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The comeback cad trying his luck in the Med

JAMES Hewitt – former lover of Princess Diana, ex-solider, comeback cad – throws his head back and laughs at what I have just said. “Yes, I suppose this is like Rick’s in Casablanca,” he says when he recovers. “And everyone comes to Rick’s.” We are having dinner in a corner of Polo House, his bar and restaurant on the Golden Mile in Marbella. It is a sizeable venue that seats 130 and is fitted out like a London club full of dark wood with a long bar running along one side.

The place opened last April and cost “close to €2m” to refurbish, says Ram Nandkishore, 65, a Malaysian businessman – or “Mr Ram,” as the nightclub’s 30 staff call him. He is Hewitt’s business partner and is seated with us. Across the room a French pianist unsteadily picks his way through the American songbook.

“We have the balls to put on a pianist, provide excellent food, put on a burlesque show, and then after that there is dancing,” says Hewitt, 51, in an upper-class drawl that gives the impression of a man who is not used to trying hard for whatever comes his way.

Hewitt has lost the boyish looks he had when his five-year affair with Princess Diana, which ended in 1992, brought him public opprobrium. But he is still handsome and has the lean body you would expect of someone who spent 17 years in the Household Cavalry, leaving as a Major.

Hewitt has lived in Marbella for three years, plays tennis twice a week, jogs, swims, and attends bullfights in high season. He cuts a relaxed figure in a light blue check shirt, white slacks and dark brown loafers.

He says: “I don’t think everyone can do what we have done here.” The unkind might say Polo House has not really cracked it quite yet. The venue sheds its skin several times a night and not every incarnation is successful. One can do without the pianist, and the disco is the sort of mainstream fare you could hear in any provincial club in the UK. On the night I came there was no show, but the doorman told me that the next night there was to be a Frank Sinatra impersonator who “really packs them in.”

The food however, is good. I had a tender wood pigeon topped with fried quail’s eggs, followed by a rich lobster thermidor, and a very good cheeseboard. All washed down with excellent Medoc, Sancerre and port. Hewitt and Ram personally oversee the menu, which changes every three months. “We do the classics extremely well,” says Hewitt.

The core crowd is monied expats, says Hewitt, but they also get a lot of Americans, Russians, English footballers and some “Middle East royalty.” Hewitt would not name names, but my friend the doorman later told me that Blackburn football manager Sam Allardyce and footy pundit Trevor Francis have both recently dined there.

According to Ram, who wears a dark lightweight suit and an open-necked white shirt, the business is working out well, and is set to make a “small profit” by the end of the year. When I express surprise at this he assures me that he has not had to divert cash from the nine other mid-market restaurants he owns along the Costa Del Sol into this high-end venue.

Ram is no stranger to glamorous clubs. He was the man who founded the Kensington Roof Gardens restaurant and bar, which he sold to Sir Richard Branson in 1981. Ram says that the pair are on track to open an outlet in London within 18 months. And “just last week” they had meetings with backers interested in launching a version in New Delhi.

Hewitt is also determined to grow the business: “I wouldn’t get up every morning to come to this bar if I did not think we had plans to expand.” Hewitt believes he has been given another chance and is determined to seize it.

He was branded the “most hated man in Britain” after helping to write a book about the affair and later tried to sell 60 of Diana’s love letters to him for £10m.

Hewitt now says he was just exploring options at the time. But he adds: “I am fed up with being told what to do with them. Don’t try and tell me what to do with my property.” He says: “I can’t ever see a day when I would sell them.” But he rules out never selling the letters.

He also pours cold water over the enduring urban myth that Prince Harry is his son, which was inspired by the fact that the Prince has red hair, like him, and lacks the long Windsor face. Hewitt says he met Diana at a party in the summer of 1986. Harry was born in September 1984.

When Hewitt met Diana he was instantly drawn to her. He says: “She was a very beautiful woman. It was very much the case that she would stand out in any room she entered.” Hewitt says he wasn’t fearful embarking on an affair with the wife of the heir to the throne, even though he was technically committing high treason.

He says: “I wasn’t scared. It was a frustrating time because it was difficult to see each other as often as we would like, but it was exciting also.” Hewitt left the army after 17 years of service in 1994, during which time he fought in the first Gulf War commanding 15 tanks and 150 men, with a £40,000 payout and a £7,000 a year pension. After the Diana affair Hewitt, the son of a Royal Marine, is no longer welcome at regimental dinners. Although the way he tells it, he “prefers not to go.”

Once out of the army he opened a golf driving range in East London and later a riding stables business in Devon, both of which failed. Also, in a bid to rehabilitate his reputation after the affair, Hewitt appeared in a succession of reality TV shows at the start of the century such as The Games, Back to Reality and Celebrity Wrestling. He was twice offered £70,000 to appear on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, but turned it down.

But his public reputation remained pretty low, and not long after a drugs bust (for possession of cocaine with his girlfriend at the time) in a Chelsea bar in 2004, he headed for Marbella. “I had enough of being hounded so I left England,” he says. He is largely happy there. He says: “There is no other weather like this in Europe. Around 300 hot days a year. You wake up, and its blue skies.”

He lives alone in a flat 10 minutes from the bar, but says, “I hope I will not be single for the rest of my life.” Hewitt comes back to the UK twice a year to visit family in Devon and Gloucestershire, but he says the only thing he really misses about England is the opera and the ballet.

Although he would be loath to admit it, the affair with Diana has left a deep scar on the rest of his life. He says: “I’m not embarrassed about it. I’m slightly fed up defending myself as if I had been a naughty schoolboy. I’m not a bad person. I’m no saint, but on balance I am good rather than bad.”

A now thoughtful Hewitt flicks an eye around the club, drains the last of his port, and says: “I fell into a vat of disaster, and I have managed to crawl my way out.” This may be so, but the question that must dog him, is whether the smell that surrounds him will ever go away.

THE LIFE OF A PLAYBOY | JAMES HEWITT

Age: 51

Educated: Millfield public school and Sandhurst

Lives: in a flat in Marbella and a flat in Chelsea

Career: Hewitt spent 17 years in the Household Cavalry, during which time he fought in the first Gulf War. He left the army in 1994, and ran a golf driving range in East London and a riding stables in Devon. He spent a brief period as a reality TV star, appearing on programmes including The Games, Back to Reality and Celebrity Wrestling. He has run the Polo House bar and restaurant in Marbella since April 2009.

Hobbies: Opera, ballet, tennis, swimming, cigars, running, watching bullfighting.