BRITISH ACTING ROYALTY MIRANDA RICHARDSON SHARES A BITE TO EAT WITH GQ AT LONDON'S BOCCA DI LUPO
Despite the appropriate name, Bocca di Lupo, hidden in the dark side streets of Soho, was possibly not the best venue to meet Miranda (if I may call her that). There are only 15 or so tables (in addition to a long marble bar counter), but the noise levels are quite extraordinary. (Apparently, the acoustics are better at the bar, but I didn't feel my guest and I knew each other well enough for such an intimate encounter.) The problem was that I spent most of the evening fearful that she may mishear, or misinterpret, something I said and take offense. In fact, this did happen once, and her luminous smile, of which, in truth, I did see quite a lot, transmuted into a look of such thunderous disapproval that, for a moment, I felt I was in the jaws of the wolf.
Miranda has a doll-like appearance - pale skin, round face, and thin lips framed by a strawberry blonde bob - which belies her somewhat uncompromising manner. For instance, I asked why she was so downbeat about Southport, the seaside town where she was born. I've always thought it a rather elegant town, I suggested. "They wouldn't give a grant to study drama," she replied sharply. But surely more than 30 years later, after a stellar, multi-award-winning career, you can let bygones be bugones and maybe not mention in interviews that you never see the sea there and that the beach is full of lugworms? "I don't think so," came the answer.
I don't know much about women [This is true - Ed], but Miranda Richardson struck me as one not to be argued with. And with this in mind, I let her order for me. "Now, let's see," she said, as she canned the menu. "Nice and earthy," she mused. I presumed she was talking about the food rather than her host, but when she added, "different, with a good chance of being wild," I knew she meant me.
Bocca di Lupo is a restaurant that's rather keen on itself. The promotional literature is a masterpiece of restaurant narcissism. "Chef Jacob Kennedy doesn't know the meaning of the word short-cut," it states. "Everything is hand-made in his kitchen, using methods guaranteed by the centuries." All this is good to know, but the true joy of the food only comes when you taste it. And if you were in any doubt that they like their creations garnished with a scoupcon of pretension here, the origins of each dish are listed on the menu. For instance, if you fancied fried eel and red prawns with white polenta as a starter, you'd know this hails from Venice. And if you wanted something with a bit more of a southern flavour, why not the lamb prosciutto with pecorino cheese? It comes from Sardinia, don't you know? I found myself wondering whether, if I have a dish from Lombardy for a starter, is it then too much to follow it with something from Umbria? I suppose it's OK if you're a food tourist, or particularly keen on geography, but I found it a distracting affectation. One innovation to applaud, though, is that almost every item on the menu comes in starter or main course size, and the prices are very reasonable.
And the food, wherever it comes from and however many centuries have guaranteed it, is not bad at all. Miranda chose for me fried salt cod with courgettes (all the way from Lazio, and a snip at six pounds) followed by poussin in a bread, raisin and pine nut salad (Toscano, eleven pounds and fifty pence). I couldn't find a weakness in either dish; the salt cod pieces came in the lightest batter and offset the earthiness of the courgettes, while the main-course salad was a symphony in which every instrument is playing its part, with the sweetness of the raisins adding a particular, and surprising, flourish. Miranda was less enthusiastic. She liked her starter of shaved radish, celeriac and pecorino salad (Umbria, since you ask, four pounds and fifty pence), saying that the saltiness of the pecorino worked well with the bitterness of the radish, but felt that her main course of giant scallop with lemon grass (Lazio, sixteen pounds) lacked punch. "A bit blah," was her opinion. She also ordered a side of broccoli, which was overcooked. She didn't forget to tell the waiter this.
I'd suspected by then that Miranda sets very high standards, and why not? She's had a fabulous career as one of Britain's most versatile actresses, although she's particularly good at royalty: she was unforgettable as Queenie in Blackadder and recently played the mother of Young Victoria in the eponymous film. In-between, she's had two Oscar nominations and won BAFTAs and Golden Globes. "I sometimes think the fact I have taken so many diverse roles works against me," she said. "In movies, it helps if you fit into a certain box. It drives me mad I often think acting is a mug's game, but I am lucky to be able to pick the right thing. I like money as much as the next person, but I have to feel it's right." As if to prove that, she was leaving the next day for New York to rehearse for a play called Grasses of a Thousand Colours at the Royal Court. "No one does that for money," she added.
So what do we know about Miranda's private life? "I don't talk about it," she said. "That's why it's called private." I found out that she has two dogs, German pointers called Liv and Ivo, and two cats, Orientals called Emil and Ines, but she's got to the age of 51 without there being any talk of romantic liaisons. I tiptoed around the subject, but, curiously, Miranda began to open up in a way I don't recall she has done before. Will you get married? I asked. "I always think I will," she said, "but it's impossible to know. Living with someone is human and a natural state, and it's healthy even where there's conflict. But I might be too exhausted at this point. Cities make it difficult to meet people, and you're unlikely to find your spiritual partner on the internet. So, in the meantime, whatever..." She trailed away, and then looked at her watch. "It's ten," she announced. "We're through." With that, she hastened into the dank night I couldn't help feeling that Simon (Manchester) and Miranda (Southport) hadn't really worked that well as a combination.
Grasses of a Thousand Colours runs from 12 May to 13 June at the Royal Court Theatre, London. royalcourtheatre.com. Simon Kelner is the Managing Director of the Independent.