Country Life’s 50 dinner party guests

Top 50 dinner guests

Diana Athill
One of the shrewdest publishers of all time, the nonagenarian has a wise cheerfulness that you could listen to forever
Joan Bakewell
The original ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ is well informed and disarmingly frank, which can only make for amusing conversation
Tony Benn
He once said ‘I am kindly and old, but I am not harmless’, and he certainly still has the power to produce a compelling argument. Charismatic and never boring
Melvyn Bragg
Despite being probably the most polymathic broadcaster in Britain, he’s not an intimidating dinner guest; indeed, he’s a good draw-attentive, funny and interesting
Kenneth Clarke
The dinner party seems the natural habitat for this old-style, jazz-appreciating politician whose affable rumpled appearance reassures
Bill Clinton
Whether you approve of him or not, he’s not short on social graces or intellect, and you’d feel you had his full attention
Jilly Cooper
One of those life-enhancing people who just cheers you up, she has inimitable charm and an endearing way of laughing throatily halfway through her own jokes
Brian Cox
The former pop star has managed to make science sexy, with millions tuning in to hear him describe the Sun as ‘a colossal fiery sphere of tortured matter’
Hugh Dennis
The bishop’s son is as amusing in real life as on stage-a rarity among professional comedians-and has a comic way of ploughing on even when the joke has backfired
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire
The last of the Mitford sisters commands undiminishing affection. Debo Devonshire is always captivating, whether expounding on chickens or Elvis
The Duke of Edinburgh
His acerbic observations have been the stuff of satire, but we enjoy the bon mots of this remarkable man of many interests. He would share common ground with wildlife artist David Shepherd
Ranulph Fiennes
One of very few swashbuckling British heroes, he could make you feel inadequate, but his tales of frostbitten digits and heart flutters on Mount Everest are so self-deprecatory that you’ll be enthralled

Seating plan - Annie Tempest

John Francome
Easily the most charismatic racing comment-ator, his interests extend beyond the race-
track and he can be side-splittingly funny
Stephen Fry
Don’t be intimidated; even the wittiest brains share mundane concerns-in a recent tweet, he posted the fairly non-intellectual gambit: ‘Why does no kind of hat suit me?’
Lucinda Green
Much more than an equestrian legend-friendly, thoughtful and with exquisite manners. Jilly Cooper would enjoy swapping notes, but seat her away from Mr Shepherd the leopard-skin handbag is genuine
Germaine Greer
Should provide a great antidote to the pomp and circumstance that can arise over cheese and Port at the end of a long night
William Hague
Probably regrets saying he used to drink 14 pints a day, but he’s clearly sociable. His exorbi-tant after-dinner-speaking fees are justified
David Haig
Not only is the actor funny and appealing on stage, but he’s equally endearing off it. A good egg who would bring plenty to the party
Prince Harry
Has shown an admirable and refreshing ability to make an effort without being sanctimonious. We know he likes parties, he’ll get stuck into the games and he isn’t as busy as his older brother
Miranda Hart
Beyond the buffoonery, the comedienne de nos jours is an acute observer who is great company and has an inspiring tale to tell
Ian Hislop
The way he screws up his face and shakes with encouraging laughter is reason enough to invite him, even before he’s opened his mouth to be bitingly funny
Jools Holland
The master of infectious spontaneity, who can sit down at the piano and play anything. Also a countryman of wide interests
Jeremy Irons
One of few English actors to achieve true film-star status without selling out to Hollywood, he rides a motorbike, owns a castle, supports the Countryside Alliance and lends glamour
Gen Sir Mike Jackson
An army officer with an old-fashioned, swashbuckling presence and interesting face who could easily evict the gatecrashers
Mick Jagger
Is he the coolest man on Earth? You’d almost hope he’d throw a television out of the window, just so you could say you were there
P. D. James
An asset for her sharp powers of observation, wisdom and lack of pretension. As guest editor on Today, she was pretty scary, but courteous. Should win the game of wink murder
Penelope Keith
There won’t be any sloppy talking from this much-loved actress, who recently campaigned for us to cherish our ‘wonderful’ language
Keira Knightley
The graceful actress is known to have a sweet nature, which should help to paper over any sticky moments during dinner
Boris Johnson
It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t fall off his chair or insult someone, but it won’t be dull; he’s much cleverer than the buffoon act suggests
Dom Joly
Don’t be put off by the brash comic act; he’s far more thoughtful and self-aware in real life. Be prepared, however, for a fearless-and possibly foolhardy-choice of topic
Sue Lawley
A lively dinner companion who will draw out all sorts of secrets if you aren’t careful. Adores the Devon coast and loves travelling
Nigella Lawson
One of the few beautiful women liked by both men and women, and at least you won’t be embarrassed to ask for seconds
Joanna Lumley
Absolutely fabulous in every way, she will be a gracious and humorous star. But we’re not sure about her new badger-hugging tendency
Lord Mandelson
Yes, really. We think the ‘Prince of Darkness’ would be an urbane and riveting addition, and, besides, we know he likes dogs
James May
It seems invidious to single out one of the Top Gear team, but we like the easy, clubbable charm of this son of a priest and classical musician
Alexander McCall Smith
The member of the Really Terrible Orchestra must be fun, and he’s as charming as his writing suggests. His perceptiveness of human nature might be unnerving, however
James Naughtie
As long as he says everyone’s names clearly and slowly, all should go well. A man of many interests, who can sing for his supper
Michael Palin
He makes women go weak at the knees and he makes men laugh-a rare combination. You’d want him on your team for charades
Michael Parkinson
The man who’s made putting people at their ease an art form must be a sought-after guest
Jeremy Paxman
Someone has to interrupt the tedious shaggy-dog stories, but behind the impatience is
a thoughtful man who has more than a passing sympathy for the countryside
Rosamund Pike
Classy British actress and independent thinker who looks self-contained but is endearingly accident-prone (as her Bafta performance proved) and enjoys skinny-dipping
Michael Portillo­­
Having left politics, he must be staggered by his popularity as a pundit. His views are interesting, and he’s not short on charisma
David Shepherd
He loves trains, tigers and Elgar, and hates small talk and oligarchs, so there’s never a dull moment. Also persuasive-you’ll have pledged to his wildlife charity long before pudding
John Simpson
He’s seen it all-Mandela’s release, the fall of Ceausescu, being smuggled into Afghani-stan dressed as a woman-and can convey the story with humanity and gravitas
Rory Stewart
One of the more reasonable debaters in Parliament, the MP has been a deputy governor in Iraq, a diplomat in Montenegro, and walked 6,000 miles across Asia. Plenty to talk about
Ed Stourton
Every party needs a courteous listener to keep a grip on the conversation, which is why this interesting man is so missed on Today
Sir Roy Strong
Theatrical and innovative (ask him about his Herefordshire garden). He can also draw on his vast experience of the Arts for riveting anecdotes
Emma Thompson
As compelling off-screen as on, and with pet campaigns ranging from the third runway at Heathrow to human rights, she would be good for a thought-provoking night
Sandi Toksvig
The incredibly versatile chair of The News Quiz gives the impression of being someone who would always make a big effort, and she’s a countrywoman, too
Amy Williams
The skeleton bobsleigh gold medallist will lower the average age and raise the glamour stakes, and she’s also a sparky conversationalist and artist

Wish you were here
Ten blasts from the past we think would have brought something to the party

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Lord Byron: was he really that mad, bad and dangerous?
Lewis Carroll: fascinating and imaginative
Charles II: deeply civilised, interested in sailing, science-and women
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire: glamorous, feisty troublemaker
Amelia Earhart: where did she really go?
Marilyn Monroe: ideal addition to a birthday party
Ivor Novello: could fill awkward gaps with a song and a tune
Surtees: a legendary sporting man
Oscar Wilde: probably the most acute wit who ever passed the Port
Harold Wilson: clubbable, pipe-smoking and fearless

© Annie Tempest at The O’Shea Gallery, London>