria but only managed to get my case as far as Madrid.  This time, the fault was all mine: I got off my train home at Vauxhall, leaving it in the luggage rack.  The lost property department at Waterloo was unable to tell me whether it had been found - you have to wait until the following day for that information for some strange reason. 

I do hope I get it back, not least because it contains a copy of the new book by Frank Gardner, one of next week's interviewees, and I've only read the first third, let alone sketched out any questions.  Frank is a distinguished journalist who would see straight through an ill-prepared interviewer.  And, as excuses go, I doubt he'd be any more impressed by: "Sorry, Frank, I left your book on the train," than any schoolmaster ever was by: "Sorry, sir, the dog ate my homework."

pictures courtesy of and         

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