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Too much of a good thing

When Professor Stephen Haseler, head of the Common Sense Club, held a dinner in a private room at London's L'Etoile restaurant 10 days ago to celebrate the republican cause, he certainly did not expect two startling repercussions. The first was that a team of photographers from the Sunday Times and the Observer burst in, unannounced, and the dinner became the focus of debate in those papers.

The second was that he - and his nine guests - were asked by the producers of Granada's World in Action to repeat, at Granada's cost, the entire evening so that the event could be caught on camera for Granada's forthcoming series on the growing republican cause. Tomorrow night the guests (who include the PR guru Brian Basham; Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham; the royal biographer Anthony Holden; and Peter Wilby, editor of the Independent on Sunday) have been invited to regroup at L'Etoile and endure a meal with wines ranging from pounds 15 to pounds 50 a bottle.

What hardship! They will have to choose from a menu that includes such delicacies as foie gras, ravioli with escargots and wild mushrooms, sweetbreads, and creme brulee a l'orange. They will have to linger over coffee and port. They may even have to savour a cigar or two as World in Action bustles around, insisting that the spirit of the original evening be retained.

Strangely, however, not all the guests find such a prospect enchanting. "I won't be going," MacShane tells me firmly. "I have another engagement which I can't break, but personally I think we shouldn't turn ourselves into a media circus. One dinner is enough."

BBC bans parties

I have bad news for Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson (pictured), Charles Lewington and all the other party political spin doctors - security has been tightened at the BBC's Westminster offices in Millbank, to prevent you entering the newsroom.

The extreme measures have been implemented following a complaint by Lord Cocks, the ex-Labour chief whip and now vice-chairman of the BBC governors, in the Lords. He did not name names but said that "the increasingly desperate tactics of the parties to intimidate news editors into favouring their political cause" had led him to believe no other course was open to him.

Interestingly, he did not accuse one party more than any other and, sadly, he did not enlighten us as to what those "desperate tactics" might be.

Personally, I feel very sorry for Mr Campbell and co. They are only doing their jobs. And I have the sneaking suspicion that Lord Cocks, dear man, might not feel so strongly on this matter if he had not once been a political manipulator himself. "When I was chief whip," he tells me, "I would occasionally sit colleagues down with instructions to make repeated telephone calls to telephone poll numbers in order to distort the results."

I am shocked! But Lord Cocks assures me that he knows Alastair Campbell would never do a thing like that! "This," he says, "was old Labour."

Bonkbusters minus the bonks

Insiders at the BBC tell me that one Basil Comely, presenter of the Bookmark programme about Jilly Cooper that appeared at the weekend, may never recover from the stress of the past few weeks. It seems that his programme - Jilly Cooper: the bonkbuster years - has caused more rehashing than any other. The reason? I'm told that BBC executives felt his programme contained too much sex and not enough literature.

Such was their angst that last week that poor Comely was even asked to "darken" a bare nipple in one scene (apparently it was too sensuous when pale). The Beeb executives would do well to note what Jon Bate, my English tutor at Cambridge and now the King Alfred Professor of Literature, said in my first term. "All great literature," he said, grinning, "is mainly about sex."

Tate of the art speech

Publishers throughout London are wiping their brows with relief after a very nasty near miss. Before last Wednesday several had been highly tempted to buy - for an extortionate pounds 15,000 - the text of Nick Serota's speech to the National Gallery. (They assumed, given that Serota is president of the Tate, it was going to include intriguing details about the new Tate gallery being built on the South Bank). There was one considerable drawback, however - the purchaser was not allowed to read the speech before it was delivered.

Thank heavens this put everybody off! On Wednesday, Serota duly delivered his great speech. Suffice it to say that its subject - gallery curatorship - sent a handful in the audience into a gentle slumber. Even Serota's own publicists, Thames and Hudson, now admit that the text will not sell for pounds 15,000 any more. "It wasn't,"admitted a spokesperson eventually, "what you could call a laugh a minute."

Eagle Eye

Art of this world

It has always been a fear of traditionalists that as computer capability improves, human creativity will diminish. In the art world, it seems, that nightmare has finally arrived. The work of the "Artmachine", a mysterious combination of a computer, some flow charts and a book, is currently occupying exhibition space hitherto reserved for artefacts designed by the human brain in London's Institute of Contemporary Art. This is not to say that all manual labour has been completely done away with. The Artmachine comes up with a "creative task", which is then carried out by its owner, a former submarine builder, Keith Tyson (pictured). "Most artists," Tyson observes, "develop a style, but the Artmachine is completely against this idea. It forces me to work in video, painting and sculpture, as well as processes that I wouldn't normally consider as being artistic." Neither would many other people. Tyson's tasks to date have included knocking down a national monument and posing as a stand-up comedian. I'd say the Artmachine has been paying too much attention to Damien Hirst.

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