Latin Lessons after Lunch and Libretto Worthy Grand Opera; What That TV Documentary Didn't Tell You about the Goings-On at the Royal Opera House

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Byline: Richard Pendlebury;Helen Minsky

WHEN Jeremy Isaacs complained of `shaky edifices' in last week's episode of the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary The House, he was referring only to the state of his box office, and not the extra mural merry-go-round taking place in the ivory towers of the Royal Opera House.

Yet as more details emerged last night, it became clear that an Italian libretto would hardly do justice to the labyrinthine entanglements among the Covent Garden elite. Even The Marriage of Figaro is positively straightforward by comparison.

We experienced a crescendo earlier this week when Mr Isaacs, the urbane general director of the ROH, was pictured leaving the home of tobacco heiress Anne Dunhill.

Miss Dunhill, 49, is married to, though estranged from, Anthony Russell Roberts, the administrative director of the ROH-based Royal Ballet. Mr Russell Roberts left her last year after she discovered his affair with a Danish ballet counterpart, Jane Holkenfeldt (known as The Hyena).

Mr Isaacs has been married for the past seven years to the 52-year-old arts journalist Gillian Widdicombe - an ROH regular - whose previous romantic successes with some of the arts world's most famous figures earned her the name of The Barracuda.

What were Miss Dunhill and Mr Isaacs doing at the Belgravia address in the afternoon? Miss Dunhill's explanation deserves an entry in the Book Of Quotations. `He came round to see me,' she said, `because he is a Latin scholar and was helping me with a translation.'

It certainly emphasised that here were two highbrows who were declining rather than reclining.

`I can't talk,' Miss Dunhill said last night. She said she had known Mr Isaacs since he joined the ROH and suspects the story of their friendship was put around by a disgruntled ex-employee. The Latin homework (a translation for a new book commissioned by an American university), she insists, was the reason for their apres midi assignation.

Certainly the couple have been spending a significant amount of time with each other since June, including a weekend in America.

This mutual admiration has left Mr Isaacs facing a dilemma. His wife, at least, apparently thinks it goes deeper than mere translations.

In fact, according to friends, Isaacs and Dunhill, who have met each other frequently at Royal Ballet functions over the years, became firm friends this summer after Miss Dunhill's husband left home.

Says one: `Anne had been a totally faithful wife to Anthony for 20-odd years, but when he left her she felt very vulnerable and abandoned and lonely. It was then that her friendship with Jeremy developed.'

On September 28, the couple went to New York, staying at the Parker Meridien Hotel on West 57th Street. An aide at the hotel says: `Jeremy Isaacs booked one of our executive suites, which now cost $210 a night on a special weekend rate and come with a separate living area and with either twin beds or a kingsized bed.'

A friend adds: `I went shopping with Anne that weekend. I gather it was also a business trip for Jeremy as he was interviewing Norman Mailer for his British TV programme, Face to Face.'

Adds another friend of the couple: `There are a number of people who have known about their friendship - even Anne's estranged husband heard reports of it. However, it seems his wife had no idea.'

For 28 years Isaacs was happily married to his South African born first wife, Tamara, who tragically died of cancer in 1986. Tamara's death, when he was head of Channel 4, came shortly before his application to become director general of the BBC was rejected - something which still rankles.

`I think one of the reasons I left broadcasting was that Tamara's death was the end of a great chapter in my life,' he has said. `I partly put up for the job at the BBC because she would have wanted me to. …