By Sasha Slater
Sunday Times, Style section, September 1, 2002
The launch party for the latest Britflick was an Oscar performance, says SASHA SLATER
The dinner party is dead, it is claimed. We’re too stressed to have a good time, too tired to cook and too busy (and much too politically correct) for spiky conversations.
Can this really be true? Is the text-message generation incapable of witty repartee? To celebrate the release of the new Britflick The Importance of Being Earnest, the publicists decided to prove that the Wildean spirit lives on. The cast and assorted members of the demimonde were invited to a no-expense-spared dinner party, held at the luxurious Veuve Clicquot chateau in Champagne.
No character that Wilde would have thought essential for a dinner party was left uninvited. The socialite and TV presenter Alice Beer took the role of beautiful ingenue; the toast of the town was Lisa Butcher, the society model and former wife of Marco Pierre White, clad in scarlet Hardy Amies. Playing the foppish jeune premier to perfection was the slim, dark, Velvet Goldmine actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. He had borrowed a Paul Smith suit for his wiry frame, but found it was two sizes too big, while his shoes were one and a half sizes too small. So he wore his sleeveless vest, jeans and the hiking boots he wore in the Himalayas. “Think of me as an urchin,” he said, “picked up by Oscar for the evening.”
The novelist Kathy Lette was perfect in the role of the knowing older woman who has all the best lines, and the actor Nickolas Grace, famous for his portrait of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, was the camp court jester. Oliver Parker, the director of both The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, presided sagely over the evening, while the amiably eccentric chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall burbled on, filling any conversational gap. In short, all seemed in place for a decorously glamorous dinner party.
At first, the evening did indeed sparkle and froth, buoyed up with vintage champagne. “Animal, vegetable or mineral?” inquired one guest, gesturing at fellow diners. “Vegetable,” was the riposte. “Champagne’s such a frivolous thing,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall. “That’s why it’s important to take it terribly seriously.”
Meanwhile Rhys-Meyers discussed the merits of Salvador Dali versus Picasso.
Then, halfway through the main course, M Le Comte Edouard de Nazelle, one of the last surviving members of the Clicquot Ponsardin family, took the theme of decadence further, encouraging his guests to balance glasses of the pink vintage La Grande Dame 1995 on their heads. A lot was spilt; make-up started to run.
More was drunk. Some guests were still trying to maintain the elevated tone. “Herb tea: that’s verveine, this is now,” opined Parker. Alas, others, egged on by Grace, were amusing themselves by rushing to the loos with disposable cameras to take unidentifiable pictures of parts of themselves.
Meanwhile, a contingent of love-struck women were in raptures in the dining room listening as Rhys-Meyers lifted his voice in a mournful Irish ballad. Then, bribed with jeroboams of vintage fizz, the party people decided to parade on a home made catwalk from the chateau’s grand sweeping staircase into the drawing room. The one condition being that, no matter what else you wore, you had to be sporting something in Clicquot orange. Luckily, the guests had been provided with branded pashminas and umbrellas, which provided much of their covering (though Beer and Butcher took to the stone floor in nothing but carrier bags). The overall winner was the suitably decadent William Van Hage, Butcher’s walker and a gentleman of leisure, who had the most admirable all-over tan in just the right shade of amber. The night even held romance. Rhys-Meyers conceived unquenchable passion for Butcher. At first, he contented himself with writing her name all over his arms; later, he insisted on confessing it to everyone but the lady concerned (he was too shy to tell her, he said). He then passed out on another woman’s bed and had vanished from the chateau before morning, leaving no trace but an old sock and a bottle of vintage champagne. Oscar, one feels, would have felt right at home.