x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Out and about

The National's own most fabulous raconteur puts forth on UK politics, stage acts and modern women.

Madonna displayed her too-fit-for-50 arms during a performance in London last month.
Madonna displayed her too-fit-for-50 arms during a performance in London last month.

August is sometimes called "the silly season" because everyone goes on holiday and newspapers are full of daft stories. Hardly had the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown packed his swimsuit and gone off, leaving his deputy, Harriet Harman, in charge, than she proved the point. Harriet Harperson, as she is sometimes known to underline her commitment to equality, says you can't trust men to run the country. She believes that one of the Labour Party's two top jobs should always be held by a woman. "I don't agree with all-male leaderships," she said in an interview with The Sunday Times. "Men cannot be left to run things on their own."

Week Two at the helm and she makes a complete twit of herself with her remarks about how the electorate is fed up with "boys running the show". She couldn't have got it more wrong. The UK electorate is fed up full stop. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with greedy, lazy MPs from both sides of the House ripping them off with bogus expenses at a time when everyone is struggling financially.

Why Harman should create unnecessary waves at this time by firing up a gender debate beats me. Surely we have moved on to the stage where most people think it should be the right person for the job, whether that be a man or a woman. Her party's positive discrimination strategy has put more women than ever in the UK parliament. Until recently there was a female home secretary: Jacqui Smith, a casualty of the expenses scandal. There's a female attorney general, Baroness Scotland. So what exactly is Harman going on about? You just wish she would get on with the job quietly and competently and keep her silly mouth shut.

She just couldn't resist the opportunity to show off by inviting in the press for a self-aggrandising interview, prattling on about how she loves being in charge, working such long hours ("like a pit pony") that she doesn't know whether it's day or night. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, whom many believe is the one with real power, takes the reins next week for the second half of Brown's holiday. The Prince of Darkness must be laughing his socks off.

I was just about to renew my gym membership when I caught a glimpse of the latest pictures of Madonna. If that's what four hours a day of working out does for your arms, I think I'll stick to my 40-minutes-a-day circuit training. Once you get to 50 there are some parts of the body that are better kept under cover. Arms are two. Tummies, thighs and necks also need careful camouflage, and even Elle MacPherson should watch out for paparazzi when baring her knees.

Madonna seems perfectly happy to be walking around like a page from Gray's Anatomy. Actually, the offending limbs are in pretty good shape; I'd rather have her arms than wobbly bingo wings. They just look like they're inside out. Following the health and fitness regimens of stars is probably unrealistic. What normal person can spare four hours a day to do weight training? As for Gwyneth Paltrow and her detox diet, I lasted precisely half a day on her room-temperature lemon water and herbal tea before running screaming for the aspirins. Paltrow was worried that she had put on several pounds while on a "majorly fun and delicious relax and enjoy life phase". I can do that in an afternoon. I think I'll leave them both to it.

On a recent trip to London, I went to see the play Carrie's War, an adaptation of the Nina Bawden novel about two youngsters evacuated to Wales during the Second World War. An actor pal of mine, Sion Tudor Owen, plays the bullying Mr Evans with whom the brother and sister are billeted. Prunella Scales is the dying Mrs Gotobed.

I was riveted by the performance of Jamie Beddard, who plays Mr Johnny, who has cerebral palsy. I'm ashamed to say that I was convinced the actor based his portrayal of the character on the late Sir John Mills's Oscar-winning performance as Michael in the 1970 film Ryan's Daughter. In fact, Beddard has cerebral palsy and to me his achievement in holding down the part is all the more admirable. In a recent article in The Guardian he writes about how irritating it is that industry people still struggle with the idea that disabled actors would be better at playing disabled characters than able-bodied actors and "continue to represent disability through clouded prisms of metaphor and caricature".

He finds it offensive that physical impairments are mimicked on stage as if they alone capture the essence of the disabled person. "If he can imitate impairment, give him an Oscar. It is unacceptable in the school playground, but a beautiful challenge in the acting hall of fame," he says. I met up with him after the show and discovered a feisty, quick-witted, intelligent man with a lovely smile, independent and happily married with children. You would never use the word "victim" about him, although life with cerebral palsy has clearly been a battle for independence and dignity. He's the first actor with the condition to appear in a West End production. I hope he is the first of many.

When a blockbuster movie beams its super trouper spotlight on a beautiful island, sooner or later it's going to meet its Waterloo. Captain Corelli's Mandolin did it to Cephalonia, and now Mamma Mia! is doing it to Skopelos. Islanders are divided into those screaming SOS and those thinking about money, money, money. Tourists pouring off the ferries singing Dancing Queen badly want to lay all their love on the picturesque spots where Meryl Streep and company sang and danced. But there's only room for a handful of people in the pretty little chapel on the hill and brides intent on saying I do, I do, I do there can't - unless they are Greek Orthodox.

So, honey honey, if you really want to put on your white sombrero, Skopelos could slip through your fingers. It's under attack from tourists. When all is said and done, it might be better to say thank you for the music and go somewhere else - another town, another train perhaps. A modern marvel or simply the best sport training in the world? Sports writers are waxing lyrical about Catriona Matthew's triumph at the Women's British Open golf tournament. They marvel at the facts that she gave birth 12 weeks ago and she turns 40 this month.

It was exactly the same when Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon in 2007 about 10 months after having her first child. It's amusing that they should think a woman's sporting life should cease to exist after childbirth, but then sports writers are often male. So, without reigniting the gender wars, it's excusable that they don't know that running about after toddlers can toughen a girl up like nothing else in the world.