WILLIAM DONALDSON'S w e e k: The Lilac Fairy? What a plonker

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The Independent Online
Watching the Denver Broncos getting stuffed over Christmas and then catching a bit of The Sleeping Beauty on television, I was reminded of John Osborne's description of ballet as 19th-century poofs' football.

"Big rasping nellies," as he called the participants, were much in evidence among the Broncos, just as they were in The Sleeping Beauty. I must have seen this ballet a hundred times, but I hadn't realised, until I watched Anthony Dowell's production on Boxing Day, what a plonker the Lilac Fairy is.

Consider the story. All is going according to plan at the christening of Princess Aurora (various fairies bestowing their good wishes and so forth) when Carabosse, a spike-nosed witch - traditionally played by an ageing danseur noble whose knees will no longer support him in the jump - pitches up and, annoyed that she has been left off the guest-list, delivers a curse. Princess Aurora will succumb to a fatal pin-prick before her 17th birthday.

Consternation. Fairies flying in all directions, thunderstruck courtiers, the king hits the Master of Ceremonies - another senior whose knees have gone - and knocks his wig off, at which point the Lilac Fairy conceitedly steps forward and explains that, since she has not yet bestowed her wish, she will be able to thwart the wicked fairy's plans. The pin-prick won't be fatal. Princess Aurora will merely fall into a deep sleep from which, after a hundred years, Prince Florimund will awaken her with kiss.

I ask you. Even me and Mark Chapman have a more secure grip on narrative logic than that, and, judging by Root Into Europe, that's saying something.

If the Lilac Fairy is so clever, then why doesn't she use her wish to thwart Carabosse completely, turning her into a pumpkin and thus saving Princess Aurora from the long sleep, not to say from the Rose Adagio, which down the years has taxed the finest ballerinas unendurably?

That said, time flies, right? It seems like yesterday that I asked David Drew, then a fresh-faced youth with the Royal Ballet, if there was anyone at Covent Garden one should keep an eye on.

Yes, he said, there was a boy called Anthony Dowell who would one day become the finest male dancer this country had produced.

Yet here on Boxing Day were Mr Drew and Mr Dowell playing, respectively, the roles of Master of Ceremonies and Carabosse, which, if all else failed, and since my knees have gone, I have always felt qualified as a naval man (shoulders back, toes turned out, able in an emergency to do a jig entr'acte) to play myself.

Not that there has been any sign yet that all else has failed; nor will there be, I think, while I can summon up the energy, as I did on Tuesday, to fly to Denver, Colorado, in pursuit of a scoop put my way by Neil the Shirt, who used to live in Wandsworth but who moved his business a year ago to Breckenridge - which is down the road from Denver - and ever since has been asking me to visit him.

Frankly, I didn't fancy it. Out of season, Breckenridge has just one of everything - a sheriff, an undertaker, a character selling snake oil from a wagon, a mountain bear, a llama belonging to the medicine man - and in season it becomes a ski resort, bloated with fat men in lurex tights and lardy girls from Luton searching for rhythm in their turns.

On Monday, however, Neil the Shirt rang to say he was sitting on a hot potato, and on Tuesday - sensing a scandal involving the Denver Broncos at the least - I arrived, to find the place in uproar.

"What's up?" I said. "Someone's shot the llama?"

"No," said Neil the Shirt. "Someone's shot the bear. It ran up a telegraph pole and electrocuted itself on the transformer, which sparked and scared the llama, which jumped a fence and ran six miles out of town."

"Is that the hot potato?" I asked.

"No," said Neil the Shirt. "Here's the hot potato. The chief of police, Al Kiburas, is carrying out a drug investigation here. Local businessmen are outraged, and one, William Carr, who is not suspected of dealing drugs himself, has been thrown into jailfor contempt of court.

"His friend, Ritchie Poveromo, is running a series of adverts in the Breckenridge Daily News asking Al Kiburas to release Carr. The quarter-page ad Poveromo ran on Friday read: `Come on, Al. Free Billy.' Kiburas has said he is under a court order not to discuss the matter. What do you say to that?"

Oh dear, oh dear. "Frankly," I said, "I prefer the story involving the bear and the llama."

"You're missing the angle," said Neil the Shirt. "The angle is that the police chief, Al Kiburas, is a Nottingham Grammar School boy who spends all of his time watching reruns of The Good Life on the Euro-Channel."

You don't get to where I am in the newspaper business without being able to tell a dud hot potato from a good one and I had to be quite rude to Neil the Shirt, pointing out to him that `English police chief embarrasses everyone by watching Felicity Kendal on the Euro-Channel' would hardly make headlines in the Independent.

Then, since we were in the saloon, and by way of conversation, I asked the mountain man standing next to me whether, watching The Sleeping Beauty, it had ever occurred to him that the Lilac Fairy's a plonker.

"Nope," he said. "But talking about the Denver Broncos, the head coach will be lucky next season to have a job as one of Carabosse's attendant rats."

Here was my story. I went straight to Mile High Stadium in Denver, where I found the head coach rewiring the linebackers' changing-room.

"The lighting in here's terrible," he said. "Last month, the New York City Ballet booked the stadium for a production of The Sleeping Beauty. Jacques D'Amboise, whose knees have gone, was playing Carabosse, the wicked fairy. To apply his make-up, he had to stand on a ladder under a naked bulb. `Are you all right?' I asked. `Yes,' he said, `but goodness knows how these linebackers manage.' "

I had my hot potato after all.