John Fortune reads his fanmail: "Your sketch has succeeded in sending my wife into a mental hospital"

Plus attempted trouser theft and a visit from Princess Margaret - a New Statesman diary from 2002.

It was the word "succeeded" I liked best. Photograph: Getty Images.

To the dry-cleaners to collect a pair of trousers. I tell the lady behind the counter, jet-black hair and green fingernails, that I've lost my ticket. I give my name and describe the trousers. She finds them.

"Do you have any means of identification?" she asks.

"I'm afraid not."

"In that case, I'm afraid I'm unable to release the trousers," she says, hanging them back on the rail.

"May I say something?" I ask. "Let's suppose that I'm a trouser thief. I woke up this morning and decided to target your dry-cleaning shop. I knew that hundreds of men bring you trousers every week, and plucking a name from the air imagined that one of them bore the name John Fortune. I arrive here and find that, by some incredible stroke of luck, there are trousers here attached to that name. How much more lucky would I have to be to bamboozle you - make off with the trousers and find they actually fitted me?"

She spread all ten emerald fingernails on the counter.

"At my right foot I have a panic button which is connected directly to Chiswick Police Station," she said.

"No you don't," I said. "That's ludicrous."

"But you can't know that for certain," she said. "Just how lucky are you feeling today?"

"Who installed the panic button?"

"The Home Office," she replied. "Jack Straw."

That was too much for me. You might think you're hard, but when you hear the words "Jack Straw", it's time to leave.


Monday morning. To John Bird's office to start work on this week's edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune. The show is recorded on Friday nights, edited on Saturday and transmitted on Sunday. John sits at his desk. I hover around. Between us, a large Briard dog called Zebedee lies on the carpet like a small haystack. John and I talk about Tony Blair saying that public sector workers are wreckers. It seemed only yesterday that they were stunning successes, before which, of course, they were forces of conservatism. What would happen, we wondered, if they were forced to accept those gods of management who have made private companies such beacons of excellence? Like the managers of Marconi, BT, Equitable Life, not to mention Enron, who between them have recently lost so many billions of pounds and who make even the most profligate NHS trust look amateur.


Looking for something else, I find a beautifully bound desk diary for the year 2000. I don't remember buying it, but I see that, on 1 January 2000, I have written in my best handwriting: "It seems a pity to spoil the perfect whiteness of these pages." Which it evidently was, because the rest of the diary is blank.


Today I have a fan letter. It is a photocopy, with blanks where my name and dubious past successes have been filled in. It makes me think of the disappointments the writer must have suffered - to have worked his way down the celebrity pyramid to this level must have taken ages and thousands of stamps. Some are more personal. I still have a letter written by a man who watched a sketch I wrote with Eleanor Bron in the Sixties. We lay in bed and spoke in perfect unison, saying things like: "One of the things I most love about you is you really listen." And: "Wasn't it Rilke who said that love is being the guardians of each other's solitude?" The man wrote: "I'd like you to know that the sketch you did the other night with Eleanor Bron has succeeded in sending my wife into a mental hospital." It was the word "succeeded" I liked best.


I was saddened by the death of Princess Margaret. I met her once during a state visit to BBC Television Centre in the early Seventies. I introduced the princess to our producer, Denis Main Wilson. She asked him what he did. He stood up very straight and said: "Ma'am, I have the honour to produce a little show called Till Death Do Us Part. The Princess replied: "Isn't that that frightfully dreary thing in the East End?"

After a few more minutes of conversation, I found myself saying: "Well, it was a great pleasure to meet you, Princess Margaret, but I have someone waiting for me downstairs and I have to go."

She fixed me with a beady look. "No you don't," she said. "No one leaves my presence until I give them permission to do so." I knew she didn't mean it. There was a look of mischief in her eyes. If I'd said, "Well, that's too bad, I'm off anyway", I'm sure nothing would have happened. On the other hand, I wasn't going to take the risk.

More minutes passed before she said: "I'm very bored here. Isn't there somewhere else in this place we can go and have a drink?" I knew there was a Light Entertainment annex that stayed open late. I raced down two floors and found the barmen pulling down the metal grill over the bar. "Stop, stop," I cried, "open up again. Quick, Princess Margaret is coming." "Pull the other one . . ." they started to say, and then over my shoulder they saw the pocket battleship bearing down on them.

I ordered gins and tonics. Slumped against the bar was a director of the Old Grey Whistle Test. I made introductions. I think he must have been Australian, because within minutes the talk was of Sydney Harbour, convicts and the penalties for stealing a loaf of bread in the 18th century. "And what made it perfect was that it was stale bread," the Princess observed. I slipped away in the smoke.