If you're looking for a long, relaxing and fascinating weekend read, here are Team AG's top 5 fantasy dinner party guests (bring your own wine and chocolates)
Wendy Humphries, letters editor
I am no perfectionist when it comes to culinary skills, which is why ‘Eat’ by Nigel Slater is my go-to cookery book among my wide collection. As a working mum with three hungry boys to feed, many of the recipes are simple, nutritious and quick to make using fresh ingredients to produce something delicious.
So I’d want to cook for Nigel, to thank him for all the shortcuts and for showing me to live by taste!
So beautiful and stylish, Audrey would make a lovely dinner party companion! I caught up with her documentary Gardens of the World recently and I was really impressed with her enthusiasm and knowledge of roses. Her biography, An Elegant Spirit, written by her son Sean is a brilliant insight to her fascinating but also, on occasion tragic, life.
Her son relates the story that she would refuse to sit first class on a flight, as she felt she was no better than anyone else. Imagine sitting next to her on a long-haul flight.
Sir David Attenborough
It would be the opportunity of a lifetime to meet him. Attenborough’s ever-popular documentaries have taught us all so much about the natural world, climate change and endangered species, but it was Blue Planet II in 2017 that gave a powerful message about the terrible impact plastic in our seas has on wildlife.
At the table, I would ask him what could we do as individuals to reverse the loss of habitat and biodiversity.
This glamorous lady has always impressed me with her positive outlook and I’m sure she’d have many wonderful tales to tell over dinner of her experiences in high society. I watched the TV series Dynasty in the 80s, where power dressing was ‘in vogue’ and when the average pair of shoulder pads were no match for Alexis Carrington’s, which were like wings!
I’d tell Joan about a dear friend of mine who has sadly passed, Audrey was so addicted to the show she recorded an episode over her daughter’s wedding video.
I definitely won’t be alone with this choice, as one of the nation’s best-loved comics, he would certainly bring some sunshine to the proceedings! His natural and sparkling wit would delight my dinner guests and the night would be sure to be full of fun.
Eric was a keen gardener and bird watcher so there’d be plenty to talk about! I grew up in his home-town of Harpenden, Hertfordshire, and would occasionally see him out and about. Once, as a child out with my mum, he held the door open for us when entering Woolworths!
Janey Goulding, assistant editor
Seriously, if nobody else showed up to dinner, I’d still be a happy bunny with Mike. Every party needs at least one national treasure to help break the ice while stuffing down vol-au-vents.
He can captivate my quirky collective with his ripping yarns and tales of far-flung adventures spent nibbling exotic entrails in precarious situations, and it’s guaranteed he’ll tickle the spare ribs with his salty humour. Also, he’s so lovely, he’s bound to help with the washing-up.
The ultimate grande dame of dining. I imagine she would insist on smoking, but who wouldn’t make allowances for her singular wit, brittle and dry as a well-kept biscotti, and her pithy recollections of the golden age and all its salacious celebrity scandals?
Badinage in abundance, and a touch of elegance with the cold cuts: Bette Davis, we love you. Suspect she would be a dynamo at after-dinner board games, as well.
If there was just one songbird from the great beyond to get a golden ticket to my soiree of suppertime snarking, it would be this perfectly pitched firecracker, with her crackling gift of the gab, twinkly ripostes and satisfying name-dropping skills.
She’d easily hold her own across and under the table (you can bet she’d bring the perfect bottle of plonk), and she would undoubtedly rally everyone to sing sea shanties over Cuban cigars and chiffon cake. Gourmet gumption, guaranteed!
I mean, it’s right there in the name. Broadway legend Curry would be the pinnacle of dramaturgical dining, thanks to his mercurial storytelling and mimicry, relish for the ribaldry, and the sauciest laugh this side of Transylvania: damn it, Janet, he’s all that and a bag of chips.
Sure to add theatrical heft, a generous dollop of innuendo and a feast of bawdy banter to the after-dinner mints. Oh, and an utter delight if you crack out the Cluedo.
All right, I cheated: I can’t just have one singer – not when there’s a chance of grabbing some funkadelic food time with Mr Nelson. The artist formerly known as Squiggle would be welcome to take a break from Martika’s kitchen to amuse my bouche while we feasted on alphabet street soup and cherry moon pie. Pretty sure he’d jump on the dinner table to impress us all with his virtuoso guitar skills, but that would be just fine. After all, it’s only right to have a bit of royalty to tea.
- Extra special guests who could pop in for a cup of sugar: Dorothy Parker, Kate Bush, Alan Rickman, Holly Hunter, Peter Ustinov, David Lynch, Andy Kaufman, Terence Stamp, Aaron Sorkin, David Attenborough, Robert Downey Jr, Ray Davies, Madeline Khan, Peter O’Toole, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Walken, Carrie Fisher, Neil Simon, David Bowie (well, d’uh).
Lesley Upton, features editor
Alan Turing was a Cambridge University mathematician who was pivotal in helping to break the Enigma Code in 1941. The Enigma was a cipher machine developed by the Germans during the Second World War to enable them to send secure encrypted messages. Turing and his team, comprising British and Polish experts, worked at the top-secret Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
Turing should have been hailed a hero – and for a time he was. He was awarded an OBE in 1945, but just seven years later he was arrested for homosexuality, which was then illegal in Britain. He could have been jailed, but chose chemical castration instead. In 1954 he was found dead from cyanide poisoning – the verdict was suicide.
Did Turing still love his country after what they did to him? I don’t think I would have.
Hypatia, who lived from around 370-415, was a female philosopher and mathematician. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and was the daughter of Theon, one of the most educated men in Alexandria. Theon taught Hypatia all he knew and she shared his passion in the search for answers to the unknown.
Hypatia was an extraordinary woman of her time and one of the first female mathematicians. Being a prominent member of the society, she was murdered by a mob during religious riots.
Would Hypatia follow the same trailblazing course if she knew what the outcome would be?
Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in the USA, where the first atomic bomb was developed. He became known as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ after two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during the Second World War.
The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a manufacturing centre about 500 miles from Tokyo, on 6 August 1945, followed by a second more powerful bomb, three days later, on Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.
Oppenheimer is later quoted as saying: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
How did he feel about the deaths of more than 185,000 people that died due to the bombs being dropped?
The English engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web – but few people have even heard of his name. Berners-Lee published the name of the first website in 1990 that was available to the internet, which was an explanation about his World Wide Web project, and since then the Web has transformed almost every aspect of our lives. He made his idea freely available, with no patent and no royalties due.
Last year, 30 years after the World Wide Web’s invention, he stated: “While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”
We can’t live without the World Wide Web now, but will we be able to live with it as it develops?
Last, but certainly not least, is my dad, William Shepperdley. There are so many things I wish I’d asked my dad, who was born during the time of the First World War and died in 1991.
I know nothing about his time in the Army during the Second World War when he was a motorcycle despatch rider, or about his younger days when he lived in Essex. I know he loved gardening, as I used to help him with his part-time gardening jobs when I was about 12 or 13.
But now is the time I wish he were here, so I could pick his brains about all the things that didn’t seem important when I was younger – but are very important now.
And the meal? It would have to include steak and kidney pudding, as that was my dad’s favourite…
Ruth Hayes, gardening editor
Every dinner party needs a bad boy and someone to make a record of events, so invite Caravaggio and you get both in the same parcel. He was born Michelangelo Merisi – or Amerighi – in 1571 in Milan, where his father held office in the household of a nobleman from the town of Caravaggio.
He trained as an artist and travelled widely, but wherever he went, murder and mayhem were not far behind. His turbulent, talented life ended at 39, possibly through illness, syphilis or murder – no one is quite sure.
He left behind an awe-inspiring legacy, paintings of raw, powerful beauty and realism that look lit from within. He painted what he saw, there is no airbrushing, nor politely fading out the physical imperfections of his models. Caravaggio gives us grotesque faces, bloody deaths, Biblical agony and, more prosaically, lute players, gamblers, bowls of fruit lush enough to eat.
Four years ago we went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, which explored his art and its influences. It was a banquet for the senses, opulent, exotic, erotic, almost too rich for one sitting but wow, what a feast.
So he’s on the list, as long as he behaves, doesn’t neck all the wine, fight with the other guests or pinch anyone’s bottom. And instead of bringing the hostess a box of chocs as a gift, he can sketch and paint the guests as they revel!
Dame Mary Beard: Classical historian
I’m an unashamed fangirl of the classical historian Mary Beard. I love her easy, accessible intimacy with the past, her flowing silver locks and her glorious collection of baseball boots and trainers. I can’t remember where I first saw her but I was drawn by her towering intellect that could be intimidating were it not tinged – but not diluted – by a glorious twinkle of mischief.
Apart from gardening and wine, history – the more ancient the better – is my greatest love (my greatest regret is not reading it at university, having been corralled into studying English by my teachers). The classical past is a fascinating place but has often been treated with a dusty, tweedy reverence, which is why Mary B is such a force for good, opening it up to wider audiences, making it accessible, alive, real.
I also think she’d be an amazing guest, full of fire and spark, as long as she didn’t bring along any garum, that fermented condiment made from fish guts the Romans so loved. I might even have to wear my ‘when I grow up I want to be Mary Beard T-shirt’…
* It was a toss-up between Dame Mary and Joann Fletcher, the brilliant goth Egyptologist, but Mary clinched it by a whisker
I grew up watching Niven’s films and reading his wonderful autobiographies and his death in 1983 was my first conscious recognition of ‘celebrity bereavement’. Witty, urbane and charming– and one for the ladies if the stories are true – on screen he bought films alive.
I was first introduced to him when my dad took me to the cinema to see the children’s adventure film Candleshoe, in which he played several frenzied roles requiring much rushing about and changing of clothes.
After that, I devoured his performances whenever they were on TV. As the frazzled cleric in The Bishop’s Wife, the ruthless killer in Guns of Navarone, Peter Ustinov’s insouciant sidekick in Death on the Nile and, of course, his appearances on Parkinson and other documentaries.
I also wolfed down his autobiographies The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses, even quoting one I my English A’level (possibly that’s what bagged me my A grade, another reason to adore the man).
I can picture him at my dinner party table, entertaining, flirting, making sure everyone had enough food and drink, basically oiling the wheels and being the perfect guest.
‘Yes, I do look rather startled don’t I. (The photo) was taken in a photo booth and somebody had just poked an éclair through the curtains’
The secret to great comedy is making it look effortless (see also the late, much lamented Robin Williams) and Victoria Wood has this effortlessness in spades.
Her skills lay in choosing the perfect word for the right situation and her acute social observations. She skewered us, but always kindly and never with the cruelty that so many comics use as their stock-in-trade.
She was also a generous writer, giving the best lines to co-stars – Julie Walters as Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques (and, mutely, in the ineffable Two Soups), the cast of Dinnerladies, Patricia Routledge as an opinionated housewife from Cheadle in the increasingly drunken Kitty monologues ‘Then she asked ‘what to do think of Marx?’ I said ‘I think their pants have dropped off’.’
Comedy wasn’t her only strength. She was marvelous in the wartime drama Housewife, 49 as the real-life wartime wife and mother Nella Last who went from cowed domestic drudge to community stalwart.
I still laugh to the point of tears during her classic sketches – The Opinion Poll, Step Aerobics (on nicotine and HRT patches: ‘she’s got one arm telling her she can do what she likes and the other saying she can do what she likes but she can’t have a fag after’) and, of course, her sublime songs.
All together now: ‘Be mighty, be flighty, come and melt the buttons on my flame-proof nightie! Let’s do it, let’s do it tonight!’
I still can’t believe she’s gone.
A bit of historical rehabilitation is a glorious thing and none has been more unexpected than that of Thomas Cromwell, rapacious ruiner of the monasteries, destroyer of Catholics, the man who sent Anne Boleyn to the scaffold.
We have, of course, Hilary Mantel to thank for this, for had she not written Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, the trilogy’s great hero may have languished unloved forever.
History has not been kind to the son of a Putney farrier. To Catholics he was the great scourge and to everyone else, well, everyone else either seemed to go along with it or really didn’t think too much about him at all.
Yes, Mantel’s novels may smack of propaganda but if you dilute that with a few drops of history and a bit of digging, the man before us is fascinating and wonderfully modern.
From the humblest of beginnings, he rose to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom after Henry VIII – and you can’t do that without being pretty adept and intelligent.
After his ragtag childhood he fled to Europe to fight as a mercenary, before working for the Florentine banker Frescobaldi and travelling to the Low Countries where he set up a web of contact and learned several languages.
Back in England he joined the household of Cardinal Wolsey, surviving his downfall before entering the service of the irascible monarch.
Cromwell was married (happily by all accounts) and widowed, he lost two of his three children to the sweating sickness, but his household was a happy place and he bestowed great kindnesses upon his friends, servants and retainers.
His portrait by Holbein shows a squat, sturdy chap – several sizes larger than Mark Rylance’s peerless characterization in the BBC Mantel adaptation – but not a cruel one. We know he was financially and politically astute (yes, he overplayed his hand and lost his head but by that time Harry 8 was syphilitically bonkers) but he was also loyal, kind and owned a sense of humour.
I can see him at the head of the table, costing out the wine, enjoying the food and bantering with Caravaggio in Italian. Perfect.
When I was asked this question I closed my eyes and my guests simply materialised from my subconscious, where they have been awaiting this invitation for many years.
As we go through life we pick up and store all sorts of information, from literature, music and film media, which has a profound influence on who we are, what engages us and what makes us happy or sad. My guests have all had a profound influence on me, shaping my thinking in many ways. It wasn’t until my guests were assembled that I realised they were all ‘outsiders’, people who bucked the system and shunned authority. They all have a philosophic trait and were known to be ‘thinkers’. Having said the aforementioned, they were also known to be quite witty and entertaining. I would start the evening off with one question: I doubt I would have to ask another.
My question is in two parts: Will the human race ever be able to peacefully co-exist without resorting to war? And if so, how? In no particular order, my guests…
Better known to the public as Lawrence of Arabia, a painfully bright misfit who accidently became a leading light in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during WW1. Post-war, Lawrence became a national hero and something akin to a pop star thanks an American journalist who made him the central figure of his smash-hit lecture tour ‘With Lawrence In Arabia’.
Caught between loving the attention and hating the effect on his privacy and literary pretentions, Lawrence changed his name and joined the RAF as a private soldier. However, he was found out and it caused a national scandal. He wrote about his war experiences in a book called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and his time in the RAF in a book titled The Mint, but allowed neither to be published in his lifetime. A right-wing intellectual, he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935 that some believe was a government-sanctioned execution to prevent his recruitment by Sir Oswald Moseley’s fascists.
British comedian who, with script writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, changed the face of comedy by creating the first situation comedy series, initially on radio then television. Hancock’s rise to his height of fame in 1961 as Britain’s highest paid entertainer took 7 years.
His fall into alcohol addiction and eventual suicide took another 7 years. In some ways the real Hancock reflected his televisual alter ego —an outsider looking in, never fully accepted in or accepting of society. Constantly searching for the meaning of life, but never finding it. I loved Hancock’s droll and oh so British take on life, as seen by through the eyes of the aspirational lower middle class.
A singer-songwriter from Houston Texas, Nesmith found fame with The Monkees , a TV series about a fictional pop band. Nesmith used his time with The Monkees to develop a new style of music, a fusion of country, Latin American rhythm and pop, thus becoming one of the pioneers of what would be known as Country Rock.
He left The Monkees to pursue the new genre further and from 1970 to 1973 produced six beautifully-crafted albums, which garnered critical approval, but were considerable commercial failures. In 1974 Nesmith changed tack with The Prison: a book, which was an allegory about the meaning of life, with a soundtrack album. The idea was to read the book whilst listening to the record and both combined would take the listener to a higher state of consciousness. It was another commercial failure, even greater than the others. Nesmith finally gave up making records in 1979 and created (and sold) the concept of Music TV.
Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian who wrote extraordinary stories about alienation and the unyielding and frustrating power of bureaucracy. Like the Irish author Flann O’Brien, Kafka had no success during his lifetime and his major works like The Trial (Der Process) and The Castle (Das Schloss) were only published after his death.
Indeed, he stipulated to the executor of his will, Max Brod, that all his writings be burned, unread. But Brod ignored the this and published them to great eventual acclaim. It is said Kafka had a knack pulling the most profound of statements out of thin air in conversation. He was also known to have a great sense of humour.
I would recommend the book Conversations with Kafka, in which his friend Gustav Janouch records many of their chats including this snippet of profundity: “Life is infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal experience. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean”
Born Eric Arthur Blair in India and educated at Eton, Orwell was a product of the old British Empire. On leaving the school system he headed in the footsteps of many of the upper-middle class decamping to the far reaches of the Empire, as a police inspector in Burma.
This gave him a perspective of what Empire really meant for the wealthy and the poor and after 5 years he left to become a writer. On returning to Britain Orwell gave himself the task of experiencing life among the poor in London, the working class in Wigan and later, abject poverty in Paris.
He saw socialism as the way forward, but was pragmatic and open enough to see that the soviet form of communism was just as repressive as fascism. He was openly derided by the champagne-left, but his books like The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London and essays like England Your England have given us a unique insight on life in the late 1920s, early 1930s.
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