That's why it's called Noel: Do we get what we're deserve at Christmas? Put it another way: do we deserve Noel Edmonds? Because that's what we're getting. Jim White reports

To the uninitiated it may appear completely baffling. But this Christmas Day afternoon, just after the Queen has addressed her subjects, more Britons will be watching Noel Edmonds's television programme Noel's House Party than will be doing anything else. When he dons a noisy jacket, romps through a cardboard castle of a set and presides over an hour of high-octane jollity, it will, so the predictions run, be enjoyed by nearly 20 million of us.

Victor Lewis-Smith, the comedian and television commentator, however, will not be dabbing his eyes at Noel's yuletide frolics. 'Certainly not. I think he's a cynical piece of shit,' Lewis-Smith says. 'He makes my blood boil. God knows what he does, but I wish he wouldn't. I wish he'd do

us all a favour and have an ejector seat fitted to that helicopter of his. A hundredweight of salami and no more Noel Edmonds seems a fair swap to me.'

Lewis-Smith is not alone in wondering how Noel Edmonds has achieved such an elevated place in the scheme of things. Here he is praised by Alan Yentob, the station's controller, as having 'the most important programme on BBC1', in possession of the heftiest contract the BBC has ever signed, banking a Blobby-full of royalties from the Christmas number one single, yet no one can pinpoint quite what it is that Edmonds does. Even his admirers are confused.

'He's not a comedian, he's not a singer or dancer,' said Tim Blackmore, his partner in the television company Unique. 'I suppose his skill is that he understands the concept of the common denominator, without necessarily going down to the lowest.'

'Stand him on a stage and tell him to entertain a crowd and he simply couldn't do it,' says Garry Bushell, television pundit at the Sun. 'There's a whole breed of people like him, what can they do except present their own telly shows? I guess the best thing to call him is a conductor.'

It seems a pretty simple way to earn enough to finance an 850-acre estate in Devon, several large cars and a serious helicopter habit. But if it is that easy, why aren't we all at it?

The thing about Noel Edmonds is that he is not a cult taste. Few people can have pictures of him on their bedroom wall. He is not big in student unions the way Jim Bowen is; nor is he a darling of the teens, like Newman and Baddiel. His appeal, he is proud to point out, stretches from toddlers to grandparents; his show is praised by Bushell as one of 'very few you can sit down and enjoy as a family,' and by Mark Lawson as being 'exactly the kind of thing the BBC should be doing; it is an example of excellence which a majority of licence payers will enjoy'.

It is not easy to attain popularity like that. Edmonds has achieved it by marrying modern techniques with old-fashioned values. His programme on Christmas Day, with its melange of five-minute segments, will be like an afternoon of family parlour games conducted in the microchip age: everyone in the mood, determined to have fun and with Edmonds in the role of the organising uncle, the chivvying life-and-soul. Instead of charades there will be the Gunge Tank, instead of consequences there will be the Big Porky Pie, instead of pass-the-parcel there will be Grab A Grand.

Like a household Christmas, it will be full of exclusive in-jokes, all drawn from the British light entertainment family. When Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up unannounced to tell a gag, it is only amusing if you know who he is; when Piers Morgan is covered in slime, it is best enjoyed if you are a student of his hideously self-referential column in the Sun; when Edmonds ruffles the apparently steam-ironed hair of Tony Blackburn, the full resonance can be appreciated only if you have followed Blackburn's career as narcissist and prat.

And it is all done, as his old hero Kenny Everett might say, in the best possible taste. Edmonds's whole working life has been based on audience participation. Noel's House Party is just a high-budget extension of his Radio One show of the Seventies, with the two-way video link replacing the telephone. He may not be astonishingly amusing or clever, but he is a master at playing the cipher; enabling the public to achieve their prime aim in life, getting on television.

But unlike other people shows (Jeremy Beadle's for instance), when members of the public appear on an Edmonds production they are not humiliated. His tricks are like being asked to conduct a forfeit in a parlour game; they engender initial embarrassment and consequent jollity in their victims rather than the rage on which a Jeremy Beadle prank turns. There is no need for a bleeper on Noel's House Party.

In fact, since he tightened things up after a member of the public died during a bungee-leap stunt on one of his programmes in 1986, it is all terribly safe. In an hour's live television, there is never any chance of things getting out of hand. Legend has it that once on NTV - the part of his show in which a camera is hidden inside a viewer's television set - a member of the public was exposed playing with his member. But as this skit, like every other, is carefully scrutinised before being aired, it is clearly apocryphal.

That is not chaos you see up there, it is a well-mannered facsimile of disorder, kept smoothly on the rails by Edmonds. Even when he apparently bursts into fits of giggles, he never corpses; his is a controlled glee.

This sense of control extends beyond his programme. Edmonds is the only star of his magnitude who does not employ a manager. If you want to do business with him, you have to speak to him direct. Which means he must be on the phone a great deal. Edmonds has been an energetic businessman ever since his days at Brentwood School (Griff Rhys-Jones was a contemporary), when on a school trip be bought everyone's fruit from their packed lunch and then sold it back to them later in the day at a profit.

Nowadays he shrewdly exploits his position. In interviews he talks about 'a strong portfolio of brands' rather than television programmes; and he 'has a firm client base' rather than a lot of viewers. The financial potential of every part of his programme is milked to its maximum in spin-offs and merchandising. The Gunge Tank, for instance, was offered by Edmonds's company to charities to use as a fund-raising tool last summer. At a cost of pounds 250,000.

Not only does Edmonds talk like a middle-ranking marketing man, he also looks like one. It is cheap to make fun of his personal style - but that shouldn't stop us. And with that Princess Di streaked hairdo, that beard he has worn since 1967, those slacks, those shirts, what he resembles more than anything is Mondeo Man: the kind of person who drives round the M25 listening to REM on the in-car CD system, aspires to life on an executive cul-de-sac and whose greatest ambition is, well, to appear on Noel's House Party. In the end, that is his skill - he is the ultimate marketing man in an age when marketing is the most important talent.

And now he has a brand to go with it. His show is not simply called House Party. It is called Noel's House Party. On Saturday it will adopt the temporary title Noel's Christmas Presents. Edmonds is now so well-established that he is recognised simply by his Christian name. This Christmas there really is only one Noel.

(Photographs omitted)

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