A SMALL moment in British social history should not go unremarked upon. Two contestants on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? have had their prize money forfeited because they did not declare that they had criminal records. I confess I did not realise until now that you had to be "clean" to tell Chris Tarrant who starred in Casablanca. "Just a moment Mr Smith of Droitwich, before you decide whether it was Ingrid Bergman, Demi Moore or Anthea Turner, would I be right in thinking that you did a few months porridge back in the Seventies? Kindly leave the studio you old lag. You may have paid your debt to society, but we have higher standards at ITV. Try down the corridor, you may get a walk-on in The Bill."

Does this quiz show take itself too seriously? On this point I can provide the answers. For I have just attended an evening of homage to Who Wants to be a Millionaire? by The Royal Television Society. (We live in strange times). Paul Smith, the very affable head of Celador, which produces and devised the show, was "in conversation" with Michael Grade, the former Channel 4 head. And fascinating stuff it was too.

Mr Grade lavished praise on the drama of the show, and how the tension was increased by the use of music, the camerawork, the lighting. (Remember Mastermind? Well, don't. It might spoil his argument). Mr Smith lavished praise on Chris Tarrant for being able to speak at length when a contestant was shy and be quiet when a contestant was talkative. (What phenomenal skills these presenters have nowadays.) Mr Smith also said he had successfully sued a Danish television company for copying the format.

At this I somewhat heretically mentioned that I dimly remembered a programme called Double Your Money with the late Hughie Green. Hadn't Who Wants to be a Millionaire? leant on that just a little? "Name one similarity," said Mr Smith, aghast. Well, the doubling of money in a quiz show, the mounting tension, a host who gets suspense out of allowing the contestant to think he or she has made the wrong choice. Mr Grade put me in my place. "No, no, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? broke new ground," he declared. "This is appointment television. Other quiz shows just passed the time." Don'tcha just love these TV phrases?

One anecdote of Paul Smith's will forever stay with me, though. He recalled proudly how he had said to the director of the show after one programme: "Congratulations, you've just directed the best drama on ITV." He's a nice man, and I know he meant it as a compliment. I thought briefly of Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown and felt a little depressed.


DICK FRANCIS must be in a quandary. Can he possibly think up a plot for his next novel that can outdo the trainer, the champion jockey, the trainer's wife, the "best friend" who sneaks to the press, the jockey's wife at home with new-born twins; location settings that move between the Newmarket gallops, the News of the World offices, the shower cubicle and the Priory Clinic? A denouement that involves the jockey being sacked, but before his employment is terminated he rides a winner and jockey and trainer have to stand side by side in the winners' enclosure?

Actually, in dramatic terms it goes beyond Dick Francis. There is a Harold Pinter play in that winners' enclosure scene, full of comedy and menace, the silences as revealing as the spoken words. "Well ridden, Fallon." "Thank you sir. She's a good filly. I didn't mean to..." "I know." "to give her her head too early." "It doesn't... not any more..." "It's just, she was sweating up and..." "I've never approved of excessive use of the whip..."

But yet again, life beats art. Trainer Henry Cecil's actual words on dispensing with Fallon's services were inimitable. "He will, I know," said Cecil, "keep himself fit and well and ride to his full ability on those horses that he knows so well for the sake of all involved. After that our association will be permanently terminated." Or to translate, he will act like a gentleman and not let down the gentlemen owners whose horses he is privileged to ride.

Horse-racing is unique in British sport in harking back to a day when gentlemen and players may have mixed but each knew his place. There would have been far less interest in Mrs Cecil's liaison had it been with another trainer. But a jockey adds a below-stairs spice, even though the jockey is likely to be a multi-millionaire and nationally famous figure. Racing cannot come to terms with this.

The Kieren Fallons and Pat Edderys still have to doff their caps to owners and call them "sir". They still have to stand in the stewards' room, hands, no doubt, behind their backs, and be lectured by retired army officers on how badly they rode. It is one of the last remaining areas in British life where the class system is intact. Mrs Cecil and her shock jock have disturbed the natural order of things, as The Priory's seminar on Marxist dialectics will no doubt make clear.


STAYING WITH racing, the BBC has found a rather good presenting team for its coverage in trainer's daughter Clare Balding and former champion jockey Willie Carson. They have a natural chemistry together, by which I mean they interrupt each other, talk at the same time and often do not listen to each other, which is what real people do as opposed to the usual, formulaic television teams who nod earnestly or laugh falsely when the other is speaking. Theirs is a winning combination. One thing puzzles me, though. Willie, like most jockeys, is slight of stature. Clare is what, in less politically correct times, one might have called a big girl. Yet when they chat they seem more or less of equal height. I know one could be horsewhipped for such a suggestion, but could Mr Carson possibly be standing on a box?

IT WAS revealed yesterday that the Government is sending a spacecraft to Mars in 2003 and the landing will be heralded by music from Blur and a spot painting by Damien Hirst. Both will be beamed back to earth. Mr Blair needs to be careful here. The space probe does not take off for another four years. By then Blur may be a distant memory, and the Prime Minister's gesture may look as dated as picking a Duran Duran album. Hirst is almost certain to have been deconstructed by the next generation of iconoclastic artists.

Fashions change very quickly. Look at last week's Mercury Music Prize. A throng of ethnic dance bands and no place for Robbie Williams, who conquered the Brits a mere six months ago. It is devilish difficult predicting what will be trendy in 2003. Why, William Hague might be Prime Minister, and who knows, he could be a covert Tracey Emin and Oasis man.