Talking guests with Nina Campbell

“The one thing it taught me was to never have any dish for dinner that can’t be divided up.

We’re told that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. For all but the most unregenerate misanthropes, hosting an evening entertainment with food – which for the sake of convenience we’ll call a dinner party – is an eminently worthwhile exercise. We asked an expert for advice.

Having set up the business that still carries her name in the 1960s, with subsequent legendary success, by now Nina Campbell has become resigned to her status as the doyenne of interior design: “It’s always been rather a joke, but I suppose it’s stuck a little bit now”. I explained that we’d come to her as an acknowledged expert on the social side of hosting. Nina laughed. “Just as long as you don’t ask me for a recipe.”

To our muttons. I asked about setting the scene. Where do you entertain? “My dining room is a sort of L, in which I’ve got quite a long thin plain wood table which is narrow enough so people can talk across it and along it. With an extension it seats up to 14, and if I have a very big dinner I can put a circular table in the hall. Which of course sounds like the remote distance, but is actually about an inch away.

“What I do is think about who’s coming, what the season is, and therefore what china and glass to use to make the table really very pretty. Maybe pretty’s not quite the right word.

Lately I’ve being using a lot of amber glass, black glass, for a more sophisticated feeling. But I like to think the table changes all the time so nobody knows what to expect. A pleasant surprise every time they turn up.”

Whence comes inspiration? “Well, everywhere really. If I were doing one tonight [we were speaking during the flower show] it would be very Chelsea, flowery. I was part of a book club once. We were reading a book on a Chinese ballet dancer so I went off and bought some stuff for a Chinese theme. Actually, I hate the word theme – more a Chinese feel to the dinner.”

I’m thinking the reciprocal hosting bar is set pretty high in this particular book club. Where did the stuff come from? “I was walking past a window in Audley Street and there were these funny little Chinese figurines. They can’t have been very popular, because they were all on sale: better still for me. So I had them marching down the table.”

Does there have to be a reason for a dinner? “No, but it’s quite fun if there is. I travel a lot, so quite often people I’ve met overseas arrive from somewhere, and I find it amusing to put a dinner around them. And when you travel, it’s quite nice not to be always going to restaurants, but instead to meet people in their house where you’ve got time to talk to everyone.”

Do you distinguish between formal and informal? “I think mine are pretty informal. My house is fairly small, and if you’re entertaining in a small space it’s much easier to have everyone sitting at a table rather than wandering around. And buffets are unbelievably uncomfortable.

“I tend to stay at the table until the end. And I suppose you could say it’s formal, inasmuch as it’s seated and people have designated places. But that’s only done to help people. It can be rather embarrassing, all that ‘I’d better not sit next to the host’ so everyone clusters at the other end of the table.”

Do you do the cooking yourself? “Good heavens, no. I’ve got somebody absolutely lovely, Kate. Kate will give me some choices, and I make the menu decision.”

What about the wine? “David Campbell has a wonderful company called From Vineyard Direct, and he sends you letters saying this is a good buy or that’s delicious, so I buy my wine from him.” (We’ll allow the plug in the interest of improving the quality of life for all.) “Plus many years ago
I went to a party and there was a man helping called Daniel. I don’t know how we got talking but we then met at another party and he remembered what I like to drink: water, but out of a glass with a stem – I hate tumblers. So I asked if he did private parties, and he’s been coming to me ever since:
30 years probably by now. Between him and Kate they organise everything. Quite often I don’t get back home until around 7 o’clock, and I can completely rely on them.”

What about table decoration? “Cornelia [Nina’s PA] helps with the flowers, she’s an absolute whizz with them. I wrote a book on Elsie de Wolfe, who said flowers have to be low, so you can see over the top of them. Either that or high, but definitely not a floral barrier on the tabletop. I also collect antique glass ice buckets, and I put these down the table with small candles, votive candles, and mirrors, so the whole middle of the table is sparkling.

“The other thing I do to make the table more interesting is I collect unusual salt and pepper pots. I’ve got an elephant who’s got a pannier on either side of his howdah for salt and pepper, and a monkey, and a camel, and a car that I put my number plate on – NC1. Those go down the table, and that’s another bit of help if someone’s desperate and can’t think of anything to say: they can always remark on them to start a conversation. But I just think it’s fun to have a table with things on it.”

Do you have a ruling on when it is and isn’t appropriate for a guest to provide a bottle? “I do. I was talking about this the other day. If someone just comes round for a drink it’s nice to bring a bottle of wine. But if you’re coming to a dinner you obviously can’t drink it then, so I don’t really like the idea of bringing a bottle of wine for dinner. And here’s another thing. If people come with a bunch of flowers it’s very sweet, but then what do you do? You’ve got to run and get a vase, and in my house the kitchen’s too small and I don’t want to disturb Kate, so I’ve then got to run downstairs. Oh dear, this sounds unbelievably ungrateful. It’s a lovely thought, but just not very helpful. If a girlfriend comes round for supper, it’s lovely to bring a bunch of flowers you’ve passed on the way, but if it’s a dinner party no. I don’t really think you need to bring anything. I don’t expect a present, it’s an American thing, and I think it’s got slightly out of hand.”

How about greeting people? Can be an awkward business if you’re still getting ready up to the last minute, or guests arrive unhelpfully early. “Answer the door as fast as possible, and in my house the drink tray is absolutely bang there – if I’ve got lots of people Daniel offers them a drink – as I want them to have a drink before they come and sit down. I think a drink tray as soon as you arrive is a jolly nice thing to see. It’s got everything on it, ice, glasses, soft drinks, mixers, vodka, whisky, gin, and one or two rather random bottles that have gathered over the years that I don’t really know what to do with.”

You’re clearly frighteningly well organised, but have you ever had any invitation mix-ups? “Heavens yes. I had a very funny moment a few years ago. I knew somebody with a certain name, who I’d invited, and there was somebody else in my diary, a specialist I’d been to, with the same name. Unfortunately I had a temporary PA who rang the specialist to check he’d be attending. His secretary was quite offended: there was no way he was coming to dinner with me. Actually, when the PA informed me it came as a bit of a surprise that my friend even had a secretary, but I managed to find someone else. And then of course the door opened and the proper guest was outside on the doorstep. I tried to keep my face together, ‘How wonderful to see you’, and then we had to rush back to the table, quietly – if you can rush quietly – lay another place, and divide up whatever we were serving. Because of course that was a night, and the last ever, when we were having something individual, poussin I think. But it was a frightfully good evening, and we brought down a teddy bear because by this time we were sitting down 13. So yes, it can happen. But the one thing it taught me was to never have any dish for dinner that can’t be divided up.”

Any last thoughts? “Simple. Above all else, just try to make sure everyone has a good time.” Thanks, Nina. I doubt many of us will be able to live up to your legendary standard of hospitality, but in that at least we can all do our best.