Matthew Bell: The <i>IoS</i> Diary

A serious scribe for serious times
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The Independent Online

As the producers of 'Countdown' hold auditions to find a new "Vord at the board", one stalwart of the show has come out to call for it to be axed. Sir Tim Rice, a regular guest in Dictionary Corner, says 'Countdown' has not been quite right since the death of Richard Whiteley. "I do think these things run their course," he tells me. But Sir Tim wouldn't rule out presenting the show himself. "I would love to but I think it's better left alone now." In a further revelation, Sir Tim tells me that when Richard Whiteley was first unwell, 'Countdown' asked eight regular guests – including himself, Richard Digance and Richard Stilgoe – to each present a week's worth of shows. Alas, just as shooting was about to start, Whiteley died, necessitating a permanent replacement, and the recordings never took place.

Peter Mandelson has never lacked a sense of his own worth. Only a little while ago he sauntered into The Wolseley on Piccadilly for supper, only to be told there were no free tables. Mandy then uttered the immortal line: "Don't you know who I am?" Heroically, the table-booker replied: "Yes, Mr Mandelson, I know exactly who you are. And we still don't have any tables."

An exhibition by photographer Jocelyn Bain Hogg, opening at London's City Hall later this month, has caused much controversy. The subject is Britain's youth culture, with pictures taken in locations as disparate as Harrogate and Exeter to the Cambridge University May week ball. But it seems Bain Hogg has been too close an observer of the activities of British youth, and has been ordered to remove snaps involving underage drinking and smoking. "They're nothing grittier than what you would see in the papers, but they are verboten," I'm told. Perhaps Boris and team don't want to be reminded of their own varsity ball japes.

Boris Johnson is not alone in thinking Sir Ian Blair was not up to the job. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke says of his sacking: "It's a pity as he's quite a nice chap. But I always thought he was slightly out of his depth." Johnson's dismissal of Sir Ian has angered Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, but senior Tories are also slightly nervous at Johnson's muscle-flexing. Inside City Hall I'm told of a hoo-ha after Johnson replaced his vastly experienced director of housing with an inexperienced young spark from his campaign team. As Dave might say, Boris will be Boris.

As minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, Mark Malloch Brown spends much of his time in the air. So to pin him down for a social engagement is quite an achievement. One such occasion was the 65th birthday party of his old beak at Marlborough College, Marty Evans, last weekend, having just flown in from high-level talks at the UN. "Marty was boasting of the fact he had five lords and ladies there," snipes one old boy. Lord Malloch-Brown is unusual for a Labour minister: he's the only one to have a grace-and-favour apartment, and one of the few to dare send his children to public school.

Thank goodness for Cherie Blair who is on course to save the plight of women worldwide with her new website,, which launched yesterday. "Its central aim is to highlight how women all around the world can work together to improve their lives," she announces. The practical details of quite how womenfolk should do all this working together remains unclear, but there's a handy link to the Waterstones website, where we can buy copies of Cherie's autobiography, 'Speaking for Myself'. So at least we can make a start improving one woman's life.

Prize-winning author Piers Paul Read is known for his strong Roman Catholic faith and for his biography of Alec Guinness. But his latest project marks a departure: he is writing a history of the Dreyfus affair, the French political scandal in which a Jewish officer was falsely imprisoned for treason. The real culprit was one of the Esterhazy family, and the author Emile Zola exposed the cover-up with his open letter to the president, "J'accuse". "I've just got a deal with Bloomsbury," Read tells me. "It was quite an effort to get one: half the publishers said the readers had never heard of the Dreyfus affair while half said there was already too much about it."