The Spectator

Letters: pantomime dames are here to stay

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The leasehold scam

Sir: In June 2018, Rishi Sunak told me in a Bethnal Green living room that leasehold is ‘a scam’ (‘Flat broke’, 9 December). At party conference, Sunak portrayed himself as a truth-teller who would take on the vested interests who have held back this country for so long. I am therefore baffled why his government’s signature homeownership policy, the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, is such a modest package after six years of government and Law Commission work that has cost millions and which concluded that leasehold was fundamentally flawed. England and Wales are outliers in the world for persisting with this rip-off system.

Ending leasehold is the hegemonic programme the Conservatives so badly need. Michael Gove was right to recognise that earlier this year. Freeing leaseholders from rapacious freeholder overlords would be a project in popular capitalism that we haven’t seen since Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy revolution. Indeed, Thatcher saw leasehold enfranchisement as its sequel, and on her last day as prime minister greenlit a draft bill on commonhold – leasehold’s replacement.

Five million households are affected and are desperate to ‘take back control’ of their homes, money and lives. Our campaign, Free Leaseholders, has been inundated with lifelong Conservative voters who are preparing to defect to Labour on this issue alone. Labour, styling itself as the true party of homeownership, has pledged to dismantle leasehold, bringing in the full Law Commission recommendations and making commonhold default on new flats. Do Sunak’s Tories want to lose with a positive legacy and some dignity, or be buried?

Harry Scoffin

Founder, Free Leaseholders

London E14


Sir: I read with interest the article on the future of panto dames and the politicisation of drag (‘Dragged down’, 9 December). I thoroughly appreciate Gareth’s support for us dames, but perhaps it is a good thing that I don’t share his pessimism for the future of our art form. I have been playing the role of the pantomime dame for more than 40 years, and if I didn’t think there was a future for dames, I wouldn’t be doing it now.

When I started out in panto, the role of principal boy would be played by a girl, slapping her thighs and crying: ‘12 o’clock and still no sign of Dick!’ But those days have gone, and I can see why. Pantomime producers nowadays choose to have a male in that role as a hero for the boys in the audience, and that is perfectly understandable. If they do start giving my dame role to women, however, we are done for. The joy of the dame is that it’s a large man – or just a man – dressing up as a woman, and that is what the audience loves. If the audience aren’t happy, that’s a problem for all of us.

Having said that, I’m certainly not done for yet! Funnily enough, I’m playing the Man in the Mirror this year, as we don’t have a Dame in our pantomime (Snow White at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton), so I think that’s acceptable. As Gareth points out, ‘fellers in frocks’ are a fine British tradition, and I have high hopes for future generations of panto dames.

Christopher Biggins


Game of Marbles

Sir: The diplomatic spat between the British and Greek Prime Ministers (‘Can Sunak keep his Marbles?’, 2 December) was clearly a low point for relations between the two countries, but is it really going to become a dividing line between the parties? As members of the advisory board for the Parthenon Project, which is seeking a ‘win-win’ on the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, Mr Sunak’s position is clearly regrettable. But the wider reaction has given us reason for optimism. Large swaths of the British media, including conservative outlets, have reflected what we discovered through our own polling: support for reunification cuts across political divides. Conservative voters, Brexiteers and those living outside London all support reunification through a partnership agreement. The reality is that this issue simply does not fit neatly into the culture-war box that some Conservative colleagues are seeking to put it in.

This year, our campaign put forward a proposal to set up a privately funded educational foundation for scholarships and cultural exchanges to share many priceless artefacts and deliver reunification in a way that benefits both sides. We also showed how reunification is deliverable under the current legal framework, as long as both sides are willing to move beyond the debate about ownership. We are more optimistic than ever that under the chairmanship of George Osborne, and with public opinion behind it, the British Museum will make history in 2024.

Lord Vaizey and Lord Dobbs

House of Lords, London SW1

Scout’s honesty

Sir: I thoroughly enjoyed Harry’s Mount’s article (‘Paper trail’, 2 December) in which he sifted through old letters, articles, postcards and cuttings from his time at Oxford University. I carried out a similar exercise about a year ago and was amused to find a curt message from my scout, which read: ‘You drink too much. Die soon.’ She was right on the first count, but wrong on the second. I’m still here, 50 years on.

Robert Beaumont

Minskip, North Yorkshire

Digging in Bulgaria

Sir: I felt a frisson of recognition as I read of Harry Mount’s nostalgia for hard-copy records. Only the day before I had been leafing through some 50-year-old letters I had managed to file, reporting on my experiences as an archaeology student taking part in the first team from the West to dig in communist Bulgaria. Memories came flooding back of 14-hour days in the field, but also of the creamiest yoghurt and tastiest tomatoes you’ll find anywhere. The name of one cave site we dug rang a bell: Bacho Kiro. I looked it up in a book I had helped to publish: yes, this, we now know, was where the oldest modern human remains in Europe, dating back 42,000 years, have been found. What would my 19-year-old self have made of that extraordinary fact as I toiled in the cave’s dank interior?

Colin Ridler


A desire for faith

Sir: Mary Wakefield (‘Turning away the worshippers’, 9 December) reminds us that the church can’t serve two masters in its attempt to woo young people. How right she is. The churches with thriving youth ministries do not promote ‘raves in the nave’, silent discos or rock concerts. Instead, they teach the Bible as the word of God in age-appropriate settings and encourage personal faith in Jesus Christ. Many have teams of dedicated youth leaders to help these young people to navigate a world which is often hostile to their faith. Such ministries are profoundly countercultural, but they are growing and are producing young Christian women and men of impressive character and courage.

Last month marked the 60th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis who understood more than most the danger of dumbing down the Christian faith to young people. In Prince Caspian, the second of his Narnia chronicles, when Lucy greets Aslan she remarks that he is bigger than when she last saw him. Aslan tells her that is because Lucy is now older: ‘Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.’ Great children’s and youth ministry enables young people to find Jesus bigger every year they grow towards adult discipleship.

Richard Coombs

Rector of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Delicious puffin

Sir: Sean Thomas is to be commended for trying everything and almost anything for dinner (‘Dog’s dinner’, 2 December), but I have to disagree with him about puffin (‘really quite bad’). Puffin breast, smoked and then briefly grilled over hot coals at my table in a restaurant in Reykjavik when en route to the USA was one of the most delicious dishes I have eaten. It was worth the subsequent opprobrium from my American hosts, who were appalled.

George Gordon

London SE11

It is cricket

Sir: As a lifetime cricket enthusiast whose interest sadly exceeded his playing record, I enjoyed Leo McKinstry’s review of David Horspool’s How Sport Helped Shape the British Character (Books, 2 December). Cricket has indeed played a considerable role in promoting Commonwealth relations. Yet I remain somewhat mystified by the game’s traditional status as a yardstick of honourable conduct, evidenced by such phrases as ‘It’s not cricket’. Was not the great Doctor W.G. Grace famed for his occasional gamesmanship? And in the 1932/33 ‘Bodyline’ Ashes series, a combination of Harold Larwood’s fierce bowling and Douglas Jardine’s unbending captaincy almost caused a rift in Anglo-Australian relations.

John Kidd

Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia

Hungarian rhapsody

Sir: Owen Matthews (Foreign life, 2 December) reminded me of my experience of Budapest in early 1991. We had front-row seats at the opera for $3, after which my leg was nearly torn off by the masseur at Gellert baths. As we recovered at the hotel bar, the Page 3 model Samantha Fox smiled down from a poster on the wall, suggesting that the locals were starting to embrace western culture. Zsolt, a local we befriended on our Interrail journey, tried three times to call his mother across town, the call dropping each time. Whereupon my American friend Kim announced she was going to call collect to her mom in San Francisco, which she did uninterrupted for 15 minutes. Zsolt looked on in wonder, and at the end of the call exclaimed: ‘What is zis AT&T?’

Jonathan Notley

London W3

Protestor non grata

Sir: In considering the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (No sacred cows, 2 December), Toby Young misses the clause in Section 36 saying a Section 35 order may not be issued to a participant in a lawful public procession. The wishes of the organisers are neither here nor there: if they want to maintain a guest list they must use a private venue. I too was at the march against anti-Semitism and I understand why Tommy Robinson was persona non grata, but it should not have been a police matter.

Alan Norman

Impington, Cambridge

Students loaned

Sir: In Margaret Mitchell’s article ‘The American dream’ (2 December) she mentions that international students find it hard to remain in Britain after graduation because of the high earnings requirement the government has set. As an international student myself, I’d like to point out that the government has no obligation to let us stay here upon completing our degrees: there is a need to protect job opportunities for home students. A student visa should not be a route to settle in the UK – it is for the purpose of receiving an education.

Tim Lai

Exeter, Devon

Dog definition

Sir: I read Matthew Parris’s piece (‘Laws have the power to change facts’, 2 December) with interest. He would perhaps be interested to know that the Oxford Union has, at times, taken a similar approach.

‘Rule 51: Dogs

Any Member introducing or causing to be introduced a dog into the Society’s premises shall be liable to a fine of £5 inflicted by the Treasurer. Any animal leading a blind person shall be deemed to be a cat. Any animal entering on Police business shall be deemed to be a wombat.’

David Blagborough

Ex-returning officer, Somerville College

Bermondsey, London SE1