Scotched by Clarke's unseemly rush to the offie

Alan Watkins on politics

Kenneth Clarke seems so likeable, with his little chortles, his cigars, his uncombed wisps of hair, and body well-rounded by much consumption of malt whisky. He seemed to enjoy his budget speech enormously. He was like a man in his bath, welcoming others into the steam and suds. He only needed a few yellow plastic ducks to com- plete the happy picture. But history is full of jovial uncle types who proved to be gangsters and fools. The captain of the Titanic was probably very genial during the earlier part of the voyage. Clarke's affable air is a relief from Major and Mawhinney, but it proves nothing. Think of Nero.

I feel badly let down. It was that 27p off spirits that did it. For weeks now I've been carting home braces of Famous Grouse, in preparation for the inevitable increase in price. This assumption was not based merely on the fact that whisky gets put up every Budget. That would not have galvanised me, if I hadn't read that the Chancellor had been spotted not so long ago scurrying to his car with a whole crate of whisky.

In the light of the Budget, Clarke's scurrying seems mysterious. Why was he, who alone knew the prices would be going down, stocking up beforehand? Unless the crate was an early Christmas present, perhaps, from some hopeful distillery...?

At any rate, I am no longer wholly charmed by Kenneth Clarke.

OTHER nations get restless towards the end of a century, and dream of revolution; the British turn moralising and bland. Everything on our screens now is checked beforehand just to make sure it reaches the required level of blandness. We are not to be shocked or disturbed or thrilled. We are to drink our Horlicks quietly and think of England.

It was in this spirit of spiritlessness that Jane Austen's Emma was doled out to us last Sunday. Almost an exact imitation of the Gwyneth Paltrow movie earlier this autumn, it lacked that effort's only redeeming feature: Paltrow. Jane Austen cannot be dramatised. Everything extraordinary about her is in the words she uses. Brontes make much better film fodder: they don't care about words, only Victorian strictures and those blasted moors (what a miserable bunch they were).

I am forming a Society for the Protection of Jane Austen Against Andrew Davies, the one they keep asking to adapt her novels for television. Why get a guy who does not appreciate or understand Austen, why get a guy at all, to do this job? A guy who recognises that Emma is "not a pretty book" but fails to notice it's a splendid one.

His patronising interpretation of Pride and Prejudice (rescued by Colin Firth's eyes) was at least lively, compared to this funereal Emma, in which every silly plot device was religiously preserved but none of the wit. From grim, griping Mr Woodhouse and his perpetually frowning and none-too-bright daughter, to that haggard-looking Harriet, lugubrious Mr Knightley, and a manic Mrs Elton who seemed to be battling with a Pennsylvanian accent (you could imagine her rushing off to pickle something), there wasn't a laugh for miles. Even Little Henry's inheritance, a running gag in the book, was cast away by Davies like a complicated toy he didn't know how to work. For light entertainment, Davies relies instead on the obligatory country ball - women shuffling round in their nighties, and men with surprisingly puffy pants. Not a fun crowd.

But all was explained in an article Davies wrote for the Daily Telegraph last week. It turns out he doesn't actually like Emma - a fact which you'd think might have warned any skulking Janeite at ITV that maybe he wasn't the right man for the job after all. He finds her "worryingly asexual". Why so worrying? I find it rather wondrous. He also seems to have no idea what to make of a heroine who is not a paragon of virtue. Austen uses the moral difficulty here to create comedy. Davies makes psychobabble - a dreary gruel indeed - reducing Highbury to a dysfunctional community full of co-dependency and chicken thieves.

He sees Mr Woodhouse as "a manipulative old monster". This is too awful. Emma's basic kindness is revealed in the way she lets her powerless father feel powerful. Is it a crime to bear with and placate a foolish, fond old man? No. Actually, it's an act of love. Davies' adaptation, on the other hand, was an act of sabotage.

A FRIEND has sent me a tiny but enthralling book. (Tininess is always a plus.) It's called Mark's Little Book About Kinder Eggs, by Mark Pawson, who seems to have published it himself, using a Xerox machine and a stapler: 24 pages or so on the obsessional subject of Kinder Eggs, those hollow chocolates that contain toys. The author has been collecting these toys for many years now. He keeps the unopened ones in the egg compartment of his fridge. And there is something about the way he describes the toys that makes you really want to go out and buy a load of Kinder Eggs yourself. (Kenneth Clarke be damned.)

Such as "A turquoise and green dinasour [sic], a Tyrannosaurus to be exact. It fitted together in an interesting way, and is intriguingly non- symmetrical, most of the toys are basically symmetrical. Once assembled, it stands on a yellow base, onto the front of which you are supposed to fit the name TYRANNOSAURUS, cut off the instruction sheet. Instruction sheet has the usual black-and-white assembly diagram and a scale drawing, comparing dinasour with car. Reverse has a full-colour pic of Tyrannosaurus trashing a tree, in the background are three other dinasours, which I hope are other toys, this is a good-un. Ref 359."

Or, "Skindiver, yeah, this is more like it, dark grey, red, flesh (65mm.H). Man in a tight grey wetsuit with raised dots all over it! Red oxygen cylinders, belt and mask all in one piece quite tricky to fit together, detachable red flippers and holding a trident and torch. REF 215." It is somehow comforting to know, in the bleak mid-winter, that Kinder Egg toys are being properly catalogued.

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