The Kaufman show takes centre stage

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The Independent Online
Full of fire, invective, mischievous wit and knowledgeable analysis, the select committee report reflects its author. Presiding over the weekly sessions of inquiry Gerald Kaufman has turned a parliamentary formality into the best show in town.

Go to any of the Culture, Media and Sport select committees and you will learn a little more each time about Mr Kaufman. At the inquiry into the Millennium Dome this week, Peter Mandelson made a prediction but ended his sentence with the words "touch wood". The Tories seized on this apparent slip. "Ah," ruled Mr Kaufman, "anyone remotely connected with the Jewish religion knows you end nearly every sentence with the words `touch wood'."

The 67-year-old Mr Kaufman is a film buff, more likely to be seen at the National Film Theatre than the Royal Opera House, but certain to be seen regularly at both. This makes him a pretty rare bird among senior Labour MPs, as does the fact that he actually served as a minister pre- New Labour.

Bald and bespectacled, he comes across in the committee as an aesthetic all-rounder who is also determined to be seen as a man of the people. If Mr Kaufman has been the star of the proceedings, his constituents in Manchester have been in the wings. Ticket prices, travel to London - raise any such matter and Mr Kaufman will point out the difficulties for his constituents.

Extraordinarily polite and courteous on the surface, there is a harsher layer beneath. Hence the frequent sotto voce interjections which can be devastating. When told how Genista McIntosh resigned from the Royal Opera House as chief executive because of ill health but was then seen on an Arts Council trip to Nottingham, he almost sighed: "Her health appears to fluctuate."

Those who know Kaufman well are not surprised. "There is a difference between the public and private faces," said one long-time colleague. "He can be absolutely brutal behind the scenes, effective but brutal."

As chairman, Mr Kaufman will be listened to by ministers. But no one should assume that his wishes become reality. A few years ago his committee was scathing about CD prices. The record companies listened - and put them up.