DANCE / Lady of the house: Why is the Chairman of English National Ballet known as 'Hatchet Woman'? Judith Mackrell meets Lady Harlech

WHEN English National Ballet open at the Savoy Theatre tonight, it won't just be the dancers or the new repertoire that's under scrutiny. High on the list of the season's most gossipable items will be relations between Derek Deane, ENB's new Artistic Director, and Pamela, Lady Harlech, Chairman of the company's board.

Deane was appointed four months ago to one of the most notorious jobs in British ballet. As the third incumbent of the position in three years, he has to turn around a company whose artistic standards have come close to a joke. He also has to hold his own against the formidable and famous presence of Lady Harlech.

There are few other heads of arts company boards who are so visible to the public eye. Though most are rich and many are famous, their role is simply to act as a governing authority while the artistic and administrative directors get on with the company's daily running.

Harlech though has never been in the shade at ENB - in fact, during her three years with the company she's often been its most newsworthy figure. In her opinion its her startling head of hair that makes her so conspicuous. A huge valkyrie helmet of black backcomb and lacquer with silver wings at each side, it's more than a feature - it's a monument. And Harlech, aka Lady Hairspray, is always first with jokes at its expense. 'People see this hair coming through the door,' she cackles, 'and they go 'Aargh]'. But it's very difficult hair and this is the only way it works.'

Yet it takes more than a hairstyle to create the kind of notoriety that's been foisted on Harlech. She's been accused of running ENB to further her own ends, of bossing her opponents into submission and of inflicting her own bad taste on to the repertoire. Among her more abusive nicknames have been Hatchet Woman and Bully of the Ballet.

What is curious is that when you talk to other organisations on whose boards Harlech has served, you get a different picture. Jules Wright of the Womens Playhouse Trust and Elizabeth Esteve-Coll of the V&A both speak glowingly of Harlech's tireless and scrupulously professional commitment to their organisations.

The reason why Harlech has been seen as such a harridan at ENB has partly been a matter of personalities, partly a matter of politics. Harlech is tough talking, decisive and rampantly energetic, and because she is both a woman and an American these qualities tend to be read as bitchiness and ruthless ambition - at least by her enemies. Her time at ENB has also embroiled her in some of the juiciest scandals in recent ballet history.

When Harlech first joined the company in late 1989 it was in chaos. The members of the board had split into hostile factions and the administrative and artistic sides of the company were hardly speaking. Harlech approached the mess by going straight to its jugular. Her first move was to insist that every member of the board vote in favour of her appointment and her second was to get them all to resign. 'There was no point picking up that board because they were all fighting. I took some back, but the ones that were making trouble had to go.'

Given the grand and titled status of some of the troublemakers this in itself provoked a small scandal. But what really sparked the headlines, was the fact that the first act of Harlech's new board was to sack the company's artistic director Peter Schaufuss.

Even to outsiders it was clear that Schaufuss was a problem to ENB. Under his reign the company's debt had grown, he had alienated several of its leading dancers and his artistic decisions were sometimes clouded by his ego. At the same time he was a magnificent asset to the company. He had created a bright new sexy image by bringing in bold and imaginative ballets, and he had attracted as many good dancers as he had put off.

Even to Schaufuss' critics the abruptness of his sacking looked bad for Harlech and her board. There were stories of Schaufuss being locked out of the building, even of Harlech throwing him on to the street. There was a particularly nasty moment when pro-Schaufussites barracked Harlech at a Royal Gala and some have still never forgiven her.

Harlech picks her way discreetly through the reasons for his dismissal. On record, she'll simply state that Schaufuss had put himself into an untenable position by indicating that he wouldn't work with her and the board. And she also insists that she first thought 'Schaufuss was brilliant . . . when I came, it wasn't on my mind that he had to go. I just came to sort out the board.'

The story might now be dead, except that six months ago Harlech and her board were responsible for sacking Schaufuss' replacement, Ivan Nagy. Nagy, normally a man of ineffable charm, fuelled the anti-Harlech campaign by publically accusing her of interfering in all of his artistic decisions. Harlech winds herself up to an aria of gleeful sarcasm at this - 'If I'd been interfering artistically, frankly, we wouldn't have been doing the rubbish we did.' Her voice narrows with delicious malice as she lists some of the limpest of Nagy's acquisitions: 'Ann Frank, now there was a great ballet. Cinderella very classy and L, wasn't that a lulu.'

Under Nagy, the repertoire had acquired more than its share of duds and technical standards had slumped. 'The corps de ballet never even saw Ivan,' says Harlech. 'One night I saw one of the Snowflakes in The Nutcracker wandering around on the wrong side of the stage lost. There was another dancer who was always a beat behind the rest. I said to Ivan 'Have you noticed her?' and he said, 'Yes, but she's such a nice girl.' ' Other members of the board were keen to get rid of Nagy much earlier. Harlech, anxious to avoid another Schaufuss situation, held out for giving him a chance.

Yet because of the periods when Nagy had absented himself from the company, or when it was without an artistic director altogether, Harlech did have to take a figurehead role at ENB. Those who saw all this as proof of her insatiably bossy ego were further incensed when she once appeared dancing the Arab Girl in the company's Nutcracker. She says that the company egged her on to do it and she still cherishes the memory of the dancer who shared the role with her, taking the mickey by coming out on stage in a wig and make up identical to Harlech's everyday wear.

She can't actually help being conspicuous - her wit, her appearance, her voice, her love of occasion cause a permanent buzzy energy to crackle around her. But she professes every intention of taking her hands off the company now that Deane has arrived. His appointment was scrupulously monitored by the Arts Council as well as by other members of the board. And Harlech claims that he's transformed the company already - 'morale is 100 per cent better than two years ago.'

Saying this, Harlech actually undersells herself - people both inside the company and out say that, far from ruining ENB, Harlech has helped keep it afloat. Her formidable fundraising skills have bolstered its finances while her energy and optimism have invigorated its spirits.

Also, although she's outspoken, even abrasive, she expects others to be the same. Veronica Lewis, one of the most radical members of the ENB's board has had several fights with her. But she says Harlech is no bully. 'I've never known her not take advice and she respects people for having their own opinions.' Contrary to gossip Harlech also has her own life. 'I didn't ask to do this job,' she says, 'I was asked. I'm the least ambitious person. After all, what am I getting out of all this? I love the dancers but otherwise I wouldn't mind if I had to go tomorrow. I'm quite happy to go off to the country and garden and eat.'

ENB are at the Savoy all this week (Box office: 071-836 8888).

(Photograph omitted)