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Emma Thompson is about as hotly tipped you can get to win the Best Actress Oscar for Howards End. She's the bookies' favourite in both London and Hollywood. If she loses there's the consolation, according to some British newspapers, that every mogul in Hollywood is at Thompson's feet, offering to bury her in gold for merely deigning to do lunch with them. Sadly, she tells us this isn't remotely true. She's had no interest at all: not a script, not a phone call. And on reports of being price- tagged at a million dollars a movie: 'You've got to be joking, mate. I couldn't get a fraction of that.' Thompson will take her mother over for the ceremony on Monday, though her husband, Kenneth Branagh, has a performance of Hamlet to give at Stratford. Fans of the Branagh-Thompsons can look forward to seeing both of them in the lead roles of Macbeth for his Renaissance Theatre Company next year (she'll be the one in the white nightie with the candle and spots). If you don't know Macbeth, there'll be lots of opportunities to find out about it in time. As usual, the Shakespeare establishment has managed to make sure that everyone does the same plays at the same time. The English Shakespeare Company is touring a Macbeth at the moment, the National Theatre opens its production with Alan Howard next month; the Royal Shakespeare Company puts Derek Jacobi up in December. And you thought actors were frightened of the Scottish play.

BRITISH GAS has been placing newspaper advertisements extolling the virtues of its complaints system, and even printing the names of its 90 regional managers to whom you can give an earful. Predictably, perhaps, the company has received a lot of complaints over the fact that not one of these managers is a woman. British Gas is, it tells us, a 'progressive equal opportunities employer,' but, sadly, no woman has ever applied to be a manager.


One of the notable differences between John Major and his predecessor is their response to tragedies that strike to the nation's heart. Mr Major seems to restrict himself to thoughtful, even dignified, messages of condolence in the Commons, while Mrs Thatcher, as she was, took a more active approach. Indeed it seemed at some moments in the later Eighties that no sooner did two people fall over in the street simultaneously than Mrs Thatcher would be Florence Nightingale-ing round the casualty ward, mopping fevered brows for the cameras. This practice caused something of a row after one disaster, when it was discovered that Mrs Thatcher had told Buckingham Palace to ensure its representatives did not arrive before her in the stricken community. The Transport and General Workers' Union subsequently distributed laminated cards, to be stored next to the donor card in your wallet. The 'Thatchcard' bore this text: 'In the event of an accident, the holder of this card wishes it to be known that he/she does not wish to be visited by Mrs Thatcher in any circumstances whatsoever.'

THE 40-strong British delegation to last month's International Conference of the African National Congress had something slightly less than a whale of a time. They were staying in lively downtown Johannesburg, and no fewer than 15 of them were mugged.


At least one person thinks that Government plans to extend betting office opening hours until 10.30pm from April are appalling. Martin Besserman, poet, former Toyah Wilcox warm-up act and reformed compulsive gambler, yesterday began distributing 100,000 copies of his anti-gambling poem to betting shops around the country. The campaign kicked off with a lunchtime reading at William Hill on Hornsey Road, north London, where, he tells us, he lost the bulk of his money. He was pleased with the response: 'Staff told me confidentially that they agreed with my stand. I think this is mainly because it will interfere with their social lives.' Here's a verse from his poem: 'He leaves the betting office penniless/Back home to the family noise he is dreading/His wife is about to leave him/After all he's changed since their wedding.' If only he'd gone each way on the favourite in the 2.30 at Towcester . . .


25 March 1736 Alexander Pope writes to Jonathan Swift: 'Every man you know or care for here inquires of you, and pays you the only devoir he can, that of drinking your health. I wish you had any motive to see this kingdom. I could keep you, for I am rich; that is, I have more than I want. I can afford room for yourself and two servants; I have room enough. The kind and hearty housewive is dead] The agreeable and instructive neighbour is gone] Yet my house is enlarged and the gardens extend and flourish, as knowing nothing of the guests they have lost. I have more fruit trees and kitchen garden than you would have thought of: nay, I have good melons and pineapples of my own growth, I am as much a better gardener as I am a worse poet, than when you saw me. For God's sake, why should you not give all you have to the poor of Ireland, quit the place, and live and die with me?'