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Tories take to the pistes

Where do leading Conservative MPs spend their angst-ridden New Year break worrying about the Government's wafer-thin majority? The answer is on the ski slopes at the plush Swiss resort of Davos.

Winston Churchill MP has led a group of colleagues including the former Cabinet minister Tom King, the whip Richard Ottaway and PPS Alan Duncan on a fact-finding mission to the slopes. They are guests of the Anglo Swiss parliamentary group and this important celebration of European harmony, or freebie as it is called in skiing parlance, climaxes next Monday with a slalom race between British and Swiss MPs.

This is cutting things a bit fine as all these MPs will be expected back on Tuesday to vote in the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Bill. John Major would be less than pleased if a snowstorm kept his entire majority in Switzerland.

Normally the MPs could have expected to take their sporting pleasures undisturbed. But I have news for them. The Prince of Wales, I understand, plans to move from Klosters to Davos on Monday and may even compete in the race himself. That should guarantee a few dozen photographers to ensure that the Anglo-Swiss parliamentary group are publicly accountable.

Gunned down

Concerns for the gravitas of the Oxford Union, fuelled by recent orators of note such as Kermit the Frog, will be allayed by news of a forthcoming debate. "This House believes that a civilised society cannot permit hunting and shooting" is surely a suitable matter to occupy great minds. But what authority has the union enlisted to speak for the motion?

None other than James Barrington, ex-director of the League Against Cruel Sports, who was forced last month to quit the post - and the movement - after appearing, in an interview in the Field magazine, to be rather in league with cruel sports. If hunters stopped using terriers, he had offered helpfully, their sport might enjoy "a new lease of life". Colleagues found such generosity of spirit inexplicable, and Mr Barrington's professional battle against cruel sports was brought to an abrupt end.

News of his forthcoming appearance at the Oxford Union has raised more than the odd eyebrow at his erstwhile office. "His public speaking skills have always been fine," I am told grudgingly, "it's his beliefs we are not too sure about. I'm not even sure he's speaking on the right side - maybe he's muddled it up."

Might some over-zealous hunt saboteurs descend on the chamber to express their feelings in their inimicable fashion? The President of the Union, Jonathon Wolf, hopes not. "The whole point of a debate," he explains, "is to put forward your point in a sensible manner. And besides, I've never shot anything - I'm a Londoner."

Sticky mess

The Cirque du Soleil, the radical French Canadian circus troupe, which starts a season at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday, has a tradition of entertaining showbiz royalty at its after-show parties and keeping mementoes of their visits.

Tragedy struck, I hear, in its recent American show, when the cirque entertained its favourite celeb, Elizabeth Taylor. It decided to keep her lipstick-stained wine glass, frame it, and carry it for ever on its travels. While the troupe's two leaders argued over who should be entrusted with the memento, a Mexican dishwasher took it and washed it up.

Peer review

Just as the dust was settling on the Telegraph newspaper stable's recent round of musical chairs, another departure was announced yesterday. Not, this time, another editor, shuffling for safety, but the grand old man of the Telegraph himself, Lord Hartwell, one-time owner and editor-in-chief.

The 84-year-old peer's Berry family trust sold their last shares in the company recently. But Lord Hartwell's retirement from the board does not quite signal the end of the Berrys at the Telegraph. His son, Adrian Berry, remains at the coalface - as the paper's industrial reporter.

Olivier's final act?

Now we know what the greatest actor of the century did when he was not treading the boards. He hoarded, dear boy, he hoarded.

Laurence Olivier is to be the subject of a new and allegedly definitive biography by the former theatre critic and National Theatre literary consultant Derek Granger, who has been promised co-operation by Sir Laurence's widow, Joan Plowright, and the family of his second wife, Vivien Leigh.

Granger was not surprised that Olivier had kept key accessories to his acting career - the recipe for his all-over body make-up for Othello, for example. But other keepsakes have been harder to explain.

"Olivier was a man who kept everything," says Granger. "Old driving licences, steamboat tickets, veterinary prescriptions for ailing kittens, seed catalogues and the pedigrees of his dairy herd at Notley Abbey." While meaningless material has been carefully stored, meaningful material has been uncovered in the unlikeliest places. The last letters written to a 12-year-old Olivier by his mother just before she died, and a batch of censored wartime letters from Vivien Leigh, have been found in a bramble-grown, mouse-infested farmyard barn. There must, as actors say, have been method in it somewhere.

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