The Duchess of York, the Squatters of Dulwich and Kenneth Branagh

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EXCITING times for the Duchess of York. If you've wondered why she's been more ubiquitous than usual in the media world - hanging out with the cast of Friends, flirting with Chris Evans - it's because she is soon to be launched as the hostess of a television chat show. Sky TV have signed her up and, having already pre-sold the show to America, Australia and New Zealand, have made a gratifying amount of cash out of the newly- slender ex-Royal before she utters a single word of the Funny Opening Monologue.

At Sky's Isleworth HQ, they've been auditioning Madges for the show. A "Madge" is the generic name (deriving from Dame Edna's mournful companion and ex-bridesmaid) for those people on American talk shows whose sad function is to sit with the host and make complimentary or wholly phatic remarks, like "So how've you bin?" and "Is that so?" and "That's funny". The Madges being road-tested are drawn from TV and the press, from warm-up comedians to lady columnists. All report themselves impressed with the Duchess's determination a) to succeed and b) to be loved by one and all. Her condescension knows no bounds. "I'll memorise the names of everyone in the crew, and talk to them about their children," she has promised, reckless of the fact that the Sky entourage runs into a hundred-plus souls.

One wishes her well in this exciting new career. And one also wishes her some guests less demanding than Norman Mailer, the famously pugnacious American novelist whom the Duchess recently met at a New York dinner party. A remarkable conversation ensued:

The Duchess: "I'm afraid I haven't read any of your books, but I am a writer myself."

Mailer: "That so?"

The Duchess: "Budgie the Helicopter. They made a film of it, you know".

Mailer: "I filmed one of my own books once, Called Tough Guys Don't Dance".

The Duchess: "Oh really? What was it about?"

Mailer: "It's about c**t. Or is it p*ssy? Because there's a big difference between c**t and p*ssy ..." [Upon which,a strangled silence fell upon the table. You could hear the raindrops on the window pane like glaciers crashing down the Matterhorn. Eventually the silence was broken by - ]

The Duchess: "You know, the most interesting thing about this conversation is going to be the people listening to it."

Not bad eh? Mr Mailer later confessed to liking the former Royal Highness. He even expressed a desire to, ah, embrace her affectionately. Good heavens. There's no chance, is there, of her metamorphosing into the Duchess of New York?

Panic in London SE21. Where once all was amity, quietude and honest white-collar toil on the cusp of Dulwich and Herne Hill, all hell had broken out. It's like The War of the Worlds, with its fleeing suburbanites and spidery aliens. Only this time, it's not Martians, it's the Crusties.

The first sighting was last week, when a scooter was observed parked outside the boarded-up windows of No 94, a council house whose last inhabitants fled long ago. Next came a rusting Vauxhall estate, whose driver investigated a means of entry. Then a camper van disgorged a few more people and, after a time, a light came on in the supposedly abandoned hallway, Lastly, and climactically, a huge Leyland van, brazenly unencumbered by a tax disc, parked in front of the convoy, leaving just enough room for a decommissioned ice-cream van behind. The neighbours stole out to look and noticed that the house next door to No 94 is also empty and boarded up ...

Aaargh! Up and down the road, the word flew: "Squatters! In both houses!" Not just indigent squatters, either (Dame Rumour whispered) but the intelligent, clued-up kind, with mobile phones and dogs and camper vans and names like Swampy and Animal.

Everyone hit the phones. The lady next door rang the council and was told: "It's none of your business, because you're not a council tenant," ignoring her protests about council taxes and the imminent invasion of her property by shiftless hipsters with dreadlocks and lurcher dogs on bits of string. Another neighbour had a lively discussion with her landlord about the efficacy of boarding up a property. Should you use chipboard? Metal? Bricks? (It could have been the Three Little Pigs discussing the Big Bad Wolf). But only when the first squatters appeared on the roof of No 94 last Saturday afternoon - dramatically framed against the horizon as they prepared to abseil down the back wall of No 96 with jemmies in their hands - did the middle classes of Dulwich get really freaked. They rang the police, who rushed round, but soon left again, thwarted by the laws of possession. The locals resorted instead to glaring at their unwanted new friends. "Oh dear," said one Crusty to another in a stage whisper. "Looks like we're gonna have some trouble with the neighbours." A second New Ager looked up. "I wouldn't worry about it," he observed. "They'll all be back indoors in a minute, watchin' the Boat Race."

It was worse then we'd feared. The invaders weren't incipient burglars and murderers, they were - far worse - satirists. Weighed down by bourgeois guilt, we slunk inside to our television sets and hoped they'd just jolly well go away.

Kenneth Branagh is a man with one skin too few when it comes to the British press. Too many nay-sayers, too much sniping about his Ferdinand- and-Isabella reign (with Emma Thompson) over the British theatre world, too little respect for his filmic ventures, too much bitching about his drunk scene in Peter's Friends, his rendering of Frankenstein, his annotations to Hamlet and his amour with Helena Bonham Carter. But he may be getting a little too paranoid. I was scheduled to talk to him this week about his new movie, The Gingerbread Man (released in August) and attended a screening. Story by John Grisham, directed by Robert Altman, starring Kenny B. with Robert Duvall, Tom Berenger and Darryl Hannah - how could it fail? Alas, it's an amazingly crass piece of work in which Branagh, as a playboy lawyer, affects a Deep South accent as thick as Louisiana molasses and finds himself pursued by a shoeless hobo who's been sprung from prison. A few days after the screening, the nice lady from Polygram rang to suggest interview dates. "And by the way," she said, casually, "What did you think of it?" I said I thought it was old-fashioned, under- plotted, implausible and had far too many shots of out-of-focus car headlights, but that none of this mattered since one really wanted to see what Mr Branagh was like to meet, and to ask him about his love affair with Hollywood, and how he got along with the great Altman.

Too late. I'd already talked myself out of a job. "I'll put in a request to Kenneth," said the Polygram babe, "but I'm afraid it's not very likely. He's said he only wants to be interviewed by people who liked the movie".

Well, well. Once, you interviewed an actor or writer or director because you were interested in them. Your job was not that of critic, nor was theirs to gauge the level of your enthusiasm about them. You met as conversationalists - one interrogative, one declarative - rather than as master and lickspittle. Now, presumably, if you want to get near Ken's royal presence, you have to pretend to admire his every move, and be prepared to lie like an eye- witness to his publicity machine.

It's not very grown-up, is it?