William Donaldson's Week: What the butler was called

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AFTER my news last week that I was to become the New York Times's drama critic while living in Ibiza, a lot of you wrote in to ask why Ibiza was such a good place not to see plays from. As you pointed out, one could not see plays from almost anywhere in the world.

I'm baffled myself, I'm afraid; as baffled as I was when, in my days as a restaurant critic, I asked my friend Stephen Pile to nominate a place for lunch. He chose an Italian job in St Martin's Lane, of the sort that has a fisherman's net hanging from its ceiling, faded pictures of Positano on its walls and, at another table, two types from personnel lunching in their shirt-sleeves.

'Why here?' I said.

'It's an excellent place not to go to the theatre from,' he said. 'You book two tickets for Felicity Kendal's latest comedy ('A sheer delight]' - Jack Tinker), park the car, duck in here, order a meal, and then you think, 'I'll miss the play]' Like skipping a visit to the dentist. There's nothing like it.'

So there you are. Meanwhile, here's one for you. These days, would the six-year-old son of a house call the chauffeur or the butler by his surname? The matter arises not because it is relevant to El Independo (a soap opera that will deal with Mrs Woolf's despised 'in-betweens' rather than with the upper or lower classes), but as the upshot of a tremendous row between my sister Bobo and my aunt, Dame Mary Donaldson, CBE, JP. The latter, you may remember, along with her colleagues on the Press Complaints Commission, and in place of Mr Alway, now edits this column and has a grip on my television developments.

Dame Mary, who apart from wanting to add teeth to what I write here ('You should name names; go for the little trollop who took you to the cleaners. A visit, perhaps, to your Uncle John in chambers. 'Morning, Uncle John. Let's clip the minx for everything she's got.' '), turns out to be an enthusiast for dangerous television.

'Mr Alway was a decent lawyer,' she says, 'but a trifle too circumspect. Let's knock them backwards in their chairs, rattle their cocoa cups]'

It's all right for her. My aunt, Dame Mary, CBE, JP, always an iconoclast, has reached the age when she doesn't give a stuff. I, however, still have everything to play for and am thus constrained by Middle England decencies; this is why I have a corpse at the BBC considering my latest idea.

Be that as it may, she rang me on Monday and summoned me to a meeting with my sister Bobo.

'She's a difficult woman, your sister Bobo,' Dame Mary said. 'Always has been. As you know, she doesn't want to be played by Penelope Keith in El Independo on the grounds that Miss Keith isn't a lady. No doubt she isn't, but nor is your sister Bobo. We'll not be dictated to. We're having enough trouble with Rachel Garley refusing to wear a blond wig to play the part of Frankie Fraser's friend, the lovely Marilyn. Be here sharp at 10am.'

Pitching up on Tuesday at the PCC - crisp white shirt, pens at the ready - I felt like a man who, in 1944, booked his annual summer holiday in Normandy only to find that it coincided with the D-Day landings. Dame Mary and my sister Bobo are formidable women - each with the rank of commodore of rival yacht clubs and at their best in sou'westers, tacking the mainsail or whatever - so I thought it wisest to keep out of an argument that had raged for 50 years: specifically, which side of the family was commoner - the Christians, which was my mother's name, or the Donaldsons.

'For your information,' my sister Bobo stormed, 'I'm descended on my mother's side from Mr Christian of The Bounty]'

Dame Mary's snort of contempt may well have uprooted any trees in Hampshire left standing after the storms of 1987.

'So what?' she roared. 'Furthermore, addressing the chauffeur, Saunders, by his surname at the age of six doesn't make you a lady. Stuff like that can be parroted - like any skill. As my friend Alexei Sayle has often pointed out, Ben Elton can mimic a sense of humour, rather as a call-girl mimics sex.'

I was with my aunt on this, and mention of Saunders reminded me that my mother had behaved towards him in a very common fashion. In 1942, and aiming, I suppose, at London, the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on Sunningdale, many on our house. Thinking the invasion had come, Saunders seized one of my father's shotguns and positioned himself at the door of our air raid shelter.

'Jerry will get at you, Miss Bobo and Master Button over my dead body, ma'am]' he cried.

After the war, Saunders, who had served the family for 30 years, voted Socialist and my mother fired him on the spot for gross ingratitude to Churchill.

'That's right,' I said. 'Firing Saunders certainly wasn't ladylike and . . .'

'Silence]' roared my sister Bobo and my aunt. 'We're trying to put a show on here.'

I left at this point, went home and rang up Stephen Pile.

'Why was that restaurant such a good one not to go to the theatre from?' I said.

'Ah well,' he said. 'I'm from the West Country, you see.'

I'm none the wiser, but I do know this: come back, Mr Alway, or Ibiza will be an excellent place not to produce El Independo from.

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