They're off Racing: Spring can't be far away... it's the highlight of the National Hunt season with the start of the Cheltenham Festival today. Lots of Guinness, Irish bonhomie and corporate entertaining. The Smurfit Champion Hurdle on Tuesday is the big one. 11-13 March. Gates open at 10.30am. Tickets Tue pounds 50 club, pounds 20 Tattersalls, pounds 10 carriage enclosure. Box office 01242-513014.

They're off?

The Conservative Central Council Meeting is being held in Bath on Friday and Saturday. In 1992 the Prime Minister used this rally as a springboard for the Tory general election campaign. If he does that again we could be looking at a campaign lasting seven weeks, if the Tories settle on May Day for D-Day. Oh dear.

He's off

Theatre: Peter Hall's repertory company kicks off tonight at the Old Vic with a new production of Caryl Churchill's Broadway hit Cloud Nine. Tim McInnerny (of Blackadder) plays a leading role in this production, which examines sexual politics via trademark time leaps and generation conflicts. 2.30pm matinee, 7.30pm. Tickets pounds 10-pounds 19 until 16 March. Hall's season features 12 plays, including Harley Granville Barker's Waste and Hurly Burly by new writer David Rabe. Box office 0171-928 7616.

Truly moving

Film: Over-hyped (?) but over here, at last. The English Patient opens nationwide this Friday with Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Our critic summarises: "Four damaged people end up sharing their lives in a ruined Tuscan villa in 1944." Director Anthony (Truly, Madly, Deeply) Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize- winning novel has been nominated for 12 Oscars.

Opera now

Opera: This week only, don't miss an exciting new production of Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata in English (translation by David Pountney) at the Hackney Empire with Fiona O'Neill as Violetta. 12-15 March, 7.30pm. Some tickets left for Wednesday (pounds 10). The rest: pounds 12.50-pounds 18.50. Box office 0181-985 2424.

More opera: Graham Vick's production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly is back at the London Coliseum this Friday with Susan Bullock in the title role. Tickets pounds 6.50-pounds 50 weekdays and matinees, pounds 8-pounds 55 Saturdays. Performances at 7.30pm, except 22 March at 6.30pm. 0171-632 8300. Tickets for another Graham Vick production, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Royal Opera House, are only available for 24 March. Prices from pounds 82 to pounds 272. Box office 0171-304 4000.

Hey, hey

Many were the nights that we secretly prayed that their chapter in the book of pop history was finished, but now the original four-piece Monkees hit the road again for the first time in almost 30 years. Catch the Born Agains monkeying around throughout the week at Dublin (10 March), Cardiff (12), Sheffield (14), Manchester (15) or Bournemouth (16). Details and group bookings 0181-863 3266.

Tip tap

Dancing: Dein Perry's Tap Dogs is an energetic, exciting, dexterous show with dancers even taking to the ceiling. As our critic put it: "It does to steel-capped boots what Gene Kelly did for umbrellas". Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 10-15 March. Tickets pounds 8-pounds 16.50 (pounds 2 off concs). Details and box office 0115-948 2626.

Nose job

Fun(d)raising: The Spice Girls, Kylie Minogue (a sort of Spice Girl of the Eighties), Lenny Henry and anyone who is anyone trying to be funny are among the acts to support Comic Relief's Red Nose Day this Friday. BBC1 and 2 on 14 March from 7pm. From 11pm. The live event at Shepherd's Bush Empire is sold out. Box office: 0181-740 7474

Book it

Fair: Olympia hosts the UK's largest trade book fair, the London International Bookfair 1997. The headline attraction, especially for children and their parents, is the consumer software event Follow the Mouse, which is open to the public (admission free). National Hall Gallery Olympia; 15-16 March, 10am-5pm. (pounds 15), call 0120-342 6454.

Stub it

Bad habits: No Smoking Day on Wednesday marks the annual attempt to wean the addicted off the weed. A national campaign of posters and interviews will focus in particular on the 40 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women in the 20-24 age bracket who depend on their daily fix of nicotine.

Last chance

Theatre: Hurry to see Fascinating Aida's immensely successful West End show, The It, Wit, Don't Give A Shit Girls,. during its extended run at the Apollo Theatre. 8pm every night until 15 March. Tickets pounds 12.99 to pounds 14.99. Box Office: 0171-494 5070.

Last glance

Architecture: The current retrospective of the architect Denys Lasdun continues at the Royal Academy of Art, London, until Sunday. Tickets pounds 3 (pounds 2 concessions). Box office: 0171-494 5676.