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The mystery of a £500 million man, the German love of Red Indians and the tough future for seven dwarfs.

I was in Brighton yesterday, visiting a friend. Her partner comes from Wolverhampton.

When I arrived, she asked me: “Have you heard about Snow White?”

“Erm, no” I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Apparently,” she told me, “Radio 4 says the local panto in Wolverhampton this year is Snow White, but they have sacked the seven dwarfs… Sacked them! Suddenly!”

I looked at my friend.

“What on earth did they do?” I asked.

I had visions of the legendary mayhem and Bacchanalia which reportedly happened among the Munchkins during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” my friend explained. “It was the economic recession and the soaring cost of dwarfs… The theatre is going to replace the dwarfs with children wearing masks.”

“It won’t be the same,” I replied. “Don’t Look Now would’t have been the same. Didn’t they think about the soaring cost of vertically-challenged people before they employed the seven dwarfs in the first place?”

“Radio 4 didn’t say.”

“That seems a bit remiss of them. Standards are falling at the BBC.”

“Yes,” my friend replied.

“We live in a strange and mysterious world,” I said.

“Yes,” my friend replied.

We had a cup of tea.

Later in the afternoon, in The Lanes, we picked up a leaflet for the Brighton Festival Fringe. At the top, it said: The third largest Fringe in the world.

“Brighton has always been billed as the second biggest,” my friend said.

“You’ve been shamed,” I ventured. “Edinburgh is by far the biggest arts festival in the world and the biggest Fringe. What on earth is the second biggest?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

So we went to Brighton’s always surreal-sounding Vegetarian Shoes shop and stared in the window. Nearby, was a man sitting on the ground outside a Native American shop; he was dressed as a Tibetan lama and was apparently talking on his mobile phone to his girlfriend; he had an English accent.

“They’re very popular in Germany,” my friend told me.

“Tibetan monks?” I asked.

“Native American artifacts.”

“I seem to remember reading,” I said, “that German movie-goers are very fond of Westerns, too. What’s that all about?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

“I can’t help feeling that, if Hitler had dressed in a Red Indian head-dress, it would have undermined his credibility,” I suggested.

My friend looked at me.

She said nothing.

Any news of Nicholas van Hoogstraten?” I asked, as we walked on. I’m always interested in people with unusual lives and my friend had once given me a biography of van Hoogstraten as a Christmas present.

By 1968 (aged 23), he simultaneously became Britain’s youngest millionaire and started a 4-year prison sentence for paying a gang to throw a grenade into the house of Rev Braunstein, a Jewish leader whose eldest son owed him £3,000. He later said of the people who threw the grenade: “These weren’t anarchists: they were businessmen, respectable people.”

In 2002, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the manslaughter by two other men of business rival Mohammed Raja; a jury decided that “although he wanted Mr Raja harmed, he had not wanted him murdered”. He was released in 2004 after successfully appealing against his conviction on the grounds that “there was no foundation for a manslaughter case.” In 2005, Mohammed Raja’s family won £6 million in a civil action against van Hoogstraten after the court found that the balance of probabilities was “that the recruitment of the two thugs was for the purpose of murdering Mr Raja and not merely frightening or hurting him”. Van Hoogstraten reportedly told the BBC that the family would “never get a penny”.

“Is he still in Brighton?” I asked my friend.

“It’s a mystery to me,” my friend said. “Every now and then you hear stories. Some people say he’s in Zimbabwe.”

“Among friends, then,” I said.

“Not any more,” my friend said. “One story is he sold all his assets in this country and put all his money into Zimbabwe because he was so chummy with the regime but they fell out and he lost all his land there.”

The last time I heard van Hoogstraten, he was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme defending Robert Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ policies.

“How’s van Hoogstraten mausoleum?” I asked.

“Crumbling,” my friend said.

By this point, we were passing a bronze statue of the British music hall star Max Miller.

“An interesting place, Brighton,” I said. “Max Miller and Nicholas van Hoogstraten were both equally at home here.”

“Yes,” said my friend.

“Bronze is very colourless for Max Miller,” I said.

“Yes,” said my friend.

Apparently Adelaide is the second biggest Fringe in the world.

And, according to Wikipedia, which is surprisingly accurate on such things, Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been reported to be worth £500 million, “though he has stated that his assets in the UK have all been placed in the names of his children”. His assets in property and farming in Zimbabwe were estimated to be worth over £200 million.

I don’t know what he is worth now or where he is. Nor does my friend.

All I know for certain is that life is tough for dwarfs in Wolverhampton.

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The bum-numbing recording of that IKEA ad and the Auschwitz Factor in live audience shows

What is it with my blog about the TV recording of the IKEA ad which I posted on 10th March – almost a month ago?

I have been blogging seriously (perhaps that’s the wrong word) since December and I now get fairly healthy hits on my blog but, yesterday, the hits went through the roof and early this morning – between midnight yesterday and 0230 this morning – the IKEA blog on its own got more hits than I normally get in an entire day.

Who is up at 0230 apart from me, burglars, comedians and the incontinent?

The answer seems to be that people were re-Tweeting the link to the blog and, also, I got an e-mail from someone saying “Loved your blog… have passed it around the ad industry”.

Maybe ad men have weak bladders and like to see other ad people score own goals.

The hits went even more apeshit later this morning when people other than incontinent ad men woke up.

The irony is I have still not seen the actual ad itself on broadcast TV – only the version on YouTube.

My friend who went with me to the recording is equally bemused about the number of hits on my blog and clearly – possibly permanently – emotionally scarred by the IKEA recording experience, appears to have turned to hallucinogenic drugs because yesterday he asked me:

“Do you think it was a real ad? I’ve not seen it on TV. You’ve not seen it on TV. They surely can’t be broadcasting a furniture ad on television making a joke about women weeing themselves? Maybe they were just pretending to make an ad for some reason and were filming our reactions to it for some other reason. It can’t have been a real ad.”

“But,” I told him. “It’s IKEA. They’re Swedish. They’re not known for their surreal humour.”

“It just can’t have been real.” my friend replied. “Maybe they were researching something. Maybe it was an experiment of some kind. You were there. Did it look like they were filming a real ad.”

“Well…” I said.

But I’m increasingly pleased I was there.

Someone commented yesterday that they couldn’t understand why the audience at the recording didn’t leave.

It’s a very interesting question indeed.

Partly the answer is, I think, that only people on the ends of rows in audience seating can leave without drawing attention to themselves; partly I guess it is because, if a couple leave, it feels to them that it is they who are are the odd ones out, not the people who stay. Partly it may be that, in a bad situation, you simply hope against hope that the horror will diminish.

I guess the main answer is that there is some strange human urge not to move in awful situations: like rabbits in an oncoming car’s headlights. When people are herded together in large groups in a forest or in a camp and know they are going to be killed, by and large, they don’t run. They walk to their deaths. It’s the Auschwitz Factor. I’m sorry if that offends anyone by trivialising the Holocaust, but it’s true. I know they thought they were going into showers at Auschwitz, but the general principle is true. Given the option of certain death if they stay or probable death if they run, people tend to choose certain death. People in forests dug their own graves and stood on the edge of the pits waiting to be shot.

I once sat through Luchino Visconti’s movie The Damned in the totally full late lamented Hampstead Classic cinema. It was the dullest film I have ever seen in my life and, trust me, I have sat through some dull films. Killer Bitch may have had – errm – “mixed reviews” but one thing it certainly ain’t is dull.

The Damned runs 155 minutes: that’s two hours and a very long 35 minutes. It was so dull that, after about four minutes, I actually started to time how long it would be before someone in the movie went into an exterior scene. But I sat through the whole godawful 155 minutes. My problem was I was in the middle of the front row in the balcony and, being British, I didn’t want to cause chaos and draw attention to myself by leaving and getting people to stand up all the way along the row.

It was also a revelation to see how anyone could make a film with mass murder, rape, orgies, Nazis, nudity and every excess you can possibly imagine into such a bum-numbingly dull movie.

Alright, The Damned is the second dullest movie I have ever seen. I actually DID walk out of Football as Never Before (Fußball wie noch nie) after about 40 minutes of tedium. There are limits which even I have.

But, in general, after a certain time has passed, people will sit through something really bad until the bitter end. And ‘bad’ can be good in a masochistic way.

When a really truly bad bad bad comedian is on stage, it draws other comedians who huddle together at the back of the room to watch the car crash of a performance happening in front of their eyes.

In 1980, Peter O’Toole appeared in a stage production of Macbeth at the Old Vic in London which was said to be so awful that people queued there and around the country to see it. I tried to buy a ticket at the time. You couldn’t get one anywhere. It was a box office smash.

As someone who has been involved in live audience shows for TV and for stage – and who spent 20+ years making TV promotions – I was fascinated at the IKEA ad recording to see how inept the production could get and if there were any way they could manage to pull the thing together.

I wanted to see the whole ghastly thing through to the end in case there was any glorious climax where the production team pulled something unexpected out of an invisible hat or the audience turned on the production team, tore them limb from limb and ate their entrails with tomato ketchup (not that there was any tomato ketchup).

After wasting a certain amount of time, you have to calculate if spending more time may result in a lower waste-per-minute average. How that is calculated will probably be studied by some university academic on a £1 million grant. If you hear of that happening, please tell me as I’d like to share a bit of that dosh and make my IKEA ad time worthwhile.

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The Prime Minister, sex, sleaze, prostitutes and Boris Johnson

A friend of mine – an Englishman in Italy – used to work for a large international conglomerate and, in the 1990s, once had to take a briefcase stuffed with cash to Rome Airport and hand it over to a civil servant. Everyone accepted that was how the wheels were greased. That was how the Italian state worked.

I also used to know someone involved with an Italian TV show which had to employ a girlfriend of now-deceased Prime Minister Bettino Craxi on their series. In fact, that underestimates her role: she actually arranged orgies for Prime Minister Craxi. My chum thought, “Ooh, now there’s a big secret I know about!” But then he discovered everyone knew about the supposed ‘scandal’ and it was almost routinely printed in Italian newspapers and magazines; everyone just accepted it. That was how the Italian state worked.

So I am a tad surprised as well as being in moral confusion about the current Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s problems.

He is immensely entertaining, which is always a bonus in my eyes. A bit like London’s current mayor Boris Johnson but with dyed hair. My heart takes flight when I hear any news item about either Boris or Silvio. I just know it’s going to be knockabout laugh-a-minute stuff.

But now Silvio is accused of having sex with an under-aged prostitute. This is not good. He faces a court case and a potential 15 years in prison. This is definitely not good.

The age of consent in Italy is generally 14, though 13-year-olds can legally have sex with partners who are less than three years older. This seems much too low to me but, if that is the law in Italy, then that is what good Italians Catholics have decided is morally acceptable. As I understand it, the girl involved in the Berlusconi case was 17 when the alleged sex took place and, while prostitution is legal in Italy – just as it is in the UK – it is illegal in Italy for a man to have sex with a prostitute under 18.

So the girl involved was three years over the general age of consent but one year under the legal age for sexual consent as a prostitute. This seems a very complicated moral quagmire within Italy, though I can see why sex with a prostitute under 18 is proscribed.

However, both Silvio and the girl totally deny sex took place. If they both deny it, then quite how evidence can be presented that it did take place I don’t know. There was a payment of £6,000 but apparently well after the alleged sex allegedly happened and Silvio and the girl both claim the payment was connected to something totally different. He also got her released from police custody in a separate incident, but that is more abuse of power than directly relevant the sex charges. It’s all a bit murky but sounds too circumstantial for a prosecution.

They could be lying through their teeth, of course, though I’m not sure why a young prostitute would not admit sex took place if she is going to become rich on selling the whole story to the media.

There is also the question in my mind of why on earth Silvio Berlsconi would have to pay for sex with a girl. Call me cynical, but the man is a billionaire, he owns a string of high-profile populist TV stations so he can get anyone he wants onto TV and he is the most powerful politician in the country! Any one of those three facts, in my experience, would mean lithe young nymphettes would be throwing themselves at him for free every day! The casting couch stretches beyond the movie business.

Heavens! Nymphettes throw themselves at impoverished comedians in dodgy basement clubs on a nightly basis let alone powerful billionaires who can get them on several national television series.

BBC News reported that Silvio Berlusconi reckons he has been in court over 2,500 times during various cases over the years. He has been accused of tax fraud, corruption, infidelity, Mafia involvement, you name it. I’m surprised he hasn’t been accused of illegally importing birds’ eggs. At least once he was accused of paying bribes on behalf of his companies at a time when no large company in Italy could operate without paying bribes. It struck me as a purely politically-motivated prosecution. That was/is how the Italian state worked/works.

Last year he was accused of being a member of an alleged secret organisation allegedly called P3 – a revival, it was said, of the infamous Masonic lodge P2 – Propaganda Due which existed from 1946 to at least 1981 and of which Silvio really was a member.

I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of the current charges. He is certainly not an innocent man in general. And Italy – run by P2 and the Mafia from the end of the Second World War to perhaps the mid-70s – is most certainly not an innocent country.

P2 comprised prominent politicians, industrialists, bankers, journalists and military leaders, the heads of all three Italian intelligence services and even the pretender to the Italian throne. In 1977, P2 took over the influential Corriere della Sera newspaper; it was rumoured to be involved in the 1982 killing of ‘God’s banker’ Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London, and it even had rumoured links to the 1980 bombing of Bologna railway station and the 1978 killing of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the heavily-infiltrated Red Brigades (allegedly because he had started to talk about NATO’s secret Gladio network).

It feels to me that Silvio is being stitched-up at the moment. He may very well be a reprehensible, ageing sleazeball, but this is a case where every fact seems to swirl in very muddied waters indeed.

It is not as if Silvio Berlusconi was running a prostitution racket, is it…

Is it?

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