When Angus Deayton snorted a line of cocaine through a £20 note in a bedroom at London's Hilton hotel, captured on video by the News of the World, he could well have sealed the fate of his career.
Yet 10 days later, his reputation is enhanced and on Friday his long-running TV vehicle, Have I Got News for You, trounced the opening night of Big Brother in the ratings war.
According to figures released yesterday, the much-anticipated roasting of Deayton garnered 7.5 million viewers for the BBC1 comedy quiz – some 1.5 million higher than its average. By comparison, 5.8 million people watched as the latest batch of nervous wannabes move into the camera-filled Big Brother house.
While the figures were an improvement on those for its first two series, when the opening shows secured 3.6 million and 3.5 million respectively, few would argue that Friday was anything but a triumph for Deayton and co.
The show's producers turned a sorry saga that could have ended in tears into the biggest publicity coup of its 12-year history. For his part, the man known, until now slightly ironically, as "TV's Mr Sex" has seen his image transformed from the thinking woman's crumpet into full-blown love god.
Deayton's miraculous escape act has led some to conclude that, far from being the helpless victim of a classic tabloid sting, he has been saved by a remarkable damage limitation exercise involving the BBC, his publicist Matthew Freud, and, strangest of all, the News of the World itself.
According to the published account of Caroline Martin, the call girl with whom Deayton allegedly indulged in nights of frenzied passion, his "technique in that department was incredible". His knowledge of sexual practices was, we were told, so extensive that it would put the Kama Sutra to shame. At one stage, Ms Martin said she nearly asked him to stop so she could "ask exactly what he was doing" for the benefit of her "next boyfriend".
"He may be 45, but he did some things to me I only wish more men knew how to do," she told the newspaper. "That made me groan for mercy."
As if that wasn't enough, we learnt that middle-aged Deayton has a taste for gangsta rap. It all seems a far cry from his role as Victor Meldrew's straight-laced neighbour in the BBC's suburban sitcom One Foot in the Grave.
The fact that things could have turned out so differently has led conspiracy theorists to speculate that the whole escapade was little more than an elaborate spin operation.
To anyone who saw Deayton squirm and blush his way through a barrage of ribald jibes from Paul Merton and Ian Hislop on Friday's show, this theory may seem unlikely. Yet the suspicion remains that there was far more to the News of the World's story than initially met the eye.
For a paper that normally delights in relating every sordid detail of celebrities' infidelities, its exposé was remarkably tame. Not only was Deayton portrayed as something of an Adonis, but comparatively little was made of his relationship with long-term girlfriend Lise Meyer and their baby son.
Industry insiders have been quick to point out that the News of the World's editor, Rebekah Wade, is a close friend of PR guru Matthew Freud, Deayton's publicist, whose wife, in turn, is Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of News International owner Rupert.
Sources say that the route the Deayton story took before it made it to the printed page was a convoluted one.
Several weeks ago, Ms Martin contacted the paper's Manchester office to offer it a "kiss and tell" story involving Deayton and at least one other celebrity. A reporter interviewed her, but Ms Wade is said to have found the resulting article too boring to print. Weeks later, she changed her mind, but decided to train the spotlight solely on Deayton. Ms Martin was contacted and asked to lure the star to a hotel with the promise of sex.
He obliged, and the whole incident was captured on video. The rest, as they say, is history.
Last night, Mr Freud confirmed he had been "on the phone" to the News of the World on learning that it planned to splash on the Deayton story. However, he denied there had been any "conspiracy" between himself and Ms Wade to "soften" the impact of the tale.
"The first I heard about it was 4pm on Saturday," he said. "I told Angus and tried to come up with a quote, but from then on it was a rollercoaster over which I had very little control. I know Rebekah very well, but I know her well enough to realise that if she calls me with a story about a previously largely unsullied major TV presenter caught properly with his trousers down, there's very little I can do about it. I did whatever I could in the best interests of Angus, and if that softened the blow a little, then that's great."
Ms Wade declined to comment.
Asked why Deayton had escaped unscathed by internal discipline at the BBC, in contrast to the likes of Frank Bough and former Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, both of whom were removed following drugs revelations, a spokeswoman for the corporation said: "It's a private matter. The Metropolitan Police are not investigating the situation. It's an unproven allegation. Therefore, there's no need for the BBC to investigate."
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