Join the Death Club for a final bet

"CELEBRITIES always die in threes," warns detective Harry Callahan's sidekick in the film The Dead Pool. Clint Eastwood is investigating the suspicious death of a star who croaked on set, and prime suspect is the movie director, who's found to be taking bets on personalities likely to snuff it.

It's a gruesome fad, but one that seems to hold an undying allure. Dead Pools are alive and kicking in pubs, clubs and firms around Britain.

Twenty employees at a London publishing house - which shall remain nameless - pay pounds 1 a week to their Death Club. The sweepstake is run by a colleague nicknamed The Grateful Ghoul, and each member is allowed to reserve five celebrities. The tally is revised each week, and if there's a dearth of deaths, the stakes can become high. Among those on the current critical list are Mother Theresa, Courtney Love, Ronald Reagan and Zsa-Zsa Gabor.

At the Ghoul's last place of employment, the biggest win was pounds 640 - secured on the passing away of actor Vincent Price. "I've won a few times myself," says the Ghoul. "It's the luck of the draw. So many people die and we think 'Oh, no one ever thought of them.' And others hang on forever. I've got the Queen Mother. I've had her for years. I think it's the main thing keeping her alive." But, he adds hastily, "Of course, it's very sad when anybody goes. I certainly don't wish anyone ill."

Such odds are too distasteful for the nation's betting firms. Paul Austin of Ladbrokes says, "We have never taken bets on matters of life and death." William Hill has an identical policy. According to spokesman Graham Sharpe "There are far more entertaining and uplifting things for us to speculate on."

But Mr Sharpe has soothing words for the rich and famous. "I don't think people are likely to assassinate their neighbours for the sake of a fiver they might win on a sweepstake."