Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary

Look, no hands


Has Alan Bennett written his last play? First performances of
The Habit of Art, which opened at the National Theatre last week to sparkling reviews, have prompted fears among fans that he plans never to write another. The 75-year-old national heirloom, author of 17 plays, including
The History Boys and
The Madness of George III, appears to drop a number of hints throughout the play, which is about an imagined encounter between the poet W H Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten at Oxford in 1972, towards the end of their respective lives. Apart from the obvious parallels of two aged artists looking back over their lives, the main source of intrigue is that they are part of a play within the play, which, significantly, is called
Caliban's Day. Caliban is the untamed figure in Shakespeare's last play,
The Tempest, in which the Bard writes conspicuously about the nature of theatre.
The Habit of Art is billed as being "as much about theatre as it is about poetry or music", and ends with a wistful, valedictory speech by Frances de la Tour about the enduring glory of plays. Alan Bennett, whose stories and diaries appear at intervals, did not return my calls.

Listeners of Radio 4's comedy series As Told to Craig Brown will know the Queen secretly has a northern accent. In one sketch, Her Majesty is heard slipping into dialect as she relaxes in the company of Diana's butler Paul Burrell. But perhaps Brown's whimsical conceit really is true. During the Queen's speech on Wednesday, she twice pronounced "enhance" with a flat "a" sound. Received Pronunciation's "enhance" has a long "a", but on both occasions the Queen's version rhymed with "ants". Well, it livened up the Government's painfully leaden prose.

Revered author V S Naipaul appears to be a victim of his own intellectual clout. When I ran into the literary grandee at a recent London party he confessed to being sad that he no longer writes for newspapers as "the press is no longer interested in long pieces". Some years ago Naipaul used to top up his income as a novelist with serious essays stretching to thousands of words, but now, he says, there is simply no appetite for them. One solution would be to tailor his prose to the market, but how many editors would dare ask Naipaul for 400 words on Jedward?

Heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno won an impressive 40 out of 45 fights before he put down his gloves for the razzmatazz of pantomime. But there is one more fight he could yet win. Award-winning playwright Roy Williams is putting the finishing touches to his play about boxing, due to premiere at the Royal Court next year, and tells me he has one vital decision yet to make. "The play is about two young black kids who are best friends and grow up to be professional boxers. One of them is based on Frank Bruno," he says. "The climax is a fight between them, and I still haven't made up my mind who wins." We suggest Frank: he may dress as Widow Twanky, but he's quite a bit bigger than you, Roy.

Much excitement at the Royal Institution ahead of its annual Christmas lectures. This year's theme is the 300-million-year war between plants and animals, and, following an established tradition, plans are being made to feature live animals in the lecture hall. But while searches for a koala have proved fruitless, they have been offered a live polar bear for £10,000. "We were very tempted," says a spokesman. Perhaps disappointingly, they decided not to go for the bear, as it is not particularly relevant to the lecture, although they once had a lion. They've settled for a sloth, a donkey, a St Bernard dog and a parrot.

Best known for her amusing book C ap'*Bob and Me: The Robert Maxwell I Knew, recalling a 23-year friendship with the Mirror proprietor, Eleanor Berry has adopted some of his tyrannical ways. Replying to an invitation to dinner from her friend Charles Kidd, author of Debrett's Peerage, she demanded he have a flu jab before she would come. "I have a pathological fear of illness," she explains. "It comes from my mother, who used to make us wear masks when we went to the cinema." She is fanatical about flu jabs and has one every three months. Happily, Kidd agreed to have one, and dinner went ahead.

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