Column One: 'As Big Ben strikes, we go live to a cave full of virgins...'

Column One

MILLENNIUM! NO, wait, please, don't go away! I expect you, like me, have become perhaps a little bit jaded with the endless foreshadowing of the upcoming, crucial temporal moment; and perhaps, too, if we're being really honest, a little bit wistful not to have had an invitation to join Her Majesty for the Conga at the Dome to the new "really cookin' " version of the national anthem, cruelly compounded by a similar silence from Anita Roddick about her bash, where guests will be given their own tiny millennium cameras to record their own millennium dawn. But don't worry: I have good news: the telly is going to be terrific!

Yes, indeed: on Friday, 31 December, you will be able to switch your set on at 9.30am, half an hour ahead of the first dawn of 2000, in the South Pacific, and then watch celebrations here, there and everywhere without a break until 12 noon on 1 January, at which time, according to various reports, Samoa and the Samoans will mark the great event by either celebrating communion with coconuts, fire dancing, taking their clothes off or interviewing Kofi Annan.

Marvellous. Welcome to 2000 Today, the BBC's millennium broadcast, a mixture of domestic and international coverage involving at least 59 countries, pounds 70m (contributed by each country according to GDP), 78 satellites, 2,000 flaming peace lanterns over Taiwan, a Maori mountaintop call for unity led by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and, on Easter Island, seven virgins going into a cave with a naked man.

It's that kind of show, and, not surprisingly, the BBC is pretty excited. "The Chinese are signed up," said a spokeswoman. "We've got the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, Times Square, the main geographic reference points are covered. We're still trying to work out how we get into Space, though. If Mir had still been up, we could have gone there. And we've got good icons. We'll be going to Rome for the Pope's service, South Africa for Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama is looking good."

In Panama, the US is expected to hand over the canal, which seems remarkably obliging of them. And did you know that the French are going to have not one, but 12 Millennium Wheels set up along the Champs-Elysees? The Swedes, meanwhile, never ones to be left out when there's some party animalling to be done, have come up with a wedding in a church made of ice, a concert on musical instruments made of ice, and "a gigantic bottle of champagne that will emerge from the sea" (iced, presumably). Sensing that the Norwegians

wouldn't like to be beaten on this one, I asked about their slot. "Coming from an oil rig, I think," said the spokeswoman.

She also confided that John Simpson had not yet been told that Kiribati, the South Sea island from where he, Mrs Simpson and a cameraman will announce the first dawn of the new millennium, has just been declared dry.

The view from here will include, of course, the Dome. The BBC, which is co-ordinating the international coverage, took representatives from the foreign broadcasters down there for a look.

"They were gobsmacked," said the spokeswoman. The corporation will be using "every bit of kit" it has to cover events all over the country. Would Max Boyce's Welsh concert make it? "We're certainly there for the Manic Street Preachers," she said. Hmm. Time for the Big Question: Sir Cliff's Birmingham gig? "Definitely. We've got a camera backstage." I didn't like to ask about the White Heather Club.

There were optimistic noises, though, about the 2,000 Mexican folk dancers who will be parading in Los Angeles, close by the 2,000 line dancers in the San Fernando Valley. And, for anyone worried, there's no definite news yet about Jean Michel Jarre's concert at the Pyramids, although research among the broadcasters has shown they are keen to see the light show, but "not all that bothered about the music".

So: get ready to settle down and enjoy. All this and David Dimbleby, too. And if you would prefer to get out, I am able to tell you that the Millennium nightclub in Nuneaton is installing several large television screens.

This leaves only one tiny disappointment: the cave ceremony involving the seven virgins and the naked man on Easter Island seems unlikely to make it into the programme. That happens every year, apparently.

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