Matthew Norman's Media Diary

You're losing your touch, Mazher

Little brings on the melancholy like the vision of a once great performer struggling on when the powers are fading. Muhammad Ali being whipped by Larry Holmes, the ailing Winston Churchill at the dispatch box after the 1951 election, John Sullivan's more recent scripts for Only Fools and Horses ... These are sights to weigh down the heart.

So it's with deep reluctance that we turn to Mahzer Mahmood, whose efforts as the News of the World's fake sheikh have provided such artless pleasure for so long. Alas, his latest foray into the world of entrapment suggests a startling decline in his powers. As Senator Norm Coleman might have warned him, you take on George Galloway at your peril - but if you do have a go, you must be on top of your game.

Judging by George's version of events, Mahzer has lost it completely. Arranging to meet George for dinner at the Dorchester Hotel with a colleague, with a view to funding his Respect Party, was fine. Nothing wrong there at all. However, when playing the part of Islamic fundamentalist, it is generally sensible to wear some form of beard, false if necessary. As for the attempt to entice George into agreeing with anti-Semitic remarks, allowing your mate to moan, of the Holocaust, "you're not allowed even to quibble about the numbers, not even to say it might have been five million" ... well, it's not brilliantly subtle, is it? I doubt David Irving would have fallen for that.

George has reported the incident to the Met, and threatens to publish a picture of the fake sheikh. If I might make a personal appeal on Mahzer's behalf, don't do it, please. Think of Larry Holmes looking pleadingly at the referee to stop that heartbreaking fight with Ali. Think of that, George, show some clemency, and leave Mahzer with whatever dignity he has left.

AND YET, and yet ... as the curious renaissance of Noel Edmonds makes clear, there's always hope of a dramatic comeback. For years Nolly hadn't appeared on our screens, and here he is now earning £3m a year for his Channel 4 quiz show, and nominated for a Bafta. On a personal note, I am delighted. Nolly once responded to an unflattering appreciation of his work by sending me a Christmas card (an M&S pop-up Santa) concluding with the injunction: "put hatred from your heart at this time of the year". A shade Jesusy and melodramatic for some tastes, but touching for all that. And now here he is, risen from the light entertainment grave after a sabbatical in his Jacobean mansion in Devon (the largest property in Britain, as he liked to point out, with no public right of way). He's sold that since, by the way, and is now living in a hotel in Wiltshire while looking for a house. It obviously isn't a Travelodge, and it's a long way from Norwich, but a most gratifyingly Partridgean scenario all the same.

DISTRESSING NEWS, meanwhile, for the Graeme Le Saux Appreciation Society as it prepares for its fifth annual convention, to be held in a kayak on Margate beach on 11 May. A back-page exclusive in the Mirror by the excellent Oliver Holt (who is apparently ghostwriting Mr Le Saux's forthcoming autobiog) reports that the former England full back has done a Keeganesque queeny flounce out of the BBC.

Umbrage was taken after the Beeb's head of football, Niall Sloane, changed his mind about him being John Motson's sidekick at World Cup matches, and replaced him with Mark Lawrenson. This is a blow to us all. Mr Le Saux reads both the Guardian and The Independent, which alone was believed to give him special access to the middle-class audience, whether or not his analysis makes Jimmy Hill sound like Richie Benaud. In the absence of the intellectual Le Saux, Mr Sloane is widely thought to have no choice but to recall the great Barry Davies - a victim for too long of anti-Oxbridge snobbery, and the finest pronouncer of tricky foreign names in the business - as a World Cup commentator in place of the human foghorn Jonathan Pearce.

DOES ANYONE know the identity of the comedian who presents a Radio 5 Live show on weekend nights under the sobriquet of Stephen Nolan? This bombastic Northern Irishman (the accent's almost perfect) is the station's first foray into spoof characters since the sports pundit Derek "Robbo" Robson, and may be the most acutely observed satire on the nihilistic pointlessness of the radio phone-in ever.

I AM increasingly obsessed with the Daily Mail's majestically obtuse Connections game. On Friday, for example, it asked what Paul Whitehouse, Meera Syal, Michael Aspel, David Attenborough, Princess Margaret and Rowan Williams have in common. The answer on the back of the four-page section, as you'll already have worked out, is that they all chose a piano as their Desert Island Discs luxury.

I've no idea who this miraculously obtuse feature is aimed at (Sue Lawley wouldn't have got that one), but the infinitessimal hope of one day getting the answer is giving me reason to live.

THE TWO-horse race to be the Prime Minister's last fervent supporter on the comment pages of serious newspapers remains too close to call. Paddy Power now quote the Guardian's Martin Kettle and The Independent on Sunday's John Rentoul at 11/10 the pair, and we'll be looking for the first serious chink in the weeks ahead. But the smart money is on the dead heat at 17/2.

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