John Walsh

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The Independent Online
So there I was the other night in a decommissioned bordello behind St Martin's Lane, run by an epicene Argentinian with a lisp. A cool party is in progress, to launch a book by Michael Coveney, the Guardian's incisive drama critic. Its subject is the life and work of Mike Leigh, the celebrated playwright and film director, whose low-budget, low-key movies win awards and open film festivals these days.

By the wall is Jane Horrocks, the blonde-waif actress most famous for playing the dimwit secretary in Absolutely Fabulous and for peeing on stage; she is talking loudly about how she is to host the Hundred Years of Cinema celebrations the next day. Alison Steadman, aka Mrs Mike Leigh, legendary as the yelpingly awful Beverley in Abigail's Party, has escaped early, but Brenda Blethyn is acting as a kind of stand-in at the bar; she explains that now she has hit 50, birthday celebrations should go on for a week. Across the room, the nation's richest literary agent is talking to Jim Broadbent, who for some reason is swarthily got up to resemble a benign Basque terrorist. People speculate about the likelihood of Leigh's new film, Secrets and Lies, opening at Cannes. Richard Branson drifts by. (What is he doing here? Has he put money in the film? "No". Is he buying the publishing house behind the book? "No". Is he, ah, buying the club? "No". So what is he doing here? "I was on my way to play Perudo in the dining room...").

In other words, this madly successful little group of people are as far from resembling the cast of a Mike Leigh film as it's possible to be. With one exception. After orbiting the room a few times, Mr Leigh himself comes over and is introduced. I ask about how he likes the book and other, similarly Torquemadan enquiries. He is the most hangdog man I have ever met. In a sudden silence, I say, of course I'm a huge fan of yours (which is true). Life is Sweet, High Hopes, Nuts in May, I've seen 'em all. Mr Leigh politely raises an eyebrow. "In fact," I conclude, stretching the truth a fraction, "I saw your very first film. It was, um, um, let me see -" (Mr Leigh offers me no help) "It was... Miserable Gits."

It was not. It was Bleak Moments. There is no worse faux pas, when addressing a famous director, than to get one of his titles wrong. Mr Leigh regarded me with loathing. I let out a desperate, whinnying laugh. Somehow, in the middle of this Party, I had turned into Beverley.

Revelation of the year is of course the news that Denis Thatcher is not the man we all took him to be. As his daughter Carol's biography, Below the Parapet, will shortly make clear, he played up to a falsely buffoonish image of himself for reasons of political expediency. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Mrs Thatcher and William Deedes (the "Bill" of Private Eye's "Dear Bill" letters) decided between them "that if Denis were to be seen, not as the shrewd, high-powered businessman he was, but as a cross between a saint and someone too stupid to understand the affairs of state, it would protect him from being seen as an eminence grise."

Well, blow me down. It must indeed require the patience of a saint for a shrewd, high-powered businessman to allow the tenor of his life to be decided for him by his wife and a know-all journalist. But I welcome the precedent that the book sets. I can't wait to read You're Never Fully Dressed 'Til you Wear a Smile by John Prescott, in which the warm-hearted, fun-loving, folk-singing Labourite explains his cunning ruse of scowling like a man with a mouthful of cinders until his party gets into power; or Hark at Me, Eh? by Liam Gallagher, in which the mild-mannered lead singer of Oasis explains how he was forced by the rest of the group to abandon his PhD on Emily Dickinson in order to impersonate an ignorant yob with a lager fixation. Or Moonlight over Cordoba, in which romantic novelist George Steiner....

I think I know the real reason for Liz Forgan's premature departure from the BBC. Last week, several department heads received a stern memo from the management. We have found out (it said) that you have been allowing people to smoke in your office. This is directly contrary to BBC policy. You know smoking is banned in Broadcasting House. You are a nasty grubby little person with disgusting habits and - oh, all right I made the last bit up. But the memo concluded by warning that, if it Happened Again, miscreants would be "called to meetings with Personnel" and, I dare say, given a sound thrashing with a knotted rope.

It's not just the peremptory tone of the document (directed, incidentally, to culprits at the top of the corporation as well as the bottom) that bothers the Beeb staff. It's the discovery that their surreptitious snout- incinerations are being spied on by some unknown surveillance system. Ms Forgan, an enthusiastic long-term smoker, must have seen the writing on the fag packet.

Disaster strikes in chill-out land. The Academy Club, a cosy basement in the heart of Soho where I have lingered, down the years, over far too many bottles of Pinot Grigio, is on the move. The Club's owner, Naim Attallah, the former Asprey MD turned literary impresario, has cast acquisitive eyes on the Academy's Beak Street rooms and wants them for his corporate HQ. So the Club and its 850 members (current sub: pounds 100 and worth it) are on the street, looking for a new home and a new backer.

"Naim's putting up pounds 25,000 of his own to invest in new premises," said the Club's secretary, Robert Posner, "but we could do with a fatcat patron, who would of course become an immediate life-member...." Since the Club ceases trading after 6pm tomorrow, all Academicians and friends are now piling into the place to drink the cellar (wines chosen by Auberon Waugh) dry. See you at the bar.