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Michael Coveney: Queen's Birthday Honours spring pleasant surprises

The Queen's Birthday Honours have been more interesting and lower key than usual this year, with a particularly well earned OBE for Lloyd Newsom, founder director of DV8, and an MBE for Judith Merrill, who runs the Bristol-based Travelling Light company, one of many shining beacons in the world of children's theatre.

And there hasn't been too much fuss about Jon Plowman getting the OBE. He was always a quiet one, Plowman, both at Oxford University and the Royal Court, where he was an assistant director alongside Mel Smith. But his career in television as a comedy producer and Head of BBC Television Comedy has been nothing short of phenomenal, starting with the wonderful Russell Harty chat show (such a refreshing antidote to Michael Parkinson in the 1980s), moving through to such classic series as A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Absolutely Fabulous, French and Saunders, The Office and The Vicar of Dibley.

Tony Robinson and Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder
Next to that achievement, a knighthood for Tony Robinson, "for public and political services" (to the Labour Party) looks positively ridiculous. His history programmes on television are irritating, too, and it's hilariously ironic that Robinson's one genuine claim to fame, as the all-purpose servant and henchman Baldrick in Blackadder, should have led to him one-upping his own master and nemesis, played by Rowan Atkinson - who has to be content with a CBE.

It's always difficult for the public to differentiate between the claims of talent and charity work in these matters. Would you honour Rob Brydon, for instance - he's made MBE - for his comedy performances alone? And yet he's also done great charity work, apparently, especially with stroke-sufferers. And he was pretty good in the revival of A Chorus of Disapproval...

At least you know exactly where you are with CBEs for actors Julian Glover and Claire Bloom and former Almeida director Michael Attenborough, all richly deserved, and especially pleasing in Glover's case; he's an actor who really has been a backbone of the British theatre for decades, a powerful supporting player with genuine leading man qualities.

There is similar rejoicing at the MBE for David Haig, now limbering up for King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Bath, directed by Lucy Bailey and for influential drama teacher Anna Scher (also MBE) who was ousted from her own Islington school after illness and boardroom kerfuffle, but who has soldiered on in different premises.

Congrats, too, to Nick Starr, made CBE for his stewardship of the National Theatre alongside Sir Nicholas Hytner; full names are always listed in these citations, so we now know that Nick is Nicholas Frederick Starr, curious doppelganger perhaps for the outrageous comedian Freddie Starr who was once alleged in a Sun newspaper headline to have eaten someone's hamster.

And top of the pile sits Sir Howard Hugh Panter, known to his friends as "Huge," head of the ever-expanding waistline and Ambassador Theatre Group, who will shortly be taking over the world; how can Woking and Milton Keynes possibly contain them?

It's a truly remarkable thing that Howard, who once lit plays at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and directed fringe shows at the King's Head, should now be responsible for more theatre seats in the UK than anyone else, and has now, as he proudly says, planted a flag on Broadway by taking charge of one of the biggest theatres, there, too, the Foxwoods (formerly the Hilton and the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts). I just wish they'd smarten up the Duke of York's a bit.

Where do these theatre titans lunch these days? Howard once generously hosted a lunch upstairs at the Ivy for a quarrel of critics and gave us all an agreeably rough time of it. I was half expecting to see him, or Bill Kenwright, or Matthew Byam Shaw, in Balthazar in Covent Garden, where I made a debut last Friday lunchtime.

The place was packed but no theatre names did I see, apart from my own theatrical colleague and friend from the Rodgers and Hammerstein office in London. Balthazar is a New York-style upmarket bistro, and very jolly it is, too, and making a good recovery from some disastrous opening reviews from the food critics.

Poignantly, of course, it sits in the building that once housed the Theatre Museum. It's as if all trace of our cultural heritage has been deleted from the menu and replaced with dover sole and eggs benedict, with chicken chopped salad and moules frites. There's not even a Derek Jacobi special (smoked salmon and scrambled eggs) as there once was at Chichester. I suggest a Donald Sinden menu du jour: rich pate de foie gras, hock of ham or roast guinea fowl in a prune jus, and ripe fruit compote.

As I reported the other day, you can't possibly go to Joe Allen any more (except in New York, of course), as it's been taken over and ruined by Carluccio's; the latest desecration is the replacement of the famous green awning with a red one. And when I had lunch the other day with Michael Grandage in Orso's, its former sister restaurant, sharing the same kitchen, only two other tables were occupied throughout our meal.

Only two! Admittedly one of these belonged to Dewynters supremo and PR legend Anthony Pye-Jeary, and the other to Sebastian Born, literary manger of the National. But where is everyone, for heaven's sake? Or have we all, as I suspect is the case, just stopped going out for lunch?