AFTER READING yesterday's newspapers, Pandora felt great sympathy for Peter Mandelson. Not because of the predictable barrage of personal criticism and snide satire from his enemies which Mandy can certainly cope with, but because of the devastating tributes from his friends. How painful for him to read Andrew Rawnsley's glowing but tragically out-of- synch account of Mandelson's political reputation's "most remarkable reconstruction" in The Observer, whose Life magazine had obviously gone to press before the loan story broke. Next was dear friend Robert Harris, the columnist and author, performing acts of Herculean hyperbole on his behalf: "To call what he [Mandelson] did `sleaze'... is to murder the English language" and "sooner government by people like him than government by skinheads". Finally, Derek Draper's bilious attempt in the Mail on Sunday to make Mandy seem ordinary. "Here I am," he quotes Mandelson as saying, "supposedly the world's greatest political communicator and I'm saving up trips to the supermarket to make my life more interesting." Oh dear.

JOHN BIRT'S visit to the Groucho Club a few nights before Christmas caused a stir in the club originally founded as a writers' and publishers' hideout, now the favourite watering hole of television stars and independent producers, from Lenny Henry to Stephen Fry to Vic & Bob. The BBC boss was a guest of his administrative assistant Katie Kay, a Groucho member, who settled him into a quiet corner table in the upstairs bar. "It seems very reasonable," the notoriously cost-conscious Birt told Kay later as she paid their bill. When this overheard remark was circulated later, a number of members' eyebrows were raised. The Groucho's cocktails are excellent, but nobody before ever called them inexpensive.

AFTER BOWING to Tony Blair and Sir Edward Heath's appeals to allow the Branson balloon flight to proceed over its territory, China announced sternly on Christmas Eve that it would ban any more round-the-world balloons from crossing its borders. This is bad news for Branson, and the competing Cable and Wireless, Breitling Orbiter 3 and Spirit of Peace balloon teams, since virtually all northern hemisphere global balloon routes must cross over China. However, Pandora hears that at least three other teams are planning a southern hemisphere circumnavigation for next summer in the race to be the first to blow around the globe.

THE PANDORA Prize for the most surprisingly witty Christmas card goes to the National Audit Office. Printed to appear like a genuine NOA report on the "Ministry of Merriment", the card documents the "cost over-runs, delays and irregularities in the production of Christmas presents". An accompanying "press release" reports: "Asked to account for 500,000 X- rated imported videos, Santa said, `I know it looks bad, but at least I did obtain three quotes before purchase, as previously recommended by the NAO'."

THE MOST eagerly-awaited Western film for years is about to open in America - a film that was originally the brainchild of the late Sam Pekinpah - and its unlikely director is Englishman Stephen Frears (pictured). Over the past weekend, a storm of publicity has appeared about The Hi-Lo Country, a tale of two old-fashioned cowboys in modern New Mexico, and Frears, the north London resident whose credits include My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters. Frears told The New York Times: "I had to literally learn everything... Western films are sort of half mythology, half what it was like in the West." He toured New Mexico for weeks before shooting began and, on the set, confesses to often thinking of Clint Eastwood. "What would Clint do now?" he asked his assistant.

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