Shawcross has Paxo in his sights over Iraq 'show trial'

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The Independent Online

When literary heavyweights go to war, people get hurt. So it's with some trepidation that I bring you a dispute involving two of Britain's foremost men of letters: William Shawcross and Jeremy Paxman.

Last week, Paxman, hosted a Newsnight special Allies on Trial, in which Britain and the US were subject to a mock trial for alleged "atrocities" during the Iraq war.

The left-leaning lawyer Clive Stafford Smith was hired to represent the "prosecution". Shawcross - an eloquent supporter of the invasion - was invited to act for the "defence".

But despite the best efforts of Paxo et al, Shawcross refused to take part. He considered both the show's format and its timing (as the hostage Norman Kember faced execution) distasteful.

The editor of Newsnight, Peter Barron, has taken the unprecedented step of e-mailing viewers in response to complaints about the programme, in which the Allies were found guilty. "There was no 'torrent' [of complaints], just one or two, and calls to the audience log... numbered 19, which is about average," he says.

Shawcross isn't impressed. "This trial did no good to the BBC, the Iraqi people, or our understanding of events," he tells me.

* The celebrated film-maker James Ivory has become the latest cultural icon to pick a fight with the Germans.

In an interview on American television, Ivory has said that the sudden death of his partner Ismail Merchant was bought on by the stress of doing business with a group of investors from Frankfurt.

Merchant died in May after suffering from stomach ulcers. He'd fallen ill shortly after completing protracted negotiations to secure funding for his new film, The White Countess.

"The German investors just wouldn't sign the papers and give the money for the film," says Ivory. "Eventually, and strangely, they gave the money without even signing the papers."

"It was a horrible strain on Ismail, that's for sure, and then he broke his ankle. Then he had a bleeding ulcer, which he'd suffered from before.

"The English doctors didn't have a way with ulcers, or it was worse than they suspected, or in a very bad place to get at. But no one really knows what happened."

* It pains me to say this, but I have stumbled upon somebody with an even higher opinion of Chris Evans than Chris Evans himself.

Hollywood superstar Samuel L Jackson reckons Evans to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, and credits him with reinvigorating his career.

Sharing a sofa with Pandora at the British Comedy Awards last week, Jackson could talk of little else but appearing on TFI Friday during the late 1990s.

"I only got my part in Star Wars because of that interview," he said. "I mentioned being a big fan of the original Star Wars, and a few days later I got a call from George Lucas.

"Someone in his office had been watching, and put in a word. So I've a lot to thank Chris Evans for."

* Viewers of Johnny Vaughan's new TV show Space Cadets may have noticed something eerily familiar about Charlie Skelton, one of the actors hired to pose as a competitor in the programme.

He is the same Charlie Skelton who starred in a pornographic film, The Naughty Twins, made by Victoria Coren in 2002. Apparently, this has stood him in perfect stead for pretending to be an astronaut.

"Shooting a highbrow erotic movie in a room full of naked Dutch people is good practice for keeping a straight face in Space Cadets," says Coren. "I know it isn't the most honourable job, but I'm very proud of him."

Since you're wondering, The Naughty Twins was about two 18-year-old blondes, who consort with both their uncle, and something called the Horns of Pythagoras.

* It has been a hazardous Christmas party season for the bright young stars of New Labour.

First, Stephen Twigg was fined £50 after being arrested while drunk in Soho. Now I learn that Ed Miliband - Doncaster MP and brother of David - was set on fire at the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank's Christmas bash.

"Ed was standing too close to a candle, and the back of his shirt just went up in flames," reports one guest. "It was rather dramatic. He screamed like a girl and started running around the room trying to slap his burning back. Ed ended up with a hole the size of a dinner plate in his shirt; it made the whole room stink."

The IPPR confirms the incident: "It goes to show that ours was the hottest party in town," they chunter.

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