Petronella Wyatt

Mingling with the mighty

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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There I was standing in a room with the word 'Service' painted on the door, in the Gellert hotel in Budapest. I was attempting to iron a pair of trousers for the first night of Phantom of the Opera, which was to be the biggest stage production Hungary had ever attempted. Only the Gellert had no valet service so I was pressing my clothes myself in the maids' room.

A crease had just been enlarged when a woman knocked and opened the door. She was evidently a hotel guest and addressed me in English. She demanded peremptorily, 'I want my clothes ironed.' As a friend said later, I should have replied, 'Yes, for 100 English sterling. Just because we're not in the EU yet, don't think labour is cheap.' Instead I glared at her. 'I don't work here.' I should have thought this was evident, given the fact I had rollers in my hair and was wearing a silk dressing-gown embroidered with lace. Did the woman think this the usual attire of a Hungarian maid on duty?

I was on the point of telling her that the one excuse for her rudery was too much Mozart or Lehar, only she looked too stupid, when the woman protested, 'But you're in the service room.' 'Being in a kitchen doesn't make you the cook,' I retorted. 'I happen to be a hotel guest. You have to iron your own clothes here.' She gave me a look of blank horror, slammed the door, causing the hot iron to fall on my foot, and fled.

I was not in Hungary to practise my domestic skills, however. Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber had very kindly invited me to attend the great Phantom opening. This was causing more excitement in Budapest than the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first 90 performances had been sold out, which was declared a record. The production was to be entirely different from the London one, with new sets, costumes and choreography, etc. Moreover, it was to be sung in its original Hungarian. Well, singing it in Hungarian is pretty original, eh what?

I must concede that it is an unashamedly splendid experience going somewhere with a person who is mega-famous like Andrew, as it is the closest one comes to reflected adulation. We went to my favourite restaurant, Gundel, where I did my usual turn with the gypsy band, the members of which nearly fainted when they saw the Lloyd Webbers. I nearly fainted when the room applauded my singing, but they were probably applauding Andrew's presence. But so what. Applause is applause is applause, after all. It's like cupboard love: it is better than nothing.

Outside the theatre on the big night it was pandemonium. The Hungarians had put on their best clothes which did not prevent them trying to do some not inconsiderable mobbing. I now sympathise with celebs who complain about invasion of privacy. Even though we had bodyguards and the chief of police, mobbing is a terrifying experience somewhat akin, I imagine, to being in the middle of a rugby scrum. Even bodyguards cannot prevent collective pushing, shoving and screaming. At one point I was almost knocked flat by two fat men trying to get to Andrew.

This incident separated me from the bodyguards, and when I tried to follow the rest of our party down a side entrance I was ignominiously hauled back by a man forming part of a cordon keeping back the crowd. 'Let me through,' I pleaded. He obviously thought I was a deranged stalker, because he spread out his huge arms and bellowed, 'No fans.' But I'm with the Lloyd Webbers,' I insisted. He took one look at my badly ironed trousers and appeared doubtful. There was nothing to do but make a dash for it under his left arm and fling myself at the nice girl who was supposed to be taking us to our seats. Once seated, a barrage of photography and autograph-seeking commenced. The bodyguards were a bit like the Claude Rains police character in Casablanca. They tended to allow fans to approach Andrew if they were female, pretty and under 25. Bald-headed men didn't stand a chance.

This was hard luck for the bald-headed men as the production was the most spectacular I have ever seen. The sets were extraordinary and moved like lightning, while the costumes were so gorgeous that I have decided to get in touch with the designer and ask her to knock me up a dress. Well, she must be cheaper than Harvey Nichols. The songs sounded pretty good in Hungarian, too, which surprised me a little as Hungarian is not usually considered a tip-top operatic language. At the end, poor Andrew had to stand up to wild and prolonged shrieks of appreciation and was told by the producer that a man so talented must have Hungarian blood. He is now officially a Hungarian national hero. This makes him the second Englishman to be so, the first being Esmond Rothermere of Associated Newspapers whom the Hungarians wanted to make their king after his papers ran articles condemning the loss of land the country suffered under the Treaty of Trianon.

Should a crown not come to pass, however, there will doubtless be a Lloyd Webber boulevard sooner or later. There is a Rothermere Street in Budapest, so the idea is a perfectly viable one. When we go back for its unveiling, however, I am not doing any ironing.