11 SEPTEMBER 2004, Page 56

A right Charlie

Charles Spencer

Help! Stop, Thief! Call the cops! My byline's been pinched by a toff. Boris Johnson, the editor of this magazine and a man who contributes so generously to the public stock of harmless pleasure, clearly believes in standing by his mates. He was at Eton with Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana and owner of Althorp, and occasionally invites his aristocratic chum to write this magazine's Diary.

If I were an earl, and I would love to be, I would insist on using my full title in all circumstances, but these days the fashion is all for democratic blokiness, so Earl Spencer writes as plain Charles Spencer. This causes no end of confusion.

I first realised I had an upper-class doppelganger more than a decade ago, when a reporter from the Daily Express, evidently getting desperate, found my number in the London telephone directory and rang to ask if I could give him any inside dope on my sister's marriage. This surprised me. My sister was (and still is) happily married to a barrister, blamelessly devoted to her family and her beautiful garden in Dorset, and could surely be of no interest to the popular prints, even on a slow news day.

Slowly, very slowly, the penny dropped that he was asking about Diana's marriage to the Prince of Wales, at which point I

told him he'd got the wrong Charles Spencer and put the phone down. Big mistake. Think what glorious mischief might have ensued if I had confidentially whispered, 'Well, I'm sure the Express is fully up to speed on her affair with Mick Jagger,' before supplying a few lurid details, possibly involving the unorthodox use of a popular brand of confectionery.

More recently, a woman rang the secretary of the Telegraph's arts pages to tell her that she didn't know how I managed to get to the theatre every night when I had such a big house to run and the chore of travelling down from Northampton for every London opening. And so-called friends have been having no end of fun with the Earl's latest diary, which began with the words: 'Summertime and the house is open. Often people ask me what it is like having your home "invaded by the public": 'What is it like?' they inquire with extravagant solicitude. 'Do you get a lot of paying visitors at 16 Denvent Close, and what kind of a cream tea do you run to? Any problems with the staff this year?'

The Earl's most recent Diary has had a curious afterlife, too. For the first time I've received someone else's hate mail. The Spectator forwarded me a postcard from a Spectator reader decrying the other Charles Spencer's use of the word centurion to describe an elderly housemaid. Working up a fine head of steam, the correspondent, who in traditional cowardly fashion has declined to append his or her name, writes: 'Did she attend for duty every day in full Roman body armour and plumed helmet? Or do you perhaps mean centenarian? What a frightful solecism — call yourself educated!' These Old Eton iarts, I don't know.

Far more welcome, however, was a cheque for the Diary from the Speccie's accounts department which mistakenly winged its way to Derwent Close rather than Althorp. Now 250 big ones may be peanuts to Earl Spencer, but it represents 25 CDs to me, or a large and welcome stash of Golden Virginia hand-rolling tobacco. Since it is made out to Charles Spencer, there should be no problems in paying it in. Perhaps Earl Spencer's publishers might also like to consider sending me the royalties for his new book about the Battle of Blenheim.

But perhaps it is time to sort out the muddle once and for all. I'll send the Earl both the cheque, and grateful thanks, if he agrees to write under another name. I don't think he should worry about Earl Spencer sounding too posh as a byline. It has a nice jazzy ring to it, putting one in mind of Duke Ellington or Count Basle. Or he could call himself Charles Althorp, for as well as being Earl Spencer, Who's Who reveals that he is also Viscount Althorp. Or he could show he's a man of the people, despite his rolling acres, and style himself Charlie, Chuck or Chas Spencer. At all events I

greatly look forward to hearing from him.

Should he refuse to budge, citing precedence, greater fame, or sheer bloodymindedness, I have a stern warning for him. My son Edward, 11, has developed an alarming fondness for practical jokes, most recently pouring a large jug of water down my back during a family lunch at his grandparents. Forget the CDs and the tobacco: £250 would also buy a vast arsenal of stink bombs, and I shudder to think of the pandemonium that might ensue were he and his mates to turn up as visitors to Althorp with instructions to let them all off, throughout the house and tea-rooms, in a single afternoon. Earl Spencer, you have been warned.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily