Editor-At-Large: He may be a liar and a conman, but he's right

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The Independent Online

It would be tempting to dismiss Lord Archer's latest public pronouncements on the regime he experienced behind bars as just another release published by the publicity machine that is the life and times of Britain's most arrogant liar and conman. Nevertheless, I propose to take a closer look at the proposals he set out to the Howard

League for Penal Reform last week. Six out of 10 prisoners are illiterate, and according to Archer, the reason that more do not take up the opportunity to study while behind bars is simply that they will suffer a 50 per cent drop in the pittance they can earn for fags, Jaffa cakes and the like if they learn how to read and write as opposed to moulding garden gnomes or other forms of manual labour.

It's all very well for so-called prison "experts" to denounce Archer's suggestion that study periods in prison be rewarded at exactly the same rate as work, claiming that it is is "not a crime to be illiterate", but I disagree. There is undoubtedly a link between illiteracy and crime, just as there is a link between crime and drugs.

Someone's self-esteem would surely rise considerably if they were helped to communicate via the printed page. Can you imagine a world where you cannot even go shopping or read simple instructions, where you miss out on the joys of reading a letter from a loved one, and cannot understand maps, road signs or even the television guide? Where you can't write cheques or even apply for financial help?

Literacy is a basic human right, and, by penalising the people so clearly in need of help the most, we are behaving in an unnecessarily high-handed and short-sighted way. It's so easy for the educated to dismiss the less fortunate as thick and incurious, but I submit that for every person who leaves prison with more skills to get a job than just those acquired in a prison workshop we stand a little better chance of lowering our scandalously high prison population.

Lord Archer proposes an intensive 12-week literacy course which inmates must complete before they are eligible for parole. This is tough, but eminently sensible. Don't bleat to me about human rights - we denied many of these people those when we let them get to adulthood without ensuring they possessed the basic skills needed to live decent responsible lives. We already fail the 16,000 young people who leave secondary education each year with no qualifications.

Archer's proposals should be taken seriously. Otherwise we will soon be a nation where a generation of people from petty criminals to teenagers thinks that writing and reading are things you only do via text messaging. I suggest Archer is made the Government literacy tsar, and we all stop telling jokes about how badly written his books are. For once the man's talking sense.

Back in anger

The late John Osborne was one of the most vituperative men I ever met; I should have dedicated my one-woman show (All the Rage) to him before I launched it on those unsuspecting Edinburgh Fringe audiences last month. You might think I am offensive, calling my mother the "c" word, but Osborne once wrote, "a year in which my mother died cannot be said to be all bad", a sentiment with which I entirely agree. I interviewed him for a TV series and we be- came friends. He ranted about everything from pretentious neighbours (his bête noire was the Fleet Street columnist Jean Rook who lived down the road - her main crimes seemed to be garishly floodlighting her house and calling her son Gresby) to critics of all shapes and sizes, producers who ruined his work, and, of course, his ex-wives. His 1968 play The Hotel in Amsterdam has just been revived at London's Donmar Warehouse, and sitting in the audience is like spending an evening with John in his prime.

A group of friends escape the tyrannical film producer they work for to spend the weekend secretly together. All the best lines come from the hilarious drunken monologues of Laurie, a writer resigned to churning out second-rate screenplays. Tom Hollander's performance is riveting, but then his material is first-division malice. Talking of his sister-in-law and her problems with men he sneers, "she should get the golden sanitary towel award" and follows it up with "I'd like to rape an air hostess". He loathes his mother so much he's surprised she didn't put him off women before he was born; "just to think of swimming about inside that repulsive thing for nine months". The play has structural faults; none of the other characters except the faintly gay Gus is more than sketches; and the ending is a cop-out. But for blistering rants you can't find anything better on the West End stage, and you certainly wouldn't see this on television.

Taste for drama

The BBC is under attack from all sides - at the Hutton inquiry where much is being made of its journalistic shortcomings, and at the annual Royal Television Society convention where Tessa Jowell announced that Terry Burns would chair a White Paper team looking into the corporation's future. However, there's not too much for the corporation to worry about there. Burns is a close friend of John Birt's (I attended the FA Cup Final several times in the DG's box while at the BBC and Terry was always present) and Ms Jowell herself said last year that chances of scrapping the licence fee were "impossible and improbable".

The viewers, meanwhile, seem to like what the BBC is currently delivering. Canterbury Tales on BBC1 is a massive hit for the corporation, attracting one in three of the available viewers last Thursday evening, and excellent reviews from tabloids to broadsheets. Interestingly, Channel 4's much-hyped documentary about Cilla Black was roundly beaten by BBC2 with a programme about a lighthouse, part of a series entitled Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Cilla's autobiography will be promoted to hell and back by WH Smith this autumn - could they be in for a lighthouse-style disappointment? It all proves that the viewing public is smarter than you think.

Finally, another day, another outfit for Madonna. To promote her children's book she wore a flowery dress and matching shoes. Just tell me something - do you think this woman ever dresses like a normal person who doesn't have something to sell? It always has to be a statement - tweeds (I'm proud to be married to a hunk from Britain), bondage wear (Britney, I shall soon be snogging you) and so on. Don't expect she actually wears those hideous Gap jeans in real life, though.