Matthew Norman's Media Diary

BBC spells out a winning format

This is tremendous news, but there is a catch. If it goes to a tie-breaker, they may be faced with words absent from the crib sheet. It strikes me as unethical to ask out-of-work soap actors, former curling internationals and Gyles Brandreth (no confirmed names yet, so it's an informed guess) to spell words they haven't had a fortnight to memorise, but media scholars insist that will be the first time celebrities are assisted to look cleverer than they are. Suggestions that occupants of Countdown's Dictionary Corner have Scrabble champs whispering in their earpieces are absurd - why shouldn't Esther Rantzen come up with a nine-letter radioactive isotype in six seconds without help?

Even more offensive (and please complain directly to the Editor) is a rumour that the Beeb plans a Starspell Christmas special featuring Susan Hampshire, Michael Heseltine and other leading dyslexics, in the hope of recouping some of production costs by selling the show to Poland.

IF AND when Gerald Kaufman becomes inaugural Starspell champion, pipping Dennis Wise in a tie-break with correct renditions of "egregious", "old" and "ass", it's pretty much guaranteed that he'll celebrate with an appearance on Andrew Marr's Sunday sofa. Andrew has just departed his previous post, you will know, for David Frost's old berth, and takes space in his Daily Telegraph column to consider the move. So far beneath him were the demands of being BBC political editor ("parts of my brain have been in cold storage") that he admits to nerves. Still, it's an encouraging sign of the military precision with which he has been preparing that he was last week sighted on a train reading Cilla Black's autobiography. Production staff say he plans to end the show with a bespoke version of another Cilla classic, rewritten by Burt Bacharach to go "What's it all about, Andy?", but I find this very hard to believe.

I AM driven demented with rage by venal attacks against another top Telegraph columnist, Mark Steyn, the kill-'em-all neo-con who shares with Gerald a passion for musical theatre. Diarists seek to ridicule Mark for no better reason than that, in the week he berated "media twerps" and others for taking a "business as usual" approach to the London bombings, he fired off one of his e-mails to executives regarding his new picture byline. Apparently his face had been pasted on to someone else's body, and Mark was vastly distressed.

It's most out of character for him to throw a queeny fit over something like this. Traditionally, Mark threatens to resign only over matters of sovereign principle, such as the time the column of another US-based writer, Zoë Heller, was garlanded with the Stars And Stripes. Then he went missing for weeks, and was thought to be hiding out with a survivalist sect in the Nebraskan hills. This time - and I think it's a mark of his development as a human being - the only thing to vanish was the photo.

UPSETTING NEWS of Alastair Campbell, meanwhile, on his return from a sensational triumph with the British Lions in New Zealand. Ali is reportedly depressed at the prospect of cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull censoring his forthcoming memoirs, which would greatly diminish their value. Myself, I think it would be pernickety to take umbrage over any trivial breaches of the Official Secrets Act. It's not as if, during Ali's time in power, anyone connected with him would have threatened a Civil Servant, such as the late David Kelly, over pension rights following a breach. Sir Andrew wants to chill out, and stop being such a pedantic killjoy.

THERE IS little to report of thick-skinned Welsh newscaster Huw Edwards. Huw passed a quiet but productive week reciting bulletins, every word of which he had written himself, and for now no more need be said.

CONGRATULATIONS, FINALLY, to two of the finest politico-media operators ever to emerge from Peter Mandelson's all-star stables. Ben Wegg-Prosser, still holder of the world rapid-rebuttal record (0.37 seconds to dismiss the persistent rumour that Mandy was planning to grow a beard after the style of ZZ Top), is leaving a job with The Guardian for a top strategic post in Downing Street, where insiders say he will be Tony Blair's very own CJ Cregg. We anticipate a stream of top-level, off-the-record briefings from Ben. As for his predecessor as Mandy's points man, Dolly "Derek" Draper is engaged to be married to Kate Garraway from GMTV. Since his brief crack at being a lobbyist, Dolly's career has seen him emerge from the Priory clinic to sell New Age crystals in California, so it's perhaps inevitable that he is now training to be a psychologist. We wish them both the very best.

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