Matthew Bell: The <i>IoS</i> Diary (22/08/10)

An A* in social studies

For years the people of Devizes were represented by one of the grander MPs in the house, Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian, a millionaire whose wife is the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk.

Alas, he was found to have made expenses claims for a swimming pool boiler. Now he has been replaced by Claire Perry, an energetic 46-year-old mother of three who keeps her constituents up to date via Twitter. Her maiden speech was on the importance of tackling rural poverty, a noble sentiment and a big issue in this rural and military constituency. But it is not a subject she appears to be personally familiar with: she has just put her six-bedroom rectory on the market for £3.25m. Plus ça change.

Piers Morgan has suffered a blow almost as humiliating as the time he was frogmarched out of the Daily Mirror six years ago for running fake torture photos. Immigration authorities in the US are wondering why they should award him a work permit ahead of his new job on CNN. This puts in jeopardy the £5m deal he has signed to replace Larry King on his nightly show in the autumn. Piers already presents America's Got Talent, but only during the summer, so he uses a limited visa. For his new job he would need a full work permit, which is hard to obtain. He will have to prove there is no US citizen equally suited to the job. That shouldn't be a problem: there can't be another Piers Morgan out there. Surely?

Stephen Sondheim's musicals have been called "difficult", but they rarely come under the category of "farce". Not so the new production of Into the Woods in Regent's Park, London, whose spectacular set, with all its ladders and walkways, has caused actors to slip and trip unbidden. Built into towering trees, this vertical maze has already claimed a few casualties. "One actress was concussed during rehearsals," whispers my man with the first aid kit, "and another actor slithered down a flight of wooden steps." On opening night a swing collapsed under Beverly Rudd, right, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, but, ever the professional, she carried on regardless. The good news is that Sondheim himself, 80 this year, who saw a preview, has given the production his blessing. "Carry on Sondheim," we say.

It's usual at this time of year to express outrage at a case of a straight-As A-level student from a straitened background failing to land a place at university. The tradition dates back to the Laura Spence affair. Gordon Brown waded in after Spence (state-school educated) had been rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford, despite achieving four As. Writer and Magdalen graduate Duncan Fallowell mischievously recalls a conversation he had at the time with the college's president, Anthony Smith, who, despite insisting Magdalen was open to all, couldn't help mentioning that the crown prince of Bhutan was an undergraduate. "Yes, and Prince Tomohito of Japan was up in my day," recalled Fallowell. "Ah yes, but he wasn't a crown prince," replied Smith, quick as a flash.

The RSPB seems like a cuddly charity – they love birds! – but not according to the Countryside Alliance. The two charities have been bickering over the best way to control hen harriers in the north of England, which, the CA says, as predatory birds need to be managed, while the RSPB says they should be allowed to breed freely. To resolve the matter, the RSPB is to carry out a "community consultation", with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to be conducted by a supposedly independent consultancy team, Glead Ecological & Environmental Services (GEES). So that's it? Oh, no. The CA has refused to take part, because, it says, "the commissioned consultant was, until only recently, employed by the RSPB". Deep waters.

Some say The Daily Telegraph isn't what is was, but the old girl's all right. "Whatever happened to nicknames?" boomed one letter-writer yesterday. "Among my late father's military friends were Squeeler Wheeler, Splosh Jones, Boy Browning, Tiger Urquhart, Tinny Dean and Pudding Pye."

m.bell@ independent.co.uk

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