Did Alan Bennett write `The Sweeney'?

ON MONDAY

I HEAR that Sir Tom Stoppard, the Oscar-winning screenplay co- writer once better known in these parts as a rather good playwright, has acquired a stalker. It is not just the usual common-or-garden kind - the crazed fan with gun, pair of binoculars, empty autograph book and scrapbooks of bulging memorabilia - oh no. Sir Tom's stalker is a biographer.

His name is Ira B Nadel. His most recent work was an authorised biography of Leonard Cohen, the poet and four-note torch singer who once told me, if I may name-drop shamelessly, that he trusted Nadel so much he gave him a spare key to his Malibu apartment.

Mr Nadel did such a good job on Cohen's life that he won a biography award in his native Canada. Now he is on Stoppard's case, tracking down the great man's Czech forebears, his time as a cub reporter on the Western Daily Press in Bristol, the writing of Jumpers and Travesties, his affairs of the heart, his flirtations with Hollywood ...

Like his friend Harold Pinter, Stoppard has a number of classy screenplays to his credit, from his adaptation of his own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, to John le Carre's The Russia House, to his recent triumph with Shakespeare in Love. But he has also been involved in one or two less grand productions, which don't appear on his CV. Will he mind people finding out?

"I don't know how Stoppard's fans will respond," one of Nadel's people tells me, "to the news that he was paid pounds 250,000 to do a final burnish on Lethal Weapon 3, on the understanding that his name didn't appear on the credits."

Well this Stoppard fan is delighted to hear it. Movies are democratic affairs, in which the old distinctions between high and low art are most boldly elided, where you can get undiluted wodges of Romeo and Juliet and Geoffrey Rush's frantic Carry-On-Willy mugging for the camera in the same film, and win an Oscar for it. And though the Lethal Weapon series was more about car crashes and Mel Gibson shooting scores of bad guys while rolling on the floor, there's no shame giving Murtagh and Riggs some zippy dialogue. (Did you spot it? I wondered what was going on when they and the Joe Pesci character starting conversing in limericks). But if William Faulkner didn't mind writing lines for Joan Collins to say in Land of the Pharaohs (1955), I don't think we can afford to be snotty about these cultural bunk-ups.

And it adds a certain piquancy to the news that a student at Aberystwyth is engaged on an MA thesis on "Social Realism in The Sweeney" and is being roundly mocked for doing so. The Seventies TV cop show, famous for having John Thaw grate the words "You're nicked" through whisky-scented teeth every week, is, critics say, just too thick-eared to be a suitable subject for postgraduate study.

How can they be so blind? How can they be sure that, say, Alan Bennett didn't have a hand in the episode when Regan and Carter track down a Bermondsey drug baron and, in the middle of the final shoot-out in a deserted warehouse, stop to listen to a 10-minute monologue from the baron's wife, complaining about the ambiguous patter of her microwave repair man? Personally, I thought it was a dead giveaway.

u

WHILE WE are talking highbrow and lowbrow, I hope Chris Smith won't be too hard on the BBC Board of Governors when he meets them next month.

According to the Sunday papers, he plans to assault Sir Christopher Bland and his crew with complaints - about Yesterday in Parliament, about bogus "guests" on confessional shows, about the folly of pursuing increased ratings with populist trash. He will apparently remind them that it is their job "to produce quality dramas and documentaries rather than cheap quiz shows".

I like Mr Smith, but he just can't get away with sniping at quiz shows. Surely he understands that the finest expression of a healthy society is the ritual display of how much we know. The riddling question-and- response format is part of an antiphonal tradition stretching back to the Greeks, although you'd never guess it from watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks. The literary quiz in particular is an invaluable teaching resource, as when guests are invited to summarise the plot of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften in 15 seconds. The bandying of quotations from classic books is like a religious rite, a sacred incantation of the words, the sentiments, we most treasure. The literary quiz, in short, is nothing less than the cornerstone of our culture. Not only should it be kept in the schedules, but the participants should be paid several thousand pounds for taking part.

By an odd coincidence, there is one on Radio 4 next month, starting at just about the time Mr Smith goes to BBC headquarters. It is called The Write Stuff and involves the brilliant TV critic James Walton, the best-selling novelist Sebastian Faulks and various other people, not entirely excluding myself. I feel sure Mr Smith will commend it to the BBC top brass as being unusually worthwhile.

I feel sure he knows that a small cash contribution to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will be found on top of the hand-dryer in the men's washroom at Wood Lane ...

u

SOMETHING HAS gone out of my life since I got back from a family holiday in Wales. Something fine and wonderful has been left behind in those dinky hills.

A nameless rapture, which held my soul entranced for a week, has fled o'er the mountainside leaving me to dull mundaneity in the metropolis. A week later, I haven't come to terms with saying goodbye.

What am I talking about? You know what I'm talking about. It is the deep joy of driving around, taking the piss out of the crafts centres.

You have come about 250 miles from London, and you don't quite remember why, but it was something to do with Elsewhere. Whatever your actual destination, the raison d'etre of driving for six hours (and that includes the service station, the welcome reacquaintance with that McDonald's pork McRib, so delicious it requires only a drop of Chateau Petrus '82 to transform it into a banquet, the economy packs of Jelly Babies and Fizzy Sharks demanded by the children, and, shortly afterwards, the plastic carrier bag full of three-year-old's sick hastily yet thoughtfully deposited on the hard shoulder just outside Swindon) is only to get Elsewhere, ie somewhere that's not London at Easter.

Once you're actually Somewhere, in a converted barn in Pembrokeshire, the search is on to find a reason for being there. Which is why I spent a whole week motoring from one Craft Centre and Working Farm and Ancient Monument to another, to try to beguile the family in out-of-season coastal venues.

The whole of holiday Britain seems to be turning into one monstrous cottage- industry fair. From Fishguard to Eglwyswrw, from St David's to Mynachlog- ddu, we took in the Woollen Mill, the Chocolate Farm, the Throw-Your-Own- Pottery Centre and the Seashell Museum. I affected an interest in slate sculptures of peacocks and eagles. I stood before dozens of wrought-iron candleholders shaped into rude hens and racehorses. I found myself marvelling at hemp macrame, hideous earthenware jugs, cardigan museums ... You could even, on a slow morning, drop into an Iron Age fort in which a strikingly beautiful woman, made up as a Celt, demonstrated how to work a 9th-century weaver's shuttle while a gaggle of noisy schoolchildren listened to folk tales in Welsh beside a fire, on which the bogus Celts were burning thyme to conceal the smell of paraffin firelighters.

I know that "authenticity" is everyone's favourite word now, but the search for the Real and True is taking us into odd territory. Holidays that were once about indulging yourself with food, drink and bracing walks are now about learning the art of glass-blowing in five minutes, examining traditional methods of fudge production and being offered seaside boulders shaped into endangered species at pounds 150 each. I'm not sure about the logical outcome of all this. I kept expecting to see a road sign promising "The Farming Experience - Pig's Throat Slitting, 4pm" but maybe it was a little early in the season.

u

POOR PRINCESS Margaret. She has got to the stage in her life where the only reports you hear about her are of accidents, "scares", medical rumours and endless gossip about her love of fags and, especially, her intake of gin.

The newest hot news is that she slipped and fell into a scalding bath in Mustique a month ago, and suffered a nasty burn. She'll be fine. No permanent damage done. We offer Her Royal Highness our sympathies, etc. But was it entirely tactful of the Palace to have a spokesman report on her recuperative state with the words: "She is in good spirits"?

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