Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Gordon Brown tells of day he invited notorious burglar into his parents' home

Gordon Brown tells of day he invited notorious burglar into his parents' home

By Kirsty Walker and Nicholas Cecil
Last updated at 6:22 PM on 30th December 2008

A young Gordon Brown in 1960. He has told how he invited a notorious burglar into his home as a child

A young Gordon Brown in 1960. He has told how he invited a notorious burglar into his home as a child

Gordon Brown has revealed how he unknowingly invited a notorious burglar into his family home when he was a ten-year-old boy.

The Prime Minister said that his father John Brown, a Church of Scotland minister, had encouraged him to open the family manse to all those in need.

In a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview, he said: "People used to come to our house … and ask for money, ask for help, ask for all sorts of different things.

"Every day something different was happening and you came to a very clear view that you had responsibilities in the community and you had to do the best you can to help people.

"In fact one day I was taking up my father's advice and my parents were out, and someone came to the door, and I just offered them 'come in and have some food'.

"It ended up with my parents coming back and discovering that the most notorious burglar in the town had actually been invited in by me to come and have some food."

Mr Brown reflected: "He didn't, fortunately, steal anything."

The Prime Minister’s childhood encounter with a burglar has echoes of Oliver Letwin’s decision to allow a man into his Kennington home at 5am because he wanted to go to the lavatory.

The incident, which took place when Mr Letwin was shadow home secretary, saw him chasing two men down the street in his pyjamas after they stole his wallet.

Mr Brown also spoke about his vow to oppose any new law to legalise assisted suicide. 'It is not really for us to create any legislation that would put pressure on people to feel that they had to offer themselves because they were causing trouble to a relative or anything else,' he said.

Brown tells of day he invited burglar into his parents' home


Brown tells of day he invited burglar into his parents' home

Nicholas Cecil, Chief Political Correspondent

GORDON Brown today told how as a child he let a notorious burglar into his parents' home.

The Prime Minister said he was acting on the advice of his father John, a Presbyterian minister in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

"Somebody came to the door and I just offered them, 'come in and have some food,'" he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It ended up my parents coming back and discovering that the most notorious burglar in the town had actually been invited in by me.

"He fortunately did not steal anything."

The Prime Minister's childhood encounter with a burglar has echoes of Oliver Letwin's decision to allow a man into his Kennington home at 5am because he wanted to go to the lavatory.

The incident, which took place when Mr Letwin was shadow home secretary, saw him chasing two men down the street in his pyjamas after they stole his wallet.

Mr Brown also spoke about his vow to oppose any new law to legalise assisted suicide.

"It is not really for us to create any legislation that would put pressure on people to feel that they had to offer themselves because they were causing trouble to a relative or anything else," he said.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Financial crisis: The Z to A of the year the world turned upside down

Financial crisis: The Z to A of the year the world turned upside down

Have this year's horror stories left you lost for words? Alistair Osborne and Jonathan Sibun reveal their lexicon of a turbulent 12 months.

1 of 5 Images
An Indian take-away, as eaten by bankers and Treasury bosses while drawing up the £500bn bank rescue.
An Indian take-away, as eaten by bankers and Treasury bosses while drawing up the £500bn bank rescue. Photo: JIMMY GASTON

A is for Angina. Well, it was that kind of year. One look at the stock exchange screens and who didn't feel "a sudden intense pain in the chest caused by a momentary lack of adequate blood supply to the heart muscle''? (Collins dictionary).

For Stephen Crawshaw, his dicky ticker was the real McCoy. Bradford & Bingley's former chief executive quit with chest pains just as the mortgage lender's £400m rescue rights issue went disastrously wrong. Eventually launched at the third attempt, all the cash-call brought was a stay of execution. On September 29, B&B joined Northern Rock as a nationalised bank.

B&B's ex-chairman Rod Kent had his own liquidity problems. He told analysts Crawshaw was "seriously not well", then interrupted the conference call for a pee.

B is for Balti, as in balti bail-out. Treasury mandarins finalised Britain's £500bn bank rescue job in the early hours of October 8 over a takeaway curry from Gandhi's restaurant in Kennington.

That other B, Flash Gordon (Brown), produced £250bn of government guarantees to chivvy the banks into lending to each other; £200bn of "liquidity" from the Bank of England gushers; and most controversially, £50bn from the taxpayer to take stakes in Britain's banks. Royal Bank of Scotland and the new Lloyds/TSB combo shared £37bn, becoming partially nationalised in the process, but Barclays didn't think much of the UK chequebook or the strings attached. Barclays boss John Varley tapped up some Middle Eastern cash instead, which took 30pc of the bank. The shareholders' reaction? They rocked the casbah.

The British balti proved the recipe elsewhere, with Europe, America and the Far East chucking some £5,000bn at their own failing financials. Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary, tried to hide the nation's problems under a $700bn (£475bn) scrap of tarpaulin but his Tarp (Troubled Assets Relief Program) just wasn't big enough.

C is for Chelsea, as in the now-flattened Barracks. Back in August 2007, the interior design world's favourite pair of Cs the Candy Brothers masterminded the eye-popping £950m purchase of the former army parade ground, which lurks just a stone's throw from Buck House. Nobody could quite believe how much they had paid.

A year on, as the commercial property market turned to rubble, Nick and Christian Candy quietly sold on their stake in the Chelsea joint venture, claiming their strategy had "evolved considerably over the past two years".

Other property companies whose strategy "evolved considerably" included Spain's Metrovacesa. It was forced to hand back the HSBC tower it had bought for £1.1bn just a year earlier at a £250m loss.

D is for Drill, as in Drill, Baby, Drill the Republican energy slogan chanted by Sarah Palin supporters at the vice presidential debate.

While Palin and co were not going to let a few polar bears get in the way, over at BP/TNK, Bob Dudley was having a few problems with a different kind of bear the Russian variety. He was struggling to do any drilling at all kinda tricky when you're run out of town and forced into hiding.

Dudley, BP/TNK's former boss, found himself at the centre of an extraordinary power struggle between the UK oil explorer and a group of Russian oligarchs that jointly owned the venture. Police raids, back-tax demands, legal action by a minority shareholder, and refusals to renew visas were just a few of the highlights before Dudley quit.

The dispute started when oil prices were soaring towards a record $147 a barrel, since when it has fallen by more than $100. So much for the "commodity supercycle", which now looks more like a trike. Rapid commodity price deflation did for one mega-deal. Rio Tinto boldy rebuffed an offer from BHP in February, claiming it undervalued its prospects. Rio's shares have plunged by three quarters since not least because BHP walked away.

E is for Easy, as in easy, tiger. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, a self-styled Serial E (entrepreneur), got in a right flap about the 109 "aluminium tubes with wings and engines" easyJet has on order. Stelios picked a fight with the board of the airline he founded, where he is still a non-exec.

With his family owning 38pc, Stelios muscled in with calls for two extra board seats, a slowdown in growth and a dividend by 2011. His call for a payout boomeranged, forcing him into angry denials that he was running out of cash. "It is very unfortunate I put the word 'dividend' in my letter, because it's a non-issue,'' he later said.

F is for Ford Ka. Or a Bond girl in a Ford Ka to be precise. If ever there was a vision to shake the US car makers from their ill-conceived fascination with gas guzzlers, the sight of Olga Kurylenko driving a fuel-efficient Ka should have done it.

The Quantum of Solace wake-up-call came too late. By the end of the year Chrysler, General Motors and Ford were dangerously close to running out of gas.

Trading figures from Volvo told the story. The Ford subsidiary said orders for its trucks fell from 42,000 in the third quarter of 2007 to just 115 in the same period a year later. The US Treasury's decision to loan two of the "Big 3" $17.4bn (£11.8bn) gave GM and Chrysler a bit more road. But not enough.

G is for Gorilla, as Lehman Brothers' combative chief executive Dick Fuld was known. The bank's collapse on September 15 pushed the financial crisis over the edge. In a madcap two weeks, Merrill Lynch rushed into the rescuing arms of Bank of America, insurer AIG was bailed out by the US state, JP Morgan bought assets of Washington Mutual, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to wholesale banks, drawing the era of investment banking to a close.

All this craziness followed JP Morgan's purchase of Bear Stearns whose boss Jimmy Cayne found time for a bridge tournament while the bank was collapsing and the state bail-outs of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

H is for Haslemere. When the £4m Haslemere home of BT's then-chief executive appeared for sale in Country Life, the company denied it meant that Ben Verwaayen was on his way. Just 13 days later, he was out. "Seriously,'' the Dutchman protested afterwards, "this had nothing to do with the situation." Verwaayen, who was replaced by Ian Livingston, was not the only FTSE 100 boss on the move this year. At Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred the Shred made way for British Land's Stephen Hester, which in turn named banker Chris Grigg as chief executive; Vittorio Colao took charge from Arun Sarin at Vodafone; and Andrew Witty took the reins at GlaxoSmithKline.

I is for Islands, as in Islas Malvinas. The Falkland Islands former governor Richard Ralph was fined a precise £117,691.41 by the Financial Services Authority for being no great diplomat when it came to a bit of inside info.

Ralph, a former Falklands' Governor, asked a friend to buy shares in Monterrico Metals, the Aim-listed miner he chaired from August 2006 just before its £93m sale to China's Zijin Consortium.

Ralph was only a Conference League scandal compared to the big daddy accused of making off with $50bn.

He was Bernard Madoff, the former Nasdaq chairman, frequently dubbed a legend of Wall Street. He's a legend now all right after his record-breaking alleged fraud. Nobody apart from himself, he admitted, knew about his Ponzi scheme.

J is for Judo, the martial art practised by rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel who left Société Générale nursing losses of €4.9bn (£4.67bn) after allegedly perpetrating the largest fraud in banking history.

Kerviel became an unlikely hero for many, starring in a comic book and prompting thousands of women to proclaim "Jerome, je t'aime" in internet posts.

Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer described Kerviel, 31, as a "genius of fraud" but the rogue trader's actions sparked claims SG's management had turned a blind eye to his trades.

In a CV circulated in the City, the rogue trader highlighted his judo teaching skills. They could come in useful.

K is for Ken, as in Livingstone, the man grounded by upmarket airline Silverjet and then by the London electorate. Lawrence Hunt, the former Silverjet chief, tried to ban the former Mayor after Livingstone declared his journey to New York the "worst flight of my life". Then Hunt was grounded himself when Silverjet followed rivals MAXjet and Eos into bankruptcy, in a year in which the one-time soaring oil price contributed to more than 30 airline failures. They included XL Airways and Zoom, in what British Airways boss Willie Walsh declared "the worst trading environment the industry has ever seen".

Walsh brought the world the Terminal 5 opening day fiasco, in a joint production with BAA, and then spent much of the year trying to pull off a foursome with Iberia, Qantas and American Airlines. None of his affairs are yet consummated and Qantas has fallen out of bed.

Rivals were less ambitious, with Lufthansa adding Bmi to its hangar.

L is for Lord, as in the return of the Lord of Darkness, aka Peter Mandelson. The yacht-loving prince of spin swapped Brussels for the trickier role of pretending to be Gordon Brown's new best friend.

Newly enobled, the slippery Business Secretary made his third return to the cabinet in October. Within two days, he stole the headlines when he was rushed to hospital to have a kidney stone operation. He recovered just in time to embarrass shadow chancellor George Osborne.

Mandelson disclosed the foolish Tory had failed to solicit a party donation from Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, whose luxury yacht-based hospitality both had recently enjoyed (Osborne for two hours and Mandelson for two days).

His Lordship can empathise with people now defaulting on their mortgages. Unluckily for the hoi polloi, friends like ex-Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson - who gave Mandy his undisclosed, £373,000, interest-free loan - are now thinner on the ground.

Robbo made his fortune working for state-owned British Leyland and Jaguar Cars. Jaguar now wants the favour returned and is tapping up Mandy for a loan.

M is for Mallorca. As in Real. The Spanish football club was the latest to be left in limbo by the credit crisis after its planned takeover by British entrepreneur Paul Davidson alias "The Plumber" stalled.

Mallorca wasn't the only club to have the plug pulled on its financial plans. West Ham lost up to £6.5m after Icelandic airline and shirt sponsor XL Leisure collapsed, while Manchester United may be on the lookout for a new partner after AIG was put on US state support.

The only group to benefit from the financial crisis was football statisticians as the West Brom versus West Ham fixture became the first played by two Premiership teams without a shirt sponsor.

N is for the 90pc Club. This was the exclusive members club that no one wanted to join FTSE 100 companies that lost 90pc-plus from their three-year highs.

While the blue-chip index fell a third, bankers, builders and beer servers found the going tougher as the cheap debt binge dried up. Royal Bank of Scotland, Taylor Wimpey and Enterprise Inns took membership, with miner Ferrexpo and Yellow Pages publisher Yell Group getting in on the act.

Some of Britain's leading entrepreneurs suffered similar hardship. Joe Lewis lost £500m following the collapse of US bank Bear Stearns, while property tycoon Robbie Tchenguiz saw investments in Mitchells & Butlers and Sainsbury's turn sour. Dawnay Day founders Guy Nagger and Peter Klimt were others to feel the pinch.

O is for Orgy, as in the admission from Formula 1 governing body chief Max Mosley that he bought jackets for his prison orgy from Marks & Spencer. That triggered widespread guffawing that: "This wasn't just an orgy but an M&S orgy."

It was another unwelcome distraction for S&M - woops, M&S - in a year full of them. It started with a badly received trading update and never really perked up. Sir Stuart Rose, M&S's executive chairman, caused a furore among shareholders in the summer when he stepped up from the CEO's role without proper consultation, and then the chain was forced to dismiss a whistleblower after leaks about a change to its redundancy terms hit the press. The exit of George Davies, controversy over Rose's Lucky Voice karaoke stake and the departure of M&S's head of food made it a year to forget - even without the poor sales.

P is for Patsy, something former Royal Bank of Scotland chairman Sir Tom McKillop most certainly ain't. When the non-execs were criticised for not standing up to RBS's domineering former-chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin over the bank's £12bn April rights issue, Sir Tom declared: "We're not patsies." Six months later, RBS was rescued by the taxpayer, which now owns 58pc of the bank.

Sir Tom had changed his tune by then. "Both personally and in the office I hold, I am profoundly sorry about the position that we have reached," Sir Tom told long-suffering shareholders in November. Even Goodwin got into the spirit of things, saying he was "extremely, extremely sorry".

Q is for the Quid, which has been anything but quids-in this year. Sterling has had the worst 12 months since Britain abandoned the Gold Standard in 1931, as the currency devalued by an alarming 23pc. The main reason was the Bank of England taking the chainsaw to interest rates, hacking three percentage points off in as many months as Britain faced up to recession. Bank rate is now just 2pc.

In the US the Federal Reserve cut its borrowing costs to zero for the first time in history.

Bank Governor Mervyn King sees sterling devaluation boosting the economy. The shadow chancellor George Osborne fears a run on the pound. Whatever, it's downhill for European skiing hols. The pound is close to parity with the euro.

R is for Ross. Not Jonathan, you fool, but the City's own Wossygate. David Ross, the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, forgot it was good to talk, neglecting to tell the boards of four public companies where he was a director that he had pledged his shares in those firms against personal loans.

Forgetfulness or not, Ross stepped down from the mobile phone retailer, National Express and Big Yellow, while relinquishing the chairman's role at Cosalt.

Non-disclosure was also behind the resignation of chairman Sean FitzPatrick of Anglo Irish Bank.

FitzPatrick resigned, having concealed €87m (£83m) of personal loans from the bank he led for 21 years – even though Anglo insisted the loans did not breach banking or legal regulations.

S is for Sex reassignment surgery. It was the latest perk for the banking community before the credit crisis put paid to anything from colour photocopies to first-class travel.

Goldman Sachs' decision to offer sex changes to retain top talent raised a few eyebrows but surprise quickly turned to shock as the credit crisis unfolded.

Thousands of jobs were scythed as banks jettisoned staff while the lucky ones were handed doughnuts - City slang for zero bonuses.

Bankers who survived 2008 with their jobs intact were left fearing that regulators and politicians could put an end to the bonus culture for good.

T is for Terrorist legislation, invoked by Gordon Brown at the height of the Iceland meltdown, when three of the island's banks collapsed, trapping £6bn belonging to UK savers.

Use of such laws - intended to stop terrorists laundering money - was the start of a diplomatic war with Iceland over who was liable to compensate the savers.

Those who had long suspected that the land of Björk and the Blue Lagoon may be an illusory economic miracle had their suspicions realised when the volcano finally erupted.

Iceland's government seized Glitnir, the nation's third largest bank, swiftly followed by the requisition of number two, Landsbanki, and the biggest, Kaupthing.

Brown's hardline approach drew accusations of being bullying and – would you believe it – "not pleasant" from his opposite number in Iceland, Geir Haarde. It was finally agreed that Iceland would pay the first €18,000, with the Brits making up the rest.

As Iceland's banks and currency collapsed, UK companies were caught in the cross-fire. Icelandic investor Baugur had stakes in a string of retailers, including Hamleys and House of Fraser, while West Ham United FC was owned by a man formerly known as an Icelandic billionaire.

Iceland accepted an IMF bail-out, as did Pakistan, Hungary, Ukraine and Latvia.

U is for U-turn, Labour's modus operandi when it comes to tax issues. Chancellor Alistair Darling started the year with a swift reversal of his disastrous changes to capital gains tax that would have seen entrepreneurs stung for 18pc when they sold their businesses. Then he softened some of the proposed tax changes for those delightful non-doms.

By the time of the pre-Budget report, "not tonight" Darling was watering down rules on the taxation of foreign dividends that had triggered an exodus of companies, including WPP, Shire and UBM.

Then came the final about-turn. Darling cut VAT from 17.5pc to 15pc in an attempt to kickstart our spending. But then what? Up popped some Treasury document, showing Labour secretly planned a rise in VAT to 18.5pc in 2011, only to change tack at the last minute.

V is for Volkswagen, which for a few bizarre moments in October became the biggest company in the world. The reason? Porsche revealed it had secretly built a 75pc stake in the company.

Hedge funds, which had shorted nearly 13pc of VW, scrambled to get out of the biggest short-squeeze ever, causing the shares to go from 0 to 60 in about three seconds. Porsche netted a 50pc boost in profits just when its rivals were burning out.

The episode was just one cause of the bloodletting in the hedge fund sector. Not only hit hard by market volatility, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and vanishing risk appetite among investors, hedge funds were also blamed for compounding the financial crisis. In September short-selling financial stocks was banned in America and Britain, wrecking whole strategies. The once-proud $1,700bn hedge funds sector ended the year with its worst performance ever, 1,000 liquidations and its reputation severely pruned.

W is for Wire Act, the US legislation passed in 1961 that America claims online gamblers contravene. Having outlawed internet gambling in 2006, the US authorities landed their biggest scalp only a fortnight ago when Anurag Dikshit, one of PartyGaming's four founders, agreed to a $300m fine - and a possible two-year prison sentence.

"I understand that what I did was wrong," said Dikshit - who has taken £524m out of the internet poker and casino group - to the consternation of the other founders.

X is for Xtinct. Dozens of household name retail chains have disappeared from the high street over the course of the year and 2009 does not look like it will be any easier. Woolworths, MFI, Fads, The Pier, Hardy Amies and Rosebys have all gone into administration, leading to thousands of job losses and gaping holes on the high street. Whittard, The Officers' Mess – woops, Club – and Adams became the latest victims.

Y is for Yang, Yahoo and Yell, the latter being the default position of the meejah world. Google's dominance in search advertising prompted wannabee rival Yahoo! to enter talks with Microsoft.
As corporations and consumers come under increasing pressure as the economic downturn strikes, advertising has been hit dramatically. Everyone, from ITV to Yell, is fighting the mighty Google.

Z is for Zhao Danyang. The Chinese fund manager paid $2.1m for lunch with billionaire investor Warren Buffett in the most expensive charity auction ever held on eBay.

With the global financial markets in meltdown, Mr Buffett took stakes in Goldman Sachs and General Electric on terms many investors could previously only have dreamed of. "The party is over," the Sage of Omaha pronounced. "Be greedy when others are fearful."

Additional reporting by Philip Aldrick, Graham Ruddick, Garry White, Helia Ebrahimi, Richard Tyler, James Hall, Edmund Conway, Rowena Mason, Louise Armitstead, Jo Moulds and Amanda Andrews.

Fagin goes forth in the West End

Profile: Rowan Atkinson

Fagin goes forth in the West End

The great comic actor, best known for his Blackadder and Mr Bean, is set to take on the role of the miserly criminal mastermind in Oliver! But off-stage, he shuns publicity and is happiest at home with his vintage cars

Rowan Atkinson

Rowan Atkinson Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

A week in the life of Rowan Atkinson. On Christmas Day, he and his wife Sunetra slipped quietly into a school in Kennington, south London, to bring some cheer to 2,000 troubled children brought together by the charity Kids Company. The comedian's eyes welled up with tears, said one witness.

That night, Atkinson was interviewed for a BBC1 documentary celebrating 25 years of the comedy classic Blackadder. Looking ill at ease in the role of Rowan Atkinson, he made the surprising disclosure that there was at least one episode of Blackadder Goes Forth he had never seen until he happened to find it on his in-flight entertainment. "I'm not a great laugher, sadly," he admitted, "but I might have sniggered at it, which was my way of saying that was very funny."

And yesterday he was due on stage for two preview performances of the musical Oliver!, produced by Cameron Mackintosh at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It is testimony to his status as king of British comedy that, with little pedigree of stage acting and less singing, he is set to become the biggest attraction in London's West End as the Jewish miser, Fagin. Unlike Alec Guinness in the controversial 1948 screen adaptation of Oliver Twist, Atkinson does not wear a prosthetic nose.

"I think the thing people will be most surprised about is the complexity of the character," Rupert Goold, the production's director, told the Observer. "I'm sure they expect him to be funny, but he's delivered something that is really complex. Like Shylock, it's one of those parts that you'd have a problematic relationship with because it's been used as a rod to beat Jewish identity with. You can't shy away from that. In the last preview I saw, Rowan had lost a little bit of his Jewish accent and I wanted that to come back because I don't think it is an unsympathetic portrayal."

Seldom has a performer been as inscrutably determined as Atkinson to let his work do the talking. An appearance on ITV1's This Morning sofa became tortuous whenever the actor was asked a remotely personal question. He once refused to tell a journalist how many children he has. On another occasion, the Observer approached him at a party with an innocuous question about Blackadder; after an excruciatingly long pause, he replied: "No comment." Even on Blue Peter, he appeared as Mr Bean rather than himself. His private persona, says Goold, is sometimes "like a ghost".

Another Blackadder documentary, on the G.O.L.D. channel earlier this year, featured interviews with its writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and cast members including Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson. All the old gang, in fact, except Atkinson.

Why the reticence? The evidence suggests that there is no great enigma, no great cliche about inner turmoil and the tears of a clown. Atkinson, who turns 54 next week, simply seems to lack the showbiz gene. He has a private hinterland of fast cars and family and the key to his brilliance may be that he sees it as nothing more and nothing less than a job. Goold added: "He's got something that's really important in comedy, which is taste, partly because he's a very self-contained private man, so you don't feel he's somebody who's desperate for a laugh.

'Some comedians are so eager to have you love them that they'll push that to the nth degree, whatever that takes, whereas with Rowan you feel he enjoys it like he enjoys the purr of the engine of one of his beloved cars. It's a personal experience for him and that means he's indifferent to vulgarity and cheap laughs."

Tony Robinson, whose Baldrick tormented Blackadder with every "cunning plan", echoes the sentiment. "He's one of the few mega performers who genuinely has a full and fulfilling life away from showbusiness," he said last week. "In my experience, I can't tell you how rare that is. He has a beautiful wife and family and good on him. Yet he remains for me the consummate comedy performer of his generation."

Robinson added: "He's a very shy man, so it's not like the first time that you meet someone such as Rik Mayall or Mel Smith where you've overwhelmed by the force of their personality. When he's not working, you are unlikely to realise that he's in the room, but as soon as he starts, all attention focuses on him, partly because of this extraordinary supreme talent that he's got."

Performing was not in his blood. Atkinson was the third son growing up on a 400-acre farm and attended Durham's Chorister School aged 11, where he was teased by fellow pupils who thought he looked like an alien. Two years above him was Tony Blair, described by the school's headmaster as "outgoing" compared with Atkinson, who was "shy with a slight stutter". He went to Newcastle University and studied engineering, before arriving at Queen's College, Oxford, for an MSc in engineering science.

When he turned up at the Oxford sketch writing group, he reminded fellow student Richard Curtis of a cushion: sitting on a chair and saying nothing. Curtis recalled: "I thought he was a stuffed toy because he didn't say anything for the first three meetings - just a curiously shaped object in the corner. Then just when we were trying to decide what the material should be, and we'd all been handing in sketches for months, Rowan actually stood up and did two absolutely astonishing sketches."

Atkinson dazzled at the Edinburgh Festival and toured with Angus Deayton as his straight man. At Amnesty International's benefit, The Secret Policeman's Ball, in 1979 he performed a hilarious sketch as a headmaster addressing a room of schoolboys. He then joined Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson in the vanguard of alternative comedy, the sketch series Not the Nine O'Clock News. Two years later, he became the youngest performer to have a one-man show in the West End.

Then came four series as Edmund Blackadder in the sprawling comical chronicle of English history now regarded as a gold-plated classic, ranking with or even surpassing Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers. By the final series, set in the First World War trenches, Atkinson found in the character a cynical antihero worthy of Catch-22's Yossarian. The climax touched greatness with Blackadder pretending to be mad in a failed bid to get out of the maddest situation in history.

"I just remember feeling the impending doom over my character," Atkinson said. "I remember feeling this strange knot in the pit of my stomach. It was the first time as an actor that I had felt the predicament of my character. I was going to die at the end of the week."

It has since been observed that the world is divided into two irreconcilable schools: fans of Blackadder and fans of Atkinson's next manifestation, Mr Bean. The former, which started on BBC2, was Oxbridge satire with clever wordplay in the tradition of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Monty Python. The latter, on ITV, was physical humour with minimal dialogue in the tradition of Benny Hill. It has shown a similar ability to cross cultural boundaries, gaining audiences in a hundred countries. The 1997 film version, Bean, took £152m to become the most lucrative British film of all time and was followed by Mr Bean's Holiday last year.

Atkinson, whose Eurosceptic brother Rodney is a former UK Independence Party candidate, made a rare foray into politics when he campaigned successfully against the government's proposals to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred", arguing that they would in effect criminalise the telling of Catholic, Jewish or Muslim jokes. He has had a mild flop, with the BBC TV series The Thin Blue Line and made several Hollywood appearances, although he once opined that the only film he was really proud of being in was Four Weddings and a Funeral

His 15 per cent stake in the film and TV company Tiger Aspect has helped generated a personal fortune estimated at anywhere from £65m to £100m. On a typical day, he is likely to be relaxing at his Chelsea townhouse or driving go-karts round the tennis court of his country pile, a former rectory in the Oxfordshire village of Waterperry.

The actor's great extravagance is collecting vintage cars and driving them at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. John Lloyd, his long-time producer, once summed Atkinson up thus: "He is certainly not a workaholic. He once said to me that he wasn't bothered about going into showbusiness, but it was the only way he could find of affording the cars he wanted. I think that's why, in interviews, he doesn't think his private life is anybody's business. There's no article to be written airing his dirty laundry. He's just a blameless family guy."

So don't expect Atkinson to treat the first-night reviews of Oliver!, including his ability to sing "You've got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys" eight times a week, as a matter of life and death. But equally, expect something special from a man who, like the best of wits, has nothing to declare but his genius.

The Atkinson Lowdown

Born: Rowan Sebastian Atkinson in Gosforth, near Newcastle, on 6 January 1955, the youngest of three sons of farmers Eric and Ella Atkinson. He married Sunestra Sastry, a make-up artist on Blackadder, at the Russian Tea Room in New York in 1990; they have two children, Lily and Benjamin.

Best of times: Critically, Blackadder, in which Atkinson coined immortal comic lines such as: "He's madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of last year's Mr Madman Competition." Commercially, Mr Bean, in which his rubber face and elastic body earned comparisons with Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel.

Worst of times: A 1986 attempt to crack Broadway ended three weeks after New York Times critic Frank Rich condemned his "toilet humour". In 2001, the pilot of a Cessna plane in which Atkinson and his family were flying from Mombasa to Nairobi passed out, but Atkinson took the controls and saved the day.

What he says: "Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing in showbusiness. It's as though I wandered in accidentally and there's no way out. People who meet me think, 'What a miserable git.'"

What they say: "Rowan has not one ounce of showbiz in his life. It is as if God had an extra jar of comic talent and for a joke gave it to a nerdy, anoraked northern chemist." Stephen Fry, Blackadder co-star and best man at Atkinson's wedding.

The Observer Profile: Rowan Atkinson takes on the role of Fagin in the West End

This article was first published on at 00.01 GMT on Sunday 28 December 2008. It appeared in the Observer on Sunday 28 December 2008 on p33 of the 7 days section. It was last updated at 00.05 GMT on Monday 29 December 2008.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Vauxhall City Farm AGM

165 Tyers Street, London SE11 5HS

Tel 020 7582 4204 Email

Dear Friends of Vauxhall City Farm

AGM – 24th January 2009

We would like to inform the local community and members of the Farm that the 2008/9 Annual General Meeting will be held at the farm in the classroom.

Date: January 24th 2009

Time: 1pm to 4pm

Where: Vauxhall City Farm Classroom

We hope to see you there. For further information, or to confirm your attendance, please call 020 7582 4204 or email

Monday 18th December 2008

Dear Member/ Friend of Vauxhall City Farm

Notice of Annual General Meeting

Vauxhall City Farm’s Annual General Meeting will be held in the classroom at the Farm on Saturday 24th January 2009 from 1pm to 4pm.

The official business will commence at 2.15pm and the agenda for this will be:

1. Introductions and apologies

2. Minutes of last year’s meeting

3. Chairman’s report

4. Treasurer’s report

5. Director’s report

6. Appointment of Auditor

7. Election of Officers: Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, Secretary, Treasurer

8. Election of Trustees

9. Any other business

I hope that you will be able to attend and look forward to seeing you.

Yours faithfully

Linda Banks, Company Secretary

Name: ……………………………….. I will / will not attend AGM

Address: ………………………………………………………………………..


Postcode: …………………………….. Borough: …………………………

Friday, 26 December 2008

Great-grandmother, 99, discovers birthday is wrong

Great-grandmother, 99, discovers birthday is wrong

A great-grandmother had to postpone her 100th birthday party after discovering that she had been celebrating on the wrong day for her entire life.

Great-grandmother, 99, discovers birthday is wrong
Elsie said the news made her party more enjoyable Photo: MASONS NEWS SERVICE

Elsie Aslett's relatives applied for her to receive a congratulatory telegram from the Queen on Dec 14, the date she had always marked.

But pensions staff sent out to check the request uncovered her original birth certificate, which recorded the date as Dec 18 1908 - four days later than she had been told.

Relatives believe that her mother Elizabeth White, whom they described as "rather fond of her drink", may have confused dates between her eight children. She did not register Elsie's birth at Kennington Registry office in London until January 25 1909.

There are no living relatives to confirm which is the correct date, so the family have decided to go with the official record.

Elsie, a former shop assistant at Woolworths, said the news came as a shock but only made her party more enjoyable.

"It was all a bit of a surprise. You never doubt your date of birth. But it meant I could milk my celebrations for longer and draw them out for four days," she said.

The great-grandmother-of-14 and grandmother-of-four now lives with her son Jay, 70, and his wife Brenda, 69, in Watlington, Norfolk.

"It was a complete surprise to her. Everyone always told her she was born on the fourteenth," Brenda said.

"Her mum was rather fond of her drink so we can only imagine she was a bit merry when she went to register the birthday and got confused."

Elsie, who is still agile and active, was surrounded by more than 40 family members and friends when she had her official birthday party last week.

She lost her husband Frederick, a printer's warehouse manager, 19 years ago when he was 79.

Mark Bolland's best restaurants of 2008

Mark Bolland's best restaurants of 2008

Patterson's, The Sands End, St Alban...the best restaurants of the year...

If you want the best value in town, then head for Gilmour's, just of the Fulham Road

People are always asking me which is my 'favourite' London restaurant. Sadly, there's no one magical, do-it-all place that will guarantee perfection. You choose your venue according to your mood, your needs and, of course, your choice of dining companion.

If you want the best value in town, then head for Gilmour's, a new restaurant with an impressive pedigree, just off the Fulham Road. Amid cool colours such as turquoise and amethyst, you can sit in serene comfort and eat massive portions of delicious food. A monster surf 'n' turf (burger and lobster), original soup, and treacle tart oozing with syrup and fresh from the oven: here you'll find farmhouse cooking in the centre of Sloaneville.

The Botanist on Sloane Square
The Botanist on Sloane Square (© Corbis)
Venture a little further towards Sloane Square and you will find the best all-day eating in The Botanist, in an outstandingly pretty room. Study the backlit panels of stained glass showing fauna and flora while enjoying a mouthwatering variety of food. Brunch is especially good. There's a brilliant eggs Benedict, and fruit-filled, meltingly sweet blueberry muffins that you could happily feed to a homesick North American. If it's lively and eclectic you're after, then 32 Great Queen Street is the place. The big, faded main room has a Spanish feel - and a few tables jostle for space on the pavement. Menus change daily and the food is simple, seasonal and scrumptious. On a blazing summer's evening I sat outside and ate perfect asparagus and ordered a plate of chips so good the couple on the next table were moved to ask if they could try one.

As a confirmed carnivore, I was surprised and delighted to find that two of the most taste-bud tingling meals of my life were marvellously meat-free. Step forward Saf and New Tayyabs, the best East End vegetarian restaurants. Saf is vegan and right-on (you sense Feng Shui experts had a hand in the design), and you can eat such wonders as parsnip rice and courgette-sesame noodles. New Tayyabs was a revelation: this is Pakistani curry that tastes like brilliant home-cooking, with its masala fish, lady-finger stew and delicious samosas that were cheaper than chips.

If you want to observe movers and shakers, then I'd recommend St Alban. The food is faultless (soft-shell crab, baked harissa prawns) and the room is welcoming and supremely comfortable. In fact, you get a real sense of polished professionalism - not so surprising when you remember it's run by Corbin and King, undisputed maestros of the business.

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
The most imaginative restaurant is Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley (it's also the most expensive). As soon as you enter the hushed room you know immediately you're in Michelin-star territory. But if you want a meal-of-a-lifetime, then save up your pennies and sample the delights of this culinary genius. Marcus creates food that looks beautiful on the plate and tastes sublime. A properly grand destination. Best out-of-centre is The Sands End, a large, homely, wood-filled pub set in an unremarkable part of Fulham and well worth the trip. Busy and buzzy, it's another all-day restaurant with a particularly interesting snack menu devised by its talented Irish chef, Liam Kirwan. You can munch teeny Welsh rarebit soldiers and big crispy curves of pork crackling, served with apple sauce. I'm salivating just thinking about it.

For best service, it was perhaps inevitable that hotels came out on top. It was difficult to decide between The Goring and The Capital. These are both privately run family hotels and it shows. You get a real sense of being properly looked after, as if the staff really care. And Stewart at The Goring deserves his own special award for being the finest maître d' in the city.

I had to think long and hard about the best place for a first date. I came up with the Imperial War Museum Café, which you might think an unusual choice. Think again. It's one of London's mighty but neglected buildings, set in an unexpected swathe of green in Kennington. There's plenty to do to keep boredom at bay (try the London Blitz experience), and it makes you feel rather lucky to be alive. And where else are you going to get to eat beetroot and seed salad, and Anzac biscuits?

Imperial War Museum Café
Imperial War Museum Café
My last 'best of' is the perfect answer to a question that popped into my inbox the other day: can you suggest a place for dinner, with two friends in from Palm Beach and their mothers, so it needs to have white tablecloths, good uncomplicated food, be not achingly trendy, distinctly London, and ideally this side of the West End? It had to be Patterson's, a surprisingly little-known restaurant tucked away behind Regent Street. It offers the best bread in town (try the walnut) and fantastic fish.

The year ends, inevitably, amid fears for the future, provoked by the credit crunch. But London's best restaurants will continue to thrive because eating out remains an affordable, feel-good experience. Bon appetit.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Volunteers needed - Black Women's Movement in Britain - Oral history project

Black Cultural Archives are proud to announce a new oral history project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to gather and preserve testimonies about the Black Women’s Movement in Britain.

We are now recruiting volunteers to participate in this project in the roles of Volunteer Interviewer and Volunteer Transcribers. The closing date for volunteers to express an interest is Friday 16th January 2009.

See attached for more information or visit our website, Direct any queries about the project to Mia Morris, Project Co-ordinator – or 020 7582 8516.


Please pass this information on to anyone you think may be interested.

Thank you and happy holidays


1 Othello Close
SE11 4RE

t: 0207 582 8516


Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Brit Oval: Floodlights Programme

Dear Neighbour,

As part of our ground improvement programme, we are installing permanent floodlights at the Brit Oval. Please find enclosed a programme of works beginning on January 5th 2009.

While the programme sets out the expected timeframes, it may be that dates or orders of activity are adjusted as it moves forward. The plan will be updated on a regular basis and if any major changes to the programme are anticipated we will ensure that you are notified as soon as possible.

If you have any enquiries, please contact

Best wishes

Steven Blackwood,

Community Executive

The Brit Oval

Floodlights project programme

The following is an outline programme of works relating to the installation of the four mast floodlighting system at The Brit Oval. It will be updated on a monthly basis in an attempt to ensure that it is as accurate as possible.

Mast 1 – refers to the mast behind the OCS in front of Oval Mansions

Mast 2 - refers to the mast behind the OCS next to the Alex Stewart Gate

Mast 3 - refers to the mast behind the Bedser Stand.

Mast 4 - refers to the mast behind the Lock/Laker stand


Approximate location




Piling prep for mast 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

Jan 5

Jan 12

Moving equipment into the area

Piling prep for mast 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

Jan 12

Jan 19

Moving equipment into the area

Piling prep for mast 3

Bedser Stand

Jan 19

Jan 26

Moving equipment into the area

Piling prep for mast 4

Lock/Laker Stand

Jan 26

Feb 2

Moving equipment into the area

Piling for mast 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

Jan 12

Jan 26

Drilling pile – relatively little disturbance

Piling for mast 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

Jan 19

Feb 2

Drilling pile – relatively little disturbance

Piling for mast 3

Bedser Stand

Jan 26

Feb 9

Drilling pile – relatively little disturbance

Piling for mast 4

Lock/Laker Stand

Feb 2

Feb 16

Drilling pile – relatively little disturbance

Pile Caps/make good 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

Jan 19

Feb 9

Constructing and concreting base – relatively little disturbance

Pile Caps/make good 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

Jan 26

Feb 16

Constructing and concreting base – relatively little disturbance

Pile Caps/make good 3

Bedser Stand

Feb 2

Feb 23

Constructing and concreting base – relatively little disturbance

Pile Caps/make good 4

Lock/Laker Stand

Feb 9


Constructing and concreting base – relatively little disturbance

Lighting installation Head frame 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

Jan 5

Jan 17

Construction of Head Frame

Lighting installation Head frame 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

Jan 17

Jan 29

Construction of Head Frame

Lighting installation Head frame 3

Bedser Stand

Jan 29

Feb 12

Construction of Head Frame

Lighting installation Head frame 4

Lock/Laker Stand

Feb 12

Feb 26

Construction of Head Frame

Install pedestal/mast/head frame 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

16 Feb

19 Feb

Crane and mast located in the ground – mast lifted into location

Install pedestal/mast/head frame 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

23 Feb

27 Feb

Crane and mast located in the ground – mast lifted into location

Install pedestal/mast/head frame 3

Bedser Stand

02 Mar

05 Mar

Crane located on road – mast inside ground – mast lifted into position

Install pedestal/mast/head frame 4

Lock/Laker Stand

09 Mar

12 Mar

Crane and mast located in the ground – mast lifted into location

Test and check mast 1

Behind OCS in front of Oval Mansions

23 Feb

25 Feb

Test and check mast 2

Behind OCS stand by Alex Stewart Gate

02 Mar

05 Mar

Test and check mast 3

Bedser Stand

09 Mar

12 Mar

Test and check mast 4

Lock/Laker Stand

16 Mar

19 Mar

Trenching and cabling

Mast 1 to Alex Stewart Gate

05 Jan

12 Jan

Small digger to create trench

Trenching and cabling

Mast 2 to Alex Stewart Gate

13 Jan

20 Jan

Small digger to create trench

Trenching and cabling

Mast 2 to mast 3

21 Jan

29 Jan

Small digger to create trench

Trenching and cabling

Mast 3 to Pavilion

29 Jan

11 Feb

Small digger to create trench

Trenching and cabling

Pavilion to Loch Laker

12 Feb

17 Feb

Small digger to create trench

Trenching and cabling

Behind Lock/Laker to Mast 4

18 Feb

29 Feb

Small digger to create trench


All masts

06 Apr


Mostly daytime