Charlie spurns Westminster to take his team on holiday

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, a case in point: with Parliament due to sit for the first time since mid-July, "Chatshow" Charlie and his MPs were kicking back at a luxury hotel in Hertfordshire.

They were enjoying a long weekend at Pendley Manor, a lavish gaff offering "the atmosphere of a more leisurely age", to prepare for the coming Parliament, which requires them to work for two months without a holiday.

Opponents describe this as "hypocrisy" since the Liberal Democrat frontbencher Norman Baker recently criticised the amount of time MPs spend on holiday.

"The decision to spend the day nearly 50 miles away from Parliament exposes their claims to be the 'effective opposition' as complete nonsense," said Francis Maude, the Tory Chairman. "It's natural to want to reflect on the issues before them, but why have the Lib Dem's chosen today, not one of the 73 days of holiday they've just had?"

In answer to that question, Mr Kennedy's office said last night that - although he didn't make it into the chamber - their man had spent much of the afternoon in Westminster.

"The conference ended at lunchtime and the whole party has now got back to Westminster," said a party spokesman.

"Charles left Hertfordshire at 12.45. It's ridiculous of the Tories to accuse us of not providing a serious opposition."

* Damien Hirst recently bought Toddington Manor, a crumbling 300-room mansion in Gloucestershire, to house his extensive art collection. But if he hoped the swanky address might buy him cachet in aristocratic circles, he'll have to think again.

Lord Sudeley, the hereditary peer who counts Toddington as his ancestral home, is critical of Hirst's regard for the estate's heritage.

The founding father of BritArt has - shock, horror! - failed to co-operate with milord Sudeley, who hopes both to organise a conference and publish a book on Toddington's history next year.

"We're planning a series of lectures at the Society of Antiquaries," says Lord Sudeley. "This needs Hirst's support, for instance to allow us to conduct a field survey there, but he didn't even reply to my letter.

"I don't know why he reacted like that. It's already been a great inconvenience. It's up to him what he does - he is a free agent - and I know nothing of his personality, but it's rather a nuisance for me."

* Paul Daniels has spent recent years bemoaning the fact that - apart from the odd Louis Theroux documentary - he can no longer get a job on television.

Thankfully, he's now risen above such petty considerations. When Pandora raised the issue, Daniels said: "I work a lot in America and get standing ovations every night in Las Vegas, so why would I go on an English chat-show, to just sit down and talk?

"I just don't need to publicise myself any more. That may sound arrogant, but it happens to be true. I get asked to do two or three TV shows a week, but I don't do them because I don't need to."

By way of a QED, the pocket-sized conjurer - who was speaking at Gloria Hunniford's recent book launch - added: "I'm about to do a cruise in the Caribbean - and when I get back, I'm doing a gig in Barrow-in-Furness."

* You wait all these years for Sir Tom Stoppard to write another play, then two come along at once.

The Royal Court is expected to announce today that Sir Tom has decided to take a break from Hollywood power-broking to complete an as-yet unnamed show for its 50th anniversary season next year. Another Sir - Trevor Nunn - will direct.

Stoppard recently launched Heroes, a translation of a modern play by the French writer Gerald Sibleyras.

Bizarrely, the Hollywood newspaper, Variety, reports that he chose the Royal Court for the new production - which has a whopping 20 speaking parts - on account of the theatre's "architecture".

* Unlike many less fortunate colleagues, Kenneth Branagh has managed to survive a brush with the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta).

The headline-prone organisation - best known for invading catwalks - kicked-up a fuss last week, after learning that Branagh's new West End play, Ducktastic, features several Indian Runner ducks.

However, following a meeting with the producer, David Pugh, they've secured a pledge that the lucky quackers will be sent to a sanctuary once the play's run is over. He's also promised never to work with live animals again.

"We are putting away our protest signs," said Peta yesterday. "Ducks don't belong on stage any more than Mr Branagh and his cast belong in a pond."

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