Tales Of The City: Romancing Ann of the green room

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I've always been a sucker for green rooms, the backstage arenas where celebrities mingle and try to find common ground. I was there when Sir William Golding ran into Van Morrison at the Hay Festival and they small-talked for five minutes without either man knowing who the other might be. I've seen Bob Geldof wowing Norman Mailer with reminiscences of how his dad won the hand of his mum in a prize-fight, without Mailer having a clue about Live Aid or the Boomtown Rats. I once watched Beryl Bainbridge encounter Oliver Sacks, the legendary neurologist, and a handsome young Tourette's-syndrome patient with whom Sacks was travelling while promoting his book on the condition. Crazed with impulsive attraction, the patient clamped his hand on Ms Bainbridge's right breast. "Stop that at once!" Sacks demanded. "Leave him alone," breathed Beryl. "He seems a perfectly nice young man to me..."

For the past couple of months, I've had my own green room to bask in. I've been taping some TV shows called Battle of the Books as part of the Beeb's Big Read season. Each show features Ian MacMillan, the Barnsley bard, et moi as rival advocates fighting to determine which of two books (War and Peace or Catch-22? Alice in Wonderland or the first Harry Potter?) should more appeal to a book-group jury, under the stern eye and razor tongue of Sandi Toksvig in the judge's chair. You can catch it (shameless plug) at 9pm on Wednesdays on BBC4.

Since the exotically shirted MacMillan and I may both summon witnesses to our aid for each debate, the backstage area at the TV studios in Wandsworth has been pullulating with classy guests. Among the milling throng of jurors, sound engineers and make-up people fighting for the egg-mayonnaise sandwiches, we've had Loyd Grossman (for The Great Gatsby), Iain Sinclair (On the Road), Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited), Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas (Pride and Prejudice), the editor of Cosmopolitan (Bridget Jones's Diary) and an outrageously sexy Cambridge don called Kate Mullin (Ulysses). For a TV station with a supposedly tiny audience, the chaps at BBC4 pull in a strikingly high-level roster of participants.

Which is how I came to encounter Ann Widdecombe the other day. The famously combative, implacable, unsmiling Tory harridan was arriving any minute, to speak on behalf of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which was up against Jane Eyre. Though she was on my side, I confess I was nervous. How does one chat to the woman known as Doris Karloff? How could one beguile this legendary right-wing moralist? As the time of her arrival drew near, the bottles of Evian water seemed to fizz with alarm. The egg-mayonnaise sandwiches began to curl at the edges to ward off the fury of her approach.

Then, a short, blonde woman breezed in, dressed in a summery lilac outfit. It took a minute to register it was the standing member for Maidstone and the Weald. "Miss Widdecombe," I said, nervously, "can I just...?"

"Ann," she said. "Call me Ann. You've got the Penguin Rebecca? I've always had this old hardback copy from 1938. Isn't it lovely?" We looked. It was. I introduced her to a flamboyant member of the production team who is, frankly, as gay as bunting. Her tiny face broke into an enchanting smile. "I know you're going to help me get my train to my next appointment, and I'm very grateful," she said, like a duchess tapping her fan on his arm. In a perfect green-room moment, she was introduced to China Miéville, a huge, alarming, shaven-headed, multi-earringed writer of modern horror fiction. Ann was unfazed. She was chatty, amusing, bookish and calm. There was no trace of that strangulated yelp (like a 12-year-old boy's breaking voice) so familiar from asylum-seeker debates.

So far, so unexpected. We fell to talking about Rebecca. I said there might be a problem arguing our way around the fact that Max de Winter, the book's chilly hero, is a murderer with whom the reader is supposed to sympathise. "Not at all," she said. "There's a big difference between premeditated murder and having someone like Rebecca encourage you to murder them." But, I said, for a good Catholic like you, Ann, this must be a disabling... "No," she said, "by that stage, I was so much on Max's side, it wasn't a problem."

The rival book, Jane Eyre, I said, has a hero who isn't a murderer, but who is... "A bigamist," snapped Miss Widdecombe. "Or, at least, a would-be bigamist. That's much worse."

I'll be damned. Ann Widdecombe, right-wing scourge of degenerates and moral pygmies, was revealed as a shameless, lilac-hued romantic. Only in the protocols of Camelot and the medieval chivalric code could such a view be offered, that the betrayal of love is worse than murder. Praise be to the spirit of the green room that such revelations are possible.

Kiss me, Kate

Katharine Hepburn, God rest her, holds a special place in the hearts of journalists for playing the rich bitch Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, in which she greets the imminent arrival of two hacks from Spy magazine with, indeed, lordly contempt. "So I'm to be examined, undressed and humiliated at 15 cents a copy?" she says. "they'll be watching every little mannerism, jotting down every detail of how we sit and stand and talk and eat and move - and all in that horrible corkscrewed English." Then she goes and falls in love, albeit briefly, with James Stewart, playing the magazine snoop Connor, so beguiled is she by his prose style. A double lesson there for aspirant journalists - you may be abused and reviled by posh girls, but you get to undress them in print and get off with them in reality. Now there's an ambition...

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