Diary: The period drama with a modern message

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The Independent Online

The war between the Coalition and the BBC rages on, but the corporation's latest salvo comes from a somewhat unexpected source: the costume drama department. South Riding, slated for Sunday nights on BBC One from the end of this month, is based on the 1936 novel by Winifred Holtby.

Set in a fictional Northern town, it follows the fortunes of a new headmistress (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), whose girls' school is suffering under the economic constraints of the era, while a group of dastardly local aldermen insist the town lacks the funds to invest in public works.

Andrew Davies, the celebrated screenwriter behind the programme, is clear about his reasons for emphasising this particular plot point. "It's an important subject that resonates today more than ever," he told me at a cast and crew screening of the opening episode.

"It's about what a government must do in economically tough times, and that is not to cut, but to invest to get the country back on its feet. What was relevant then applies as much today: what the Government is doing now is simply not working, and we need to tell them that." The grey vote hangs in the balance.

* As the first chilling images emerged of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, yesterday's Treasury Questions provided me with a dramatic set piece to include in my own notional joint biopic of George (né Gideon) Osborne and Ed Balls (working title: A Cock and Balls). The plot concerns each man's struggle to overcome a debilitating speech impediment – Balls a stammer, Gideon a squeak – and rise to the top of their parties.

In their first encounter at the dispatch box, Gideon raised the matter himself, using the authoritative delivery that he (allegedly) paid a Harley Street vocal coach £100 an hour to teach him. Apparently referencing his opponent's stammer, he suggested with a sneer: "That answer didn't come out as planned," thus settling the thorny issue of which man ought to be the villain of the piece. The consensus was that Gideon's gag was in very poor taste. Quite so.

* One of my non-existent movie's major influences is Oscar favourite The King's Speech, which has been seen and enjoyed by both the Queen and the Prime Minister. Whispers abound in the Lib Dems' Cowley Street HQ, however, that their boss, Nick "29 Shags" Clegg, has snubbed the film for personal reasons.

Its star Colin Firth has, of course, retracted his former support for the party, while his co-star, Helena Bonham Carter – a schoolfriend of Clegg's, no less – chose to spend Christmas with the more important, more socially acceptable David Cameron and his clan. "They're all still on talking terms," goes the official line from the Lib Dem press office, which assures me that while 29 Shags hasn't seen the film, he nonetheless texted his friend Firth to congratulate him on all those awards nominations. Too scared to call?

* To the London Evening Standard British Film Awards, where John Hurt offered some advice for aspiring actors, just in case I should develop a taste for life in front of the camera: "If you hang out just for the parts you'd really like to play," he said, "you'll never make a living. Now I only work if I want to. I don't feel a compunction to work."

So what was the last project of sufficient quality to get him out of bed in the morning, I asked. A web series with Kiefer Sutherland about a hitman and a priest, he replied. It's called The Confession. "I don't know quite how it works," Hurt went on. "I think you can see it on a free Facebook page. I'm not on Facebook, but apparently my voice has got a page of its own. I've never looked at it. I'm not curious." (I was: John Hurt's Voice has 1,865 fans. Make that 1,866.)

* Never knowingly precise, I see that Jeremy Paxman is not, in fact, busy planning his retirement from Newsnight (as I speculated, wildly, last week). The BBC's own Lion in Winter has signed a new, four-year contract worth £3.2m. I like to think I talked him into it.

* Jan Moir's employers at The Daily Mail appear to have altered the strapline on her charming pieces from "Are You Thinking What She's Thinking?" to "A Provocative and Personal View" – having, I presume, concluded that the answer to the former was "No".

highstreetken@independent.co.uk

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