Diary – Monday 13 March 1995


Hernan Errazuriz, the ambassador for Chile, is as mysterious as he is sociable. On 19 April, Index on Censorship, the pro-free speech organisation, is sponsoring the British film premire of Death and the Maiden, about a Chilean torture victim who meets her former torturer after the return of democracy there. So IoC was pleasantly surprised when Sr Errazuriz agreed, in his private capacity as a wine importer, to supply the hooch for the event. After all, it has been only two years since Ariel Dorfmann, the exiled author of the original play of Death and the Maiden, has been allowed back into Chile. As far as IoC is aware, the ambassador is to attend the film premire at the Curzon Mayfair, along with the stars Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, undisguised. Nevertheless, he is clearly a man who likes to keep his private dealings private. When I rang his secretary to inquire about his wine business, she replied: “What wine business? In two years he’s never mentioned it.”

You probably thought you’d heard the last of the fiasco at last Thursday’s live radio concert at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho. (It was supposed to star Stevie Wonder – but for most of it the blind singer- songwriter, who maintained that he didn’t know the show was live, refused to perform. This made the broadcaster Simon Mayo sweat: he spent much of the weekend referring to “the skills” that enabled him to cope so well with the disaster.) But there is more. Once Wonder did get going, he was accompanied by that well-known British actress, but not remotely well- known singer, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Could Ms Zeta-Jones have been seeking a recording contract? It certainly sounded like it, for she actually managed to drown the Wonderkind out.

He gave as good as he got, however. A few bars into “Lately”, in which he assumed for the first time the role of backing singer, he turned to Ms Zeta-Jones and, smiling all the while, whispered gently to her: “My turn.”

The Panorama researchers working on a programme about Michael Portillo and the Tory right’s alleged conspiracy to lose the next election (that’ll be hard) and install their hero as leader are having a tough time of it. The only dirt they’ve got on his time at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, is that he belonged to an all-male college dining society, called the Grafton.

Perhaps I can help them here. The Grafton was not the most exclusive of Cambridge male dining societies. Portillo, after all, did not go to public school. But what it lacked in exclusivity it made up for in pretension. The members would adorn themselves in morning dress for a five-course champagne breakfast and afterwards stroll around the college in their finery, the spectacle of which was somewhat at odds with the college’s professed policy of egalitarianism. Eventually, the college authorities snapped and banned it. But members still meet regularly for champagne breakfasts in London hotels, kitted out in their morning coats. Portillo,though, no longer joins them – presumably he just doesn’t have the time.

There’s talk of closing down Spitting Image, the ageing satirical puppet show, but the rubbery mannequins seem unlikely to lie down and die. Satirical puppetry has caught on in many places abroad, where the Fluck and Law creations are often leased out. In Greece, two puppets are particularly popular with TV producers – those of Jeremy Paxman and the Duke of Edinburgh. Of course, these puppets do not satirise their live originals. “Nobody in Greece has ever heard of Jeremy Paxman,” a Spitting Image spokeswoman says. “Instead, he’s used to portray the stereotypical Greek waiter.” And the Duke, who hails from the Greek Royal Family? “Nobody’s ever heard of him either; he’s used to portray the stereotypical degenerate drunk.”

The film world has never seen the like. Three weeks ago MGM invited about 50 top American exhibitors (as cinema owners are known in the US) to a dinner in London celebrating the impending release of Rob Roy – a film about the hardships of village life in 17th-century Scotland – starring Liam Neeson. The guests were invited to a dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel, Park Lane, but instead of imposing a dress code, MGM asked for their measurements. The guests assumed they were getting a free dinner jacket (this is Hollywood, after all) and acquiesced.

Upon arrival, however, they discovered, to their dismay, that a kilt had been made up for each guest. “They all started ringing each other’s hotel rooms,” says one of the British guests who was in on the joke. “They deliberately arrived at the dinner in pairs, in case anyone took the mickey, but they ended up having a whale of a time.” Clearly refreshed by the Scotch whisky on offer, some of the exhibitors went off together to Piccadilly. There a bunch of American tourists, and later a group of Japanese, mistook them for genuine Scots and took their pictures, but only after the wily Americans charged £5 a go. “They made over £100,” says a spokesman for the distributors, UIP, adding hastily, “but I’m sure they gave it all to charity.”

Memo to British Rail: May I suggest a new staff position among your ranks – something like a Countryside Consultant – perhaps a reincarnation of William Boot? That you are in need of one is evident from your latest poster, on display at Euston station, featuring an enticing view of a castle in the great British countryside and starring a pretty butterfly (see below). The thing is that the butterfly has been extinct for 15 years. When it existed, it was called, for the amateur lepidopterists among you, the Large Tortoisehell.

Disaster was neatly avoided at Saturday night’s opening of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Royal Opera House, thanks to the strong arms of the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. Just as the lead soprano, Catherine Malfitano, stepped forward to receive her thunderous applause the curtain (black for this performance) descended directly on top of her. Just in time, Terfel reached up and stopped it, in a pose reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. He stood firm as the diva basked in her bravas and bouquets, receiving hearty applause in particular from – Panorama researchers get your notebooks out – Michael Portillo.