If there’s one job that seems to suit the very posh down to the ground, it’s party planning. Think of Pippa Middleton and her book of party tips for every occasion. Think of Made in Chelsea’s Mark-Francis Vandelli, who is never happier than when organising a fabulous event – or sneering at other people’s hosting attempts (“There’s nothing more depressing than going to a dinner party where there are no flowers, doesn’t it just kill you? I want to leave there and then!”).
But before Pippa, before Mark-Francis, there was Lady Elizabeth Anson. A cousin of the queen and the daughter of Princess Anne of Denmark, she was raised among the British aristocracy and married at Westminster Abbey. She has also been QE2’s party planner for over 50 years, most recently organising the private family celebration for her 90th birthday.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Lady Elizabeth revealed that she calls the Queen “Shirley Temple”, that she wears Uniqlo's “heat tech” to events held in at the drafty Victoria & Albert Museum, and that Her Majesty worries that her grandchildren don’t know how to talk to each other because they don’t have enough staff (apparently, all that time spent “putting something in a dishwasher or whatever they’re doing” means they haven’t time to learn the art of conversation).
She also dispensed some of her tips for throwing a successful dinner party – and while some of them are slightly mad, others are really rather practical. Dig in.
1) Get the invites right
A jokey Facebook event with an ‘ironic’ photo just won’t cut it in royal circles. If she has to go digital, Lady Elizabeth uses high-end e-vite service Paperless Post. Wherever possible, she says to send a physical invite - but keep it simple, classy and elegant. Cheap-looking invites will make guests “imagine there’s going to be acidic wine and miserable food”, but ostentatious glamour is also to be avoided. “Someone wanted me to do ‘save the dates’ with Swarovski crystals costing no less than £2,500 a card, and that’s just vulgarity,” says Lady Elizabeth.
2) Don’t feel pressured to go OTT with the menu
If you’ve invited people round for dinner, it can be tempting to attempt the most impressively complicated recipe in your Ottolenghi cookbook – but Lady Elizabeth says not to bother. “A party with good table wine and good pasta or good sausages and mash can be just as much of a success as one with Krug, caviar, oysters and lobster,” she says. “It’s not about expensive ingredients. It’s about people.”
3) Be seen in a good light
More important than the food is the lighting. “Lighting makes or breaks it,” says Lady Elizabeth. “You can use it to make people look nice and to divide a big room up.” Those of us who don’t habitually throw dinner parties in ballrooms probably won’t need to “divide a big room up” anytime soon – but she’s right that good illumination is essential. Turn off the ceiling light in the kitchen and use lamps, candles and fairy lights to create a soft, glowy atmosphere.
4) Bend the truth to get what you want
Getting your guests to sit down at the table is sometimes easier said than done. Someone needs to pop to the loo, a few others have gone for a cigarette, someone else is on the phone to their boyfriend in the hallway… To force people to take a seat, Lady Elizabeth recommends telling them that you’ve made a soufflé, even if you haven’t. (Soufflés need to be eaten pretty much immediately, as they start to deflate soon after coming out of the oven.) “I’ve never had anyone come back to me later and complain that it wasn’t,” she says. As tips go, this is a bit mad, and will probably only work if you’ve got a dining room. If your guests are already in your kitchen, they’ll be able to see that you’re actually serving them pesto pasta.
5) Seat all the bores together
Ideally, of course, there wouldn’t be any bores coming round for dinner – but we can’t always help who our friends choose to date, as much as we’d like to. Put all the duds down one end of the table, so you don’t have to interact with them any more than is strictly necessary. “They don’t realize they’re the bores, and they’re happy,” says Lady Elizabeth, cheerfully ruthless. “It’s my biggest tip.”
6) Round dining tables are best
We’re not all necessarily able to go out and buy new furniture specifically for a dinner party. Thankfully, Lady Elizabeth’s reasons for preferring round tables are not ones that affect most of us. If you’ve got aristocracy or Very Important People attending your dinner, you see, it can be a bit awkward deciding who should sit where at a rectangular table – as the most important guest always sits in the middle. A round table, says Lady Elizabeth, “makes life easier. If there’s a duke there, he can sit somewhere opposite me if I think there’s somebody more amusing that I want to sit next to.”
7) Do any extra organisation over the phone
Skip endless the faffing around with WhatsApp group chats and Facebook message threads. If you need anything sorted last-minute, just pick up the phone. “It’s old-fashioned but it’s instantaneous,” says Lady Elizabeth. “I don’t want endless emails and bits and bobs.”
8) Never let the party peter out
Lady Elizabeth says she has only made one mistake in her entire career: letting a band start playing again towards the end of a night, rather than sending everyone home on their merry way. “It was a flop,” she says. “If you let it peter out, it’s death.” She recommends having the band announce that it’s the second to last dance, and stopping the bar from serving. In reality, turning off Spotify and starting on the washing up is the quickest way of alerting people to the fact that it’s hometime.