Duncan the dragon's fiery retort to sick gym member

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The Independent Online

* Since leaving school at 15 and running an ice cream van, through to becoming the judge with the fieriest breath on the entrepreneurial reality television show Dragon's Den, Duncan Bannatyne has not boasted compassion as a trait - allowing him to build an empire of health clubs, nursing homes and bars worth some £170m.

Even so, his recent encounter with one of his gym members - a nurse in York with chronic lymphatic leukaemia - raises eyebrows.

Knowing she would not be well enough to work out while undergoing chemotherapy, Susan Maule-Farrell tried to freeze her membership of Bannatyne's Health Club while she fought the cancer. The gym planned to charge her £10 a month for the privilege, so she went to the top to plead with Bannatyne.

Bannatyne, 57, sent her an e-mail: "You joined the club on a contract and you are obligated to comply with the conditions. I am sorry that there is little I can do to help you except to say that every health club operator I know requires 30 days' notice to suspend membership. Sorry I cannot be more helpful."

Questioned last night, Bannatyne was unrepentant. "I am not interested in the money," he tells me. "I am interested in the principle. I am interested in the rules. I gave her the option to cancel her membership.

"I will not be blackmailed or bullied. I have had friends with leukaemia - they still use the health club."

Ms Maule-Farrell, 49, points out that "cancer doesn't give you 30 days' notice". She has severed her gym contract, as have her friends.

* Billie Piper's attempt to make her mark in the literary world has stuttered.

Earlier this year, the sprightly British actress, then star of Doctor Who, surprised many when she announced that she was penning her autobiography.

"It may sound ridiculous - being just 23 - but I've a few a good stories I'd like to share," she said. "I'm hoping the book will be honest, funny, insightful and above all life affirming."

The offshoot, Growing Pains, is locked in pre-Christmas combat with the legions of other celebrity memoirs, and is thought to have sold fewer than 3,000 copies in its first week of release. A disappointing return for the £550,000 advance reportedly paid by her publishers.

One review ended: "The only question is how this chunk torn from one of the celebrity mags ended up mis-bound as a book."

Just wait until you're proper old!

* In his latest film, Hollywoodland, Bob Hoskins plays a shady movie studio boss from the 1950s.

The actor offers a candid theory as to why Hollywood film makers typecast him as the villain.

"It's because I'm short, fat, balding, five foot six and cubic - that's why," he tells me.

"So it's a straight choice for producers between either myself or Danny Devito."

Hoskins, speaking at the flick's London Film Festival premiere on Monday night, bordered on the irascible.

Asked by one reporter whether he thinks good looks are too important in Hollywood, Hoskins gave the hack a once-over, and barked: "What is he talking about? I think you're mad mate" - before pottering off.

* Furrowed brows at the stalled quest of fragrant ecologist Zac Goldsmith to find a parliamentary seat.

The Tory A-lister failed in Hampshire's Meon Valley, and hasn't touted himself about in the same (doomed?) manner as actor/pop doll Adam Rickitt.

The word in Tory HQ is that Goldsmith will step back from the current seat-grabbing frenzy and sit tight 'til nearer the election - when senior Tory MPs may stand down to spend more time in the country/the House of Lords.

"A shortlist of possible retirees has been drawn up," a party worker tells me. "It is: Sir Alan Haselhurst [Saffron Walden, 69], Anthony Steen [Totnes, Devon, 67] and Sir Michael Lord [Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, 68]. It's quite discreet."

Err... not really. You've told a hack...

* The marketing men at Guinness are the latest bigwigs to have their Savile Row collars seized by the shouty folk of the animal rights lobby. Campaigners at Animal Defenders International are squawking at the stout's new advert, which features a pair of penguins on a treacherous journey across ice floes to an Antarctic pub, in order to sink pints.

Guinness says that the birds used were cared for by qualified handlers, but the activists claim it is "totally inappropriate to use these species for filming ... Devoid of their natural habitat and their own kind, they can be subjected to harsh training regimes to perform in a commercial environment."

Rumour has it that the male birds flocked to the bar to p-p-p-pick up a penguin. (Sorry. That's unacceptably bad. The gag writer is back tomorrow...)

pandora@independent.co.uk

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