WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK:Quite a turn-about after a volte-face

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They're a law unto themselves in the Isle of Wight. That, at least, is the opinion of Debbie Mason, who, through her company Kudos, is producing El Independo, my satirical soap for BBC2.

Further, she's had a volte-face, has Debbie Mason, and not for the first time. Her last volte-face had me spinning distractedly for a week. I was quietly developing Major Ron's Kama Britain through a job lot of small but fashionable production companies (buns in the boardroom, tiny ideas emerging confidently from under hairstyles), when Miss Mason stepped in and told me to break off all current negotiations since she had decided to take the project over. A week later, she binned it contemptuously.

I don't know why I put up with it - except that I do. I put up with it because Miss Mason is a matchless producer. Start discussions with any other production company and a chap in trousers with an award-winning haircut offers his opinion for all the world as if it might be of some interest. Miss Mason offers her opinions but hers, uniquely, are as good as yours or mine and potently expressed.

Odd, then, that I tried this week to discredit her behind her back, to persuade Mr David Liddiment, the BBC's gifted head of entertainment, that it was her fault that El Independo wasn't yet up and running.

"She's had a volte-face," I said.

And so she had, deciding suddenly that El Independo should be set not in Wales, which had been my preference, or in Cornwall, which had been Geoff Atkinson's, or in Suffolk, which had been Mr Alway's, but in the Isle of Wight. "We've lost sight," she'd said, "of the show's dramatic spring - which was Sir Victor Pritchett's answer to the question, `What, in the course of a long life, is the most important lesson you've learnt?' You remember what he said?"

"Not to put the seals on first?"

That, at least, is the only lesson I've learnt in a life almost as long as Sir Victor Pritchett's, and is a consequence of my having done precisely that in Nights At The Comedy, my attempt in 1964 to revive music hall in the West End. If you put the seals on first the stage thereafter will be as slippery as an ice-rink, and in Nights At The Comedy, Ida Barr, on next, aged 86 and singing "The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery", went head over heels into the orchestra stalls.

"Don't be facetious with me, my boy," Miss Mason had snapped. "As you know perfectly well, Sir Victor's answer was: `Just this - sooner or later we all want to be respectable.'"

"Of course."

"And that," Miss Mason had said, "was the taking-off point for the drama. Our leading characters - an exceedingly thin man in trade who according to you lives in Wales, to Atkinson in Cornwall and to Mr Alway in Suffolk, and two sisters, one of whom works in a wine bar and sleeps with British Airways personnel and the other of whom appears to be a prim little baggage but in fact works for as escort agency - simultaneously decide that they would like henceforth to be respectable. "The thin man in trade, who wouldn't know a respectable girl from a bar of soap, chooses the wine bar sister over the little prig who's on the game, the upshot being that his executive condominium with adjacent barbecue area and gazebo is shortly over-run by British Airways personnel and the neighbourhood goes for six."

"Precisely," I'd said.

"Precisely," Miss Mason had said. "However, for the comedy to flourish, the location is the naffest imaginable. And what's naffer than Wales, Suffolk and even Cornwall? The Isle of Wight. I intend to set it there."

Here was a blow. I and my collaborators - Atkinson and Mr Alway - hadn't hit on Wales, Cornwall and Suffolk haphazardly but because each of us had at his finger-tips a selection of well-tried "naff" jokes about his preferred setting. (Naff things the Welsh do: keep a welcome in the valleys;turn Cardiff Arms Park into a cauldron of emotion; take the scrum down on an English put-in; pour hot cheese over things and call it a rabbit. Naff things the Cornish do: launch life-boats; catch a dogfish and call ita shark; paint; live in creeks; muffle their rollocks and smuggle brandy.)

"It's important," Miss Mason had said, "that the wine bar sister, imagining that she's a lady at last, should fetch up in the commonest place in Europe, participating in low-grade regattas in a tub, hosting barbecue parties and drinking in the morning with other disappointed wives."

"Is it really that dull in the Isle of Wight?"

Miss Mason's jaw had dropped. "What!" she'd said. "Why do you think they built Parkhurst there? A precaution against prisoners hopping over the wall and enjoying themselves. A prisoner hops over the wall in the Isle of Wight and he finds himself at a barbecue party talking to a thin man in trade and his sour-faced partner - after which the man in trade shows him the photographs he took when visiting Florence with a camcorder and The English Tourists' Guide to Crap old Churches.


"No," Miss Mason had snapped, "I'm deadly serious."

The prisoner puts his hands up. I'm better off inside, he thinks. And they have capital punishment on the Isle of Wight.

"Bollocks," I'd said.

"Don't you bollocks me, young man," Miss Mason had said. "They're a law unto themselves on these small islands. I've been to Jersey, so don't tell me. We'll research the Isle of Wight next week. "

She's flipped, I'd thought, so when Mr Liddiment summoned me on Tuesday to the BBC, I blamed her for the fact that El Independo was not yet out of the traps.

"She flipped," I said. "She seems to think the BBC will pay for the whole damn shooting-match to be relocated in the Isle of Wight. Ha! Ha! It occurs to me that Tiger Aspect Television..."

"Never mind Tiger Aspect Television," said Mr Liddiment. "For Miss Mason I'd relocate it in Albania. She's the best producer in the business."

"My feelings precisely," I said.

Next week we're off to the Isle of Wight, me and Miss Mason.