Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (04/12/11)

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The Independent Online

Alexander Chancellor has by all accounts lost his Guardian column – he was told by £410,000-a-year editor Alan Rusbridger that they "can't afford such ornaments" – but other family members have had more luck. His sister, novelist Susanna Johnston, has walked unscathed from a car crash on the M6, after a Polish juggernaut ploughed into her Saab, sending her and her husband spinning down a bank into a wood. They could hear rescue workers saying they didn't expect to find anyone alive. Now, Johnston tells me she is publishing a novel in June about her surprising amitié amoureuse with the Oxford scholar and former Warden of All Souls, John Sparrow. She will also recall the days spent reading aloud to man-of-letters Percy Lubbock in Italy. It follows the success of her 2005 book Late Youth, a celebration of life over 50, with contributions from leading elders. "Fourteen of the contributors are already dead," she says. "Last week it looked as if it was going to be 16!"

It's panto season, a time of cross-dressing and bawdy jokes, but has the Churchill Theatre in Bromley gone too far? They are running a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and have sent out a promotional email with a game, in which you "transform yourself into a dwarf!". Recipients have been left bewildered by the email, which comes perilously close to being offensive. "Ever wondered what you'd look like as one of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs?" it trills. "Simply upload a picture of yourself, size it up, choose a Christmas message and share it with your friends and family!" Dwarfs are in the news, thanks to Ricky Gervais's new sitcom Life's Too Short, but one dwarf I spoke to said the Churchill's attitude was "typical of an ingrained dwarfism in society". A theatre spokesman declined to comment.

Ken Russell's death leaves one little mystery unresolved – just what was his role in the 1974 fire that destroyed the South Parade Pier in Portsmouth? The great director propelled Twiggy to stardom with his film of The Boyfriend, shot at the city's Theatre Royal. Three years later, he was filming Tommy on the pier when its Gaiety Theatre caught fire. Russell included footage he took of the blaze in the film, based on The Who's album. One reporter at the time remembers seeing him on the beach filming, and now wonders how he managed to set up his equipment so quickly. An investigation into the blaze revealed the fire was caused by powerful spotlights shining on a curtain. Oddly, Russell's house in the New Forest was obliterated by fire five years ago. He lost much of his life's work.

Clive James has become addicted to a fly-on-the-wall TV show about the immigration desk at Sydney airport. The broadcaster and poet has been suffering from leukaemia since last year, and despite settling in Britain in the 1960s, now misses the land of his birth. Nothing to Declare, a little-known real-life serial showing on Sky Living, is about foreigners trying to enter Australia. Though he admits that "the dullness is part of the thrill", he explains its poignant appeal: "In my present state of health I'm not allowed to fly home for a visit, but my regular glimpses of our border protection squads in action take me back like nothing else."

Comedian Alexei Sayle has fired off a letter complaining about the Israeli Board of Tourism. He says they have been placing adverts "where Israel appears to have absorbed the entire occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights". Apparently, they have been censured for breaches in advertising standards before, but continue to do it. No doubt Sayle, who is Jewish and a passionate campaigner against Israel's attacks on Palestine, is right. But isn't there something tedious about comedians who start to take themselves seriously?

A musical charity that brings instrument tuition to primary schools has come up with an innovative way to commission new music. Concert-goers can "buy a bar" of a new violin concerto for £5, to be premiered this month at London's Spitalfields Winter Festival. London Music Masters aimed to raise just over £3,000 for Martin Suckling's work – but already £8,000 has been pledged. Although the micro-philanthropists won't own the work, musical scores are proving to be a recession-busting investment. A recent sale at Sotheby's saw Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra sell at £200,000, three times the estimate, and two scraps of Mozart went for £360,000. Kerching!