Downton Abbey spin-off on the cards

The writer of Downton Abbey is planning a prequel that explains how the Earl and Countess of Grantham first met, London'sThe Daily Telegraph reports. Speaking as part of the BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture series, held at the British Film Institute,Julian Fellowes said he was working on a spin-off about the courtship of Lord Grantham, played in the series by Hugh Bonneville, and his American wife, Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern. A pair of young actors will portray the couple in the early days of their relationship, in a drama Fellowes initially planned as a book. Viewers already know that the cash-strapped Earl married Cora, the daughter of a US tycoon, for her fortune. In the first series, he admitted to falling in love with her only after they married. Fellowes said: ''I do actually have an idea of doing a prequel of the courtship of Robert and Cora, when all those American heiresses were arriving in London - the Buccaneers, as they were called. They had a slightly troubled courtship, because she was in love with him before they married, as we know, and he married her entirely for her money. I sort of feel there's something quite nice in there because he's a decent cove, and so he feels rather guilty about this.'' The latest series features Cora's mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), whose straight-talking American ways are anathema to Dame Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess. Fellowes, who also hinted that a Downton play or feature-length film could also be under consideration, said he owed his present success to the US director Robert Altman, who hired him to produce the script for the 2001 film Gosford Park. It earned Fellowes an Oscar for best screenplay. He said: ''I do feel very strongly that America rescued me.''

Kink defined as a non-grey area

The Gathering, Australia's biggest kink ''conference'', was held in Sydney over the weekend. Offering ''workshops'' on everything from spanking to electroplay (the most popular seminar of the weekend, according to organisers) the event is designed to teach people how to ''play'' safely and provides an opportunity for newcomers to dip their toes into the water of the kink community. With almost double the number of tickets sold as for the previous event, organisers believe its popularity stems from Fifty Shades of Grey. ''People have started coming out of the woodwork," said Miss Dee, The Gathering hostess and resident dominatrix. ''About 60 per cent [of participants] have been in the community for less than a year.'' ''It's just normal people wanting to learn more,'' said a 35- year-old participant, who began exploring the scene a year ago. Another attendee agreed: ''It's lovely people who are open-minded and wanting to learn more about sensations, the psychology and emotional [impact].'' They say a common misconception about kink is that it is about sex, instead of sensation. Nor is the desire underpinning kink harming one another, Jane said. ''It's not about violence, it's about learning to push your boundaries in a controlled, consensual way.'' While the organisers are happy Fifty Shades of Grey means more people are interested in the scene, they do not feel it accurately represents them or their interest. The book is ''Twilight fan fiction with a bit of BDSM thrown in,'' said the fetish author Laura Antoniou, who was a speaker at the conference. Although, apart from being ''really badly written'', Miss Dee acknowledged: ''After reading it people say 'now I understand [why you're into it]'.''

Get well, George

Gah! Another major tour cancellation! But unlike Madonna, Van Halen, Bell Biv Devoe and Ginuwine, whose last-minute cancellations caused sparks to fly from fans' molars, this one will more likely provoke sympathy and concern. George Michael, who nearly died last year after contracting pneumonia, cancelled his six-concert November tour of Australia yesterday, a result of his ''underestimating'' the severity and duration of his recovery. "By way of explanation all I can say at this time is that since last year's illness I have tried in vain to work my way through the trauma that the doctors who saved my life warned me I would experience,'' he said in a statement. ''They recommended complete rest and the type of post-traumatic counselling which is available in cases like mine but I'm afraid I believed (wrongly) that making music and getting out there to perform for the audiences that bring me such joy would be therapy enough in itself.'' He gave a clue as to the nature of his struggle in a subsequent remark. ''Although I was right to believe that the shows would bring me great happiness and that my voice would recover completely … I was wrong to think I could work my way through the major anxiety that has plagued me since I left Austria last December. ''All that's left for me to do is apologise to my wonderful Australian fan base and to promise faithfully that as soon as I complete these shows here in the UK, I will receive the treatment which is so long overdue.'' The Diary understands the planned shows featured an orchestra and hits from his Wham! days. As much as we say his fans will be concerned, we share in their disappointment of being unable to witness a symphonic version of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Buyers of tickets will be refunded.

Not the latest news

How could this have happened? It was brought to The Diary's attention yesterday that 2GB's 2pm news somehow missed the biggest (non-footy) story of the day, when it reported on Jill Meagher, another asylum boat and a Sydney stabbing, but had nothing on its top announcer - a certain Alan Jones - holding a national presser live on TV to make his ''carbon tax made me do it'' apology. Neither was it on the web page '''latest news''. Of course, we all probably miss a yarn now and then. And in other Jones news, we should mention that Jonesy was last week awarded the Gold Ernie (and Silver Media Ernie) for the most egregiously sexist remark of the year for saying: ''Women are destroying the joint, Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly. There's no chaff bag big enough for these people.''

Weather's key change swells jazz crowds

AFTER years bedevilled by wind and rain, the Manly Jazz Festival got the kind of weather organisers pray for yesterday. Thousands thronged The Corso and the beach under a blue sky and a beaming sun, with some of them not even appearing to mind all the jazz going on around them. But seriously: The Diary's All What Jazz? correspondent Adam Fulton told us the musical fare was ''good, solid; a day where the locals could sample US imports such as [tenor saxophonist] Eric Alexander, or someone from France via the Caribbean such as Tricia Evy, but also a day where local talent shone really brightly''. Fulton nominated Baecastuff as a standout, along with Emma Pask, ''who always shines'', and Grover. ''The idea of jazz as being something that only old people enjoy was something very much put in the shade,'' he said, ''just by the number of kids dancing under the age of six.''

Stay in touch ...

with the onion trap

Iran's Fars News Agency, a semi-official mouthpiece of the Iranian regime, has published a word-for-word duplicate of an article from The Onion, a spoof news organisation based in Chicago. The satirical article cited a fake Gallup poll that found 77 per cent of white, rural voters would rather go to a baseball game or have a beer with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than with the US President. It went on to cite a made-up West Virginian, Dale Swiderski, who said he preferred the Iranian to Barack Obama because: ''He takes national defence seriously, and he'd never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does.'' Fars copied the entire Onion article without giving any indication of its source. Will Tracy, the editor of The Onion, released a statement joking that Fars was a subsidiary of The Onion. ''They have acted as our Middle Eastern bureau since the mid-1980s, when The Onion's publisher, T.Herman Zweibel, founded Fars with the government approval of the late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The Onion freely shares content with Fars and commends the journalists at Iran's Finest News Source on their superb reportage.'' Many news organisations have fallen for The Onion's mock-serious news style. In 2004, a Beijing paper reported on an Onion piece that claimed members of Congress were threatening to move out of Washington unless their lavatories were upgraded.

with Freddie's true voice

Who knew? Freddie Mercury's ''real'' voice was baritone, according to Dame Montserrat Caballe - the Spanish soprano who worked with Mercury on his final solo album, Barcelona - and she would have liked him to use it more often, publicly. ''I told him one day, 'let's do a small duet of baritone and soprano' and he said 'No no, my fans only know me as a rock singer and they will not recognise my voice if I sing in baritone.' So I did not conquer him to do that,'' she has told The Guardian. There are several Mercury-related projects lurking in the ether, including a 25th anniversary edition of Barcelona, just released; a BBC documentary focused on the last five years of his life, called The Great Pretender and a biopic starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

Got a tip?

Contact diary@smh.com.au or 92822350 or on Twitter @mattdiarysmh

The story Downton Abbey spin-off on the cards first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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