Pandora: Milburn mystery revealed to Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's credentials as a football fan famously took a kicking when he was accused of exaggerating his allegiance to Newcastle United.

Mere months after moving into Downing Street, the then Prime Minister became the butt of jokes following reports that he had claimed to watch Geordie legend Jackie Milburn while sitting behind the goal at St James's Park. It was rapidly pointed out, however, that not only had Milburn retired when Blair was just four, but that seats weren't built in that part of the stadium until the 1990s.

Now, more than a decade later, the story's original publisher, Newcastle's Sunday Sun, has owned up to its error, confessing in a new interview filmed for the newspaper's website. "I want to launch an official complaint," Blair jokes on hearing the news. "I used to get so much stick, and I never actually said it."

The story, it turns out, was the handiwork of an ex-reporter, via a tip-off from a friend who had listened to the Mr Blair on the radio. The pal in question had, in fact, misheard what he said, but the journo never checked his facts. "It just shows how these things happen," Blair adds.

"People asked two completely separate questions: one, when I used to go and watch Newcastle. Then someone asked me who was the greatest-ever footballer, so I said Jackie Milburn. The two things were allied together."

Farhi jumps to Hare's defence

Sharp words from Nicole Farhi, fashion designer and wife of playwright Sir David Hare. The feisty Frenchwoman tells me that she is incensed by accusations of anti-Semitism levelled at her husband's recent production, Gethsemane.

"We're both furious," she exclaimed at the launch of Vintage Academe on Monday night. "David was absolutely aghast. Nothing could be further from the truth. It depicts scandals in government, but the anti-Semitism charge is just malicious."

The play, currently running at the National Theatre, is a thinly-veiled satire of New Labour's murky fundraising arrangements under Tony Blair, and has attracted censure over the character Otto Fallon – widely assumed to be based on Lord Levy. Critics, including one high-ranking rabbi, say he's steeped in offensive Jewish stereotypes.

But Farhi insists the claims are unfounded and says that she's heard quite enough. "I've booked the two of us a well-earned holiday to get away from it all. We're going hiking in Bhutan – we'll leave all this spiteful criticism behind."

Samuel L's nobody will cover for Ross

Dara O'Briain has no qualms about replacing Jonathan Ross's Friday night chat show.

The Irish comic, who is performing a stand-up routine to fill Ross's 19 December slot, tells me that since he was going to appear on Ross's show anyway, the change of plan makes little difference. "It's not like we've usurped him," he says. "I was going on Jonathan's show with Kings Of Leon and Robert De Niro. I'm a bit disappointed about De Niro but, you know, it's a fake green room anyway – you don't just kick back together.

"The big stars get whisked off. Once I met Samuel L Jackson on a chat show, then I saw him a week later and he had no idea who I was."

Morrissey back 'in' with enemy

Morrissey's legal battle with NME continues to rage, so it's somewhat surprising to see the Mancunian miserabilist featured in their new "Coolest Artists of All Time".

It was, of course, this time last year the singer announced he would sue after his comments on immigration were splashed over the front page. Since then he's given the rag the cold-shoulder, even demanding editor Conor McNicholas's ejection from a Los Angeles hotel. A spokesman assures me: "We don't bear grudges."

Whether the same can be said for Morrissey is another matter.

Derek spots the imposter

Right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes had an unusual guest contributing to his pre-Budget report coverage: one Derek Draper, psychotherapist and former Mandelson side-kick. Guido assured readers that Draper was the genuine article but it would seem another character, masquerading as "Mandy", wasn't. Commenting that Harriet Harman "looks hot today", he prompted Draper to note, "now we know that's not the real Mandy". No doubt Harriet will be flattered.

In a mess? Call the Baroness

Having comfortably seen off the challenge of Lembit Opik for the Liberal Democrat presidency, Baroness Ros Scott now has a far more daunting challenge.

MPs suggest current President Simon Hughes's organisational skills left a lot to be desired and add that Scott is expected to enforce a "major shake-up" of the party machine when she takes over in January.

pandora@independent.co.uk

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