TIME WAS when Fleet Street's greatest punch-ups involved two journalists. Who can forget Jeremy Clarkson's swipe at Piers Morgan? Or the gay abandon with which Alastair Campbell bopped Michael White on the conk, after the Guardian hack had the temerity to giggle at the death of Ali's friend and mentor Robert Maxwell?
Recent times have seen a dearth of journalists prepared to go at each other hammer and tongs, though. So in the absence of hack-on-hack action, I am indebted to my thespian friend Simon Callow for what witnesses describe as a "full-blown barney" with Telegraph theatre critic Charlie Spencer.
The occasion was Wednesday's opening of Summer and Smoke at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Callow's beef, so to speak, was that Spencer and colleagues had recently written unkindly about Bent, a play dealing with the persecution of homosexuals in concentration camps.
Callow, who had already accused Britain's theatre critics of "homophobia" in Monday's Times, marched up to Spencer in the foyer of the Apollo and began jabbing an actorly finger in his chest. Handbags were duly exchanged. "It was a proper hissy fit," reports a witness. "Charlie tried to defend himself, but he couldn't scream as loudly as Callow, so it was all a bit one-sided. Spencer's a gentle chap, and tried not to get involved in pushing and shoving. But if the bell hadn't gone for the start of the show, he'd have been toast."
Callow is particularly irked by the reviews of Bent because the director of the show, Daniel Kramer, is also his boyfriend. He may have a point about "homophobia" (one review did describe "fags") but whether he's wise to pick a fight on the issue with London's critics - roughly half of whom are themselves members of the gay community - remains to be seen.
CHANGE IS in the air on the Daily Telegraph's Comment pages now that Simon Heffer's considerable buttocks have come to rest in the (acting) editor's chair.
My colleague Stephen Glover mentions the sad departure of Andrew Gimson's lively Friday column later in this section, so I will devote my efforts to wondering what fresh talent will soon arrive in the (acting) editor (comment)'s stable. According to colleagues, The Heff - who recently wrote of his disdain for Boris Johnson (another one of his new team) - greatly admires Sun diarist Catherine Bergen. He is also keen to mentor Lord Rees-Mogg's pretty daughter Annunziata, who has been shifting on the leader desk, and is plotted as a long-term replacement for the unforgivably Cameroonian Alice Thompson.
THE DECISION to pull the Daily Star's spoof "daily fatwah" page, 15 minutes before Tuesday's deadline probably prevented World War Three, but Richard Desmond is still counting the cost. In addition to several edgy jokes - "Holiday reviews: yes, it's Mecca again!" - the ill-fated page was also to have carried a telephone poll. For 25p a pop readers would have been asked: "do you prefer your usual Daily Star?".
Scrapping the page therefore put the kibosh on a nice little earner. Fleet Street's pornographer-in-chief is keen on premium telephone rip-offs, and recently swapped his office's incoming phone lines to lucrative 0870 numbers.
This may be an opportune moment to remind readers that Northern & Shell HQ can be reached for free on 0800 376 8000. I hope Mr Desmond does not mind it being bandied around.
HERE, AS they say, is a starter for 10: which comely broadsheet columnist once carved a notch into the tattered bedpost of Russell Brand? The young lady, whose blushes I will for the time being spare, fell victim to the randy comic after being dispatched to interview him for a feature article in February.
"Brand wasn't that famous at the time, so she definitely didn't do it for the story," says a colleague. "In fact, if you look at the piece she filed, you'll see it was sexual chemistry, pure and simple." Quite so: the breathless article mentions the "hypnotic effect of Brand's personality", before revealing that he's a "rampant heterosexual".
CHARLES ALLEN invited Fleet Street's "A-List" to his no-expense-spared leaving party at the Natural History Museum on Tuesday. Patience Wheatcroft turned up, along with various Braggs, Vordermans, Tara Palmer-Tomkinsons, and that first couple of the canapé circuit: Rebekah Wade and Ross Kemp. "Hugs and air-kisses all round," reports one guest. "In fact, Tessa Jowell gave a gushing speech that described ITV's Chief Exec as one of her best friends."
The Culture Secretary is looking for an official "walker" to replace estranged husband David Mills - what better candidate than confirmed bachelor Allen?
HATCHET-MAN Con Coughlin has experienced "bad karma" a fortnight after deciding to sack several of the Telegraph's foreign hacks. He arrived late into work the other day because his beloved car had been vandalised. "Some local hoodies had slashed the tyres," says a colleague. "Con was livid. Absolutely fuming. It reminded us of that episode of Alan Partridge where someone writes 'cock piss Partridge' on his executive Rover." Coughlin's misfortune provided much hilarity at outgoing Telegraph comment editor Stephen Robinson's leaving bash later that night. "A surviving member of Con's team told us all about it," I'm told. "We had a good laugh." How very disrespectful.