Neil MacGregor, the director of the National Gallery, is a hero of our time. He is a leader of the resistance to the Gadarene rush to charge entry to our museums and galleries. Labour has formally welched on its promise to keep them free, and there is a creeping heresy that tries to persuade us that free museums are a middle-class privilege. Mr MacGregor will have none of this: "There is no easier way of seeing that they remain middle-class than charging for access," he says.

The language is vaguely populist but never imprecise. His manner is modest. He rarely speaks in public, and he would never dream of trying to impose his personality on the National Gallery, the way Roy Strong did at the Victoria and Albert Museum. "The pictures set the agenda. They run the place," he says.

Mr MacGregor is a Scot whose parents were the kind of passionate Europeans who thought of London only as a place you passed through on the way to France and Spain. He is slim, with lively brown eyes, a prominent chin, large ears and long fingers, though he is rarely as earnest as he looks. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and law in Edinburgh before going to the Courtauld Institute to study art when he was 27. He became director at the National Gallery only 14 years later. In his 10 years there he has rehung the whole collection in a way that is copied all over the world.

Mr MacGregor is a mixture of Scottish romanticism and hard-headedness. He believes that museums exist to help end social exclusion by creating a real equality of taste, and that they should remain free because that impresses rich folk who then donate large sums to sponsor new and refurbished galleries. The number of sponsored rooms in the National Gallery suggests this is not as daft as it sounds. There is Sainsbury money and Getty money, and much more besides, though that does not guarantee a director's success. "It's one thing to give him an instrument, but it's quite another to watch him play it," says Nicholas Serota, who runs the Tate Gallery.

Mr MacGregor is not so modest that he can't make influential friends. He's pals with the Queen Mother, for instance. "She has some wonderful pictures," he says - meaning it. "One of the best in our exhibition of London's Monets earlier this year she bought herself. She came along to look at people looking at her picture."

The Queen Mother did Mr MacGregor another good turn by introducing him to Pierre Berge, the head of Yves Saint Laurent, who gave the National Gallery pounds 1m soon after for the redecoration of the French 17th-century-painting gallery. "He has a formidable mind and great charm," says Mr Berge.

Mr MacGregor is a familiar figure in galleries in Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and Los Angeles. Recent rumours that he was moving to Berlin, where he would be paid a lot more than pounds 70,000, came as no surprise, but there is no truth in them. "No one's offered me a job," he says.

But someone will, and if Mr MacGregor leaves London only Labour's philistines will applaud the move.

Conrad Black, the deeply conservative proprietor of the Telegraph, has become an admirer of Tony Blair, who was himself responsible for the conversion. How unfair it must seem to Mr Black, then, that the story coming out of Downing Street is that the Prime Minister recently asked the aspirant newspaper proprietors David and Frederick Barclay in to see him to say how much he would prefer them as the Telegraph's owners. The trouble with this is that when the Barclays did go to No 10 they were among numerous other guests at a charity event, and the Telegraph was never mentioned. Perhaps Mr Black should detect the hand of Peter Mandelson behind this dirty trick. Mr Mandelson, who discourages criticism in any form, is distressed by the constant barrage of it from the Daily Telegraph's editor, Charles Moore. Mr Black may have been seeking solace when he and William Hague had dinner alone together at the Ritz hotel last Thursday.

A man for whom size does matter

Prince Jeffri, who is no less adept at spending money than his elder brother the Sultan of Brunei, has just cancelled the gorgeous yacht he had ordered from the Bloom and Voss yard in Germany. Prince Jeffri's preference was a yacht measuring 650 feet in length, which would make it substantially bigger than a Royal Navy frigate. Although it was to be designed by a former partner of Jon Bannenberg, one of the best known and most expensive yacht designers in the world, the problem was not cost. The trouble was that the yacht belonging to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia measures only 550 feet, and it is regarded as lese-majesty among Muslims to own any thing that makes the king look small.

TIP to prospective Booker Prize entrants in 1998: give us a happy ending. I pass this on after a word with the man announced last week as the chair of the judges, Douglas Hurd. The writer and former defence secretary, who becomes the fourth politician chairman after Norman St John Stevas (1985), Michael Foot (1988) and George Walden (1995), talks in less-than- enthralled terms of the 1997 winner, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. "I found it a rather depressing book," Lord Hurd says. "I preferred A Suitable Boy."

One novel I can confidently predict will not win next year's Booker is The Shape of Ice, to be published by Little Brown on 21 May. Its author: Douglas Hurd.

Costume drama like none other

EVER since the Colin Firth/ Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, BBC "classic" drama has been hitching up its breeches and having a high old time. Only last week the critically acclaim-ed Tom Jones reached its conclusion, and the guttering candles and rustle of crinoline will be with us again soon when Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is shown at Christmas, and a five-part adaptation of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (starring Anna Friel, Paul McGann and Timothy Spall) reaches our screens next March.

I am intrigued to learn, however, that further down the line plans are afoot for something altogether more challenging for the costume and props department - the first-ever television dramatisation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, due for broadcast in 1999. The Gothic fantasist was all the rage about 25 years ago when the bookshelves of students who had exhausted their Tolkien were Titus Groaning, as it were, under the weight of Peake's rambling grotesquerie. But in the age of Terry Pratchett and cyberfiction, dear old Mervyn, who died in 1968, has surely long since, er, peaked. No one under the age of 25 seems to have heard of him.

So I wondered what on earth had possessed producer Estelle Daniel to take on the project. "It's got all the makings of a classic," she said. "There's actually a very accessible story there that maybe people don't realise is also very funny. We're certainly aiming to bring out all the comedy." And then there's our old friend, contemporary relevance. The tale of how Steerpike, the kitchen skivvy, rises to the top of the eponymous castle and overthrows the established order is "very millennial", says Ms Daniel.

All this after it could so easily have been "Gormenghast - The Musical". Before the BBC acquired them, the rights to the trilogy were owned by Sting. But somehow he was too busy saving rainforests to do anything about them.

The buzz at a nostalgic party on the stage of the Old Vic last Monday was that Lord Lloyd-Webber would buy the theatre. Last Tuesday Sir Peter Hall was told that the purchase was a done deal, and that his much-praised company would return. By Thursday it was off. Lord Lloyd-Webber was unwilling to pay the asking price of pounds 7.5m, or anything like it. By Friday the name of Karl Watkin, a Newcastle industrialist with a colourful turn of phrase, entered the list of bidders. Mr Watkin is a realist: "I'm interested in artistic integrity, but I haven't got my head in my arse either," he says. That means he won't pay pounds 7.5m either. Another name no one has ever heard of popped up this weekend. He is Roberto Mendoza, a top man in JP Morgan, the New York investment bank, about whom nothing is known apart from his devotion to the Old Vic and his admiration for Sir Peter Hall. The party's over, but the third act hasn't even begun.

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