WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK: Telling porkies to a mountain man

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The Independent Online
It seems I was mistaken when I boasted last week that a journalist of my experience could instantly distinguish between a dud hot potato and a good one. No sooner had I filed my column from Breckenridge, Colorado, and made my arrangements to come home (more accurately, to fly on to Miami, where I expected to see the Dolphins stuff the Chiefs) than I received a fax from the Independent's news desk telling me to stay on the story.

What story? I'd filed the only one there was (which, you may remember, involved the New York City Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty at Mile High Stadium, Denver, where the Broncos normally play), and I'd made that up in any case.

Well, I hadn't entirely made it up. It's true that two days after Christmas I'd flown to Breckenridge, where my friend Neil the Shirt had told me he was sitting on a hot potato. Having discovered that it wasn't a hot potato in the least (merely the quiteuninteresting fact that the local police chief, a Nottingham grammar school boy called Al Kiburas, was an admirer of Felicity Kendal and - though what the connection was I couldn't fathom - had recently locked up half the town in a drugs investigation),I'd been chatting in Tilly's Bar with Abe the Mountain Man.

Being in a reflective, not to say sombre, mood - brought on, I think, by having recently seen Anthony Dowell playing the unrewarding part of Carabosse, the wicked fairy, in his own production of The Sleeping Beauty (a circumstance likely to prompt sad thoughts about the fugitive nature of one's prime, if not about mortality itself) - I'd asked Abe the Mountain Man whether, when watching The Sleeping Beauty, it had ever occurred to him what a plonker the Lilac Fairy is.

Further, wasn't it sad, I'd said, that Anthony Dowell - only yesterday, it seemed, a lissom youth with the corps de ballet - was now reduced to playing Carabosse, the wicked fairy.

"A role," I'd said to Abe the Mountain Man, "that you or I could play ourselves - the toes turned out, the haunch en attitude, though not, of course, facetiously so."

Abe the Mountain Man had turned out to be an enthusiast for the 19th-century classics, thereafter, and for the next three hours, discussing details of productions seen - comparing one Princess Aurora with another, this Prince Florimund with that. When drinking with a mountain man in hillbilly rompers and off-the-road footwear, I prefer to talk about ballet for an hour and a half at most, and in any case my own interest in the dance had died in 1958 when I had fallen out of love with Svetlana Beriosova. (Until then, and dressed in my sailor suit since I was in the Navy at the time - thus causing quite a stir in the grand tier and Dickie Buckle, specifically, to take a step back and sit on his opera hat - I'd attended her every performance at Covent Garden, at its climax, and while others offered floral tributes, I threw diamonds and share certificates at her feet.) So I'd found myself at a conversational disadvantage with Abe the Mountain Man and had therefore introduced a topic in which I might show greater expertise.

"Talking about big dancing nellies,'' I'd said, "what price the Denver Broncos?"

So far, so good, but then I'd lost my head and, lacking a punchline, as it were, I'd made the next bit up. I'd gone to Mile High Stadium, I'd said, where I'd found Wade Phillips, the Broncos' head coach, rewiring the linebackers' changing-room. "The lighting in here's terrible," I'd reported him as saying. "When Jacques D'Amboise was playing Carabosse here with the New York City Ballet, he was obliged to stand on a ladder to apply his make-up under a naked bulb. "Are you all right?" I said. "Yes,'' he s aid, "but goodness knows how these linebackers manage."

Not true at all, I'm afraid. It wasn't Jacques D'Amboise, The Sleeping Beauty nor Mile High Stadium. It's an old joke originally told about Robert Helpman, who, when playing Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, had been obliged to use the umpires' changing-room at an Australian rules football ground. And now, as a consequence of my story - which wasn't true in any case - the Broncos' head coach had been fired and I was in Tilly's Bar again, chatting with Neil the Shirt and Abe the Mountain Man, and hold ing the fax from the Independent telling me to stay on the story.

"What story?'' I said. "There's nothing happening here."

"Nonsense," said Neil the Shirt. "Breckenridge is the preferred resort of pig-faced Daily Mail readers called Fiona and Malcolm. What will they think when, arriving in their colour-co-ordinated ski clothes, they're searched internally for drugs by a Nottingham grammar school boy called Al Kiburas?"

"What happens to Fiona and Malcolm," I said, "is of no concern to the Independent. I shall now fly to Miami to discover whether the Dolphins, who have at last acquired a running game in the shape of Bernie Parmalee, are Super Bowl contenders. I shall then return home, where Mr Rod Ellis, of North Street, Clapham, is struggling on his own with 101 Things Streetwise People Do."

"Here's one,'' said the Princess of Wales, who had just walked into Tilly's Bar and who - in the most successful play-fake since Dan Marino dummied the Giants' secondary so elaborately that they had to pay to get back into the stadium - had recently bluffed the British tabloid press into supposing she was staying in Vail with a Mr Mike Flannery when in fact she was staying with someone else entirely. "Streetwise people, when sitting on a hot potato involving the Princess of Wales's personal arrangements, file some nonsense involving the Dolphins and Bernie Parmalee. The Independent might expect you, as a royal insider, to tell them who I'm really staying with."

I expect you think I ignored her. Well, I didn't. I'm not stupid. I cancelled my trip to Miami, flew back to London and rang the Independent's news desk.

"I've got the story,'' I said. "The Princess of Wales is staying in Colorado with ..."

"Never mind the Princess of Wales,'' they said. "we want to know whether the Dolphins are Super Bowl contenders."

It's nice to be proved right. Or wrong. I'm not sure which.