Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (07/08/11)

Luxury in an age of austerity

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Royal biographer Hugo Vickers has launched a withering attack on Anne Sebba, author of a new biography of Wallis Simpson, for claiming the Duchess of Windsor might not have been all woman. Sebba's book says Edward VIII's wife was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, or AIS.

But Vickers, whose own biography of Mrs Simpson was published in April, dismisses this as "complete rubbish". "I am absolutely sickened by these suggestions," he tells me. "Anyone who has bothered to look into this can tell you it's complete rubbish. I researched this extensively for my book and found not a shred of evidence to support it." But Sebba holds her ground when I call. "Hugo Vickers would be well advised to wait until he has read the whole book," she says. "I have got a lot of new material, but I can't talk about it because of a Channel 4 film I've made." Vickers claims the theory first surfaced in 1996, when Michael Bloch published his own biography. "He got a massive advance and was told to come up with something sensational. And that was what he did." Vickers, who also wrote a biography of the Queen Mother, adds that Mrs Simpson has become one of the most maligned figures of the 20th century. "I seem to have embarked on a one-man crusade to defend her."

Situation vacant – Andrew Lansley wants a spin-doctor. The Health Secretary hasn't had one since his trusty stooge Jenny Jackson was banned from speaking to the press, which can make being a press spokesman tricky. Life got difficult for his so-called "Elf secretary" when she was caught sending emails that undermined Nick Clegg and described junior Lib Dem ministers as "yapping dogs". Some might have said she was helping her boss by taking the heat, as Lansley has become the most pilloried cabinet minister since announcing his NHS reforms. In any case, he is now seeking a replacement, and only attack dogs need apply, as he is famously hostile to the press. Trouble is, it might not be for that long – I'm told Lansley is due a reshuffle. And what of Mrs Jackson? "She's spending the summer proving she is still very much in the loop," says a friend, "by taking a trip to Mongolia."

Cold Feet stars Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris (pictured) were reunited earlier this year in a West End production of Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward's comedy featuring a ghost. At the time, Bathurst said, "What a pleasure it is to be reunited with Hermione." But just how much of a pleasure was it? Speaking to a newspaper yesterday, Bathurst said he was glad to be doing something else. "You enjoy each other's company, but you acknowledge that before too long you hope you'll be doing something else." He's been filming scenes for the new series of Downton Abbey, in which he plays Sir Anthony Strallan, who is enamoured of Lady Edith, played by Laura Carmichael. When Bathurst pointed out to the scriptwriter Julian Fellowes that Strallan is 50 and Edith is 23, Fellowes apparently replied, slightly too wistfully: "Yes, but you'd have got away with it in those days." What would Hugh Bonneville say?

The diary has tried to maintain its indifference to Sally Bercow since she projectiled her way into public life, but it's difficult. The Speaker's wife and incontinent tweeter became unavoidable last week when she was given a new platform – Radio 4. The Today programme has struggled to find anything interesting to say since August began, but sank to a new low with Bercow's two minutes of cliché-riddled nonsense. Now we learn she is considering going on Celebrity Big Brother. Over to Bobby Friedman, currently penning a biography of the Bercows. "Bercow will be seething," he tells me. "But money is tight in the Bercow household and Sally is building her own career. With political leaders getting younger, it is inevitable their wives have their own career rather than ride pillion." Er, there's quite a lot wrong with that last sentence, but we'll limit ourselves to pointing out that Bercow is not a leader.

Rumours are still swirling over why top conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Hélène Grimaud have fallen out. They pulled out of a recording this autumn, and she will no longer appear as a soloist with him in Lucerne and London's Southbank. Some say he wanted to invite other soloists to take part, but I'm told Grimaud has ambitions for a more glittering career on her own, in the mould of Lang Lang. I hear she has "thrown in her lot with a Berlin-based pop promoter" – we look forward to the rebrand. Grim Grim?

Minimalist composer Steve Reich is in London on Wednesday for a late-night Prom of his work. Let's hope the fire alarm behaves this time – it once went off during a rehearsal, prompting one violinist to quip: "Does he get royalties for that too?"

m.bell@independent.co.uk

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