Romantic novelist, aged 90, is all we want for Christmas

The festive season could make Catherine Cookson the most unlikely pop star yet
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The Christmas number one chart single has always confounded musical taste. Neither Clive Dunn warbling `Grandad', nor Benny Hill reciting `Ernie' (he drove the fastest milk-cart in the West) would have them dancing in the clubs at any other season.

But Christmas brings out a different class of record buyer and a different class of record. Never more so than this year.

The names being touted for the 1996 Christmas number one include some of the young-est contenders - the brothers and sisters of the Dunblane victims - against unquestionably the oldest, 90-year-old novelist Catherine Cookson singing `My Way' and `Danny Boy'.

Even in the name of seasonal goodwill, it is optimistic of Miss Cookson's publisher, Bantam, to issue an audio cassette of its best-selling romantic writer singing some best-selling standards. But William Hill Bookmakers said yesterday that the venerable Miss Cookson had entered the betting, admit-tedly at a modest 50 to 1, to be number one at Christmas.

The moving tribute by the Dunblane children in which they sing Bob Dylan's `Knocking On Heaven's Door' does not actually feature in the betting produced yesterday by William Hill.

Spokesman Gary Burton said: "This is a light-hearted market and this is not a light- hearted subject. We all hope it will be number one, but we are not taking bets on it. If it is number one, we will pay out on the number two."

Meanwhile, the betting fav-ourite to be the Christmas number one, or even number two, are the fashionable Spice Girls (a hot 11/8 favourite). There follows the whole seasonal range, from the presumably pre-natal croonings of Madonna (5/1 second favourite) through teeny bop idols Boyzone (6/1) and Elton John duetting with Luciano Pavarotti (10/1), to a little- fancied Michael Jackson (16/1) and the eternally young Smurfs (16/1), and, to show that anything's possible at Christmas, even the Sex Pistols at 33/1.

More than 30 acts feature in the William Hill betting, but Richard Park, Capital Radio group programme director selected Robson & Jerome and the Spice Girls as the acts most likely to succeed. "There are some big contenders and there's going to be even more jostling this year," he said.

For those who want to bet on seasonal schmaltz, but don't fancy Catherine Cookson, Sir Cliff Richard's bid for a fourth Christmas number one (with the single `Be With Me'), is, surprisingly, a 50/1 long shot - the first time in his career that Sir Cliff has been judged about as likely as Catherine Cookson to top the charts.

All-time Top 10 singles

1 `Do They Know It's Christmas?' Band Aid, 1984 2 `Mary's Boy Child/ Oh My Lord' Boney M, 1978

3 `Last Christmas' Wham! 1984

4 `Merry Xmas Everybody' Slade, 1973

5 `Mary's Boy Child' Harry Belafonte, 1957

6 `White Christmas' Bing Crosby, 1977

7 `Mistletoe and Wine' Cliff Richard, 1988

8 `When A Child Is Born' Johnny Mathis,1976

9 `Happy Xmas (War is over)' John Lennon, 1980

10 `Lonely This Christmas' Mud, 1974

Taken From The Top 10 of Music (Headline, 1993)