Odds fixed on Christmas chart-toppers

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THE DISTANT sound of Christmas 1994 can also be heard, faintly but distinctly.

A duet between Sting and Julio Iglesias, and the One Foot in the Grave theme, sung by actor Richard Wilson, are among the singles being aimed at the Christmas number one spot by British record companies. Weeks before these seasonal smashes reach the ears of the public, marketing departments have scheduled their releases to catch the Christmas trade, and eager gamblers are betting on which will be at the top of the charts on 25 December.

The bookmakers William Hill opened its book two weeks ago and has already received many of the pounds 100,000-worth of bets it expects. 'Last year was a bad result for us,' said Graham Clarke, the firm's spokesman. 'There were only two contenders - Mr Blobby and Take That - and they came in at numbers one and two.'

A Christmas chart-topper, says Mr Clarke, is 'the holy grail of the record industry'. Sales rise from autumn onwards, so that a single that sells enough to reach the Top 10 in the summer would get only to number 40 at Christmas. Hence marketing departments plan their winter offensive months in advance. Mariah Carey's November release, 'All I Want for Christmas is You' (20/1), was recorded in February.

Current odds are 10/1 on the Beatles, whose posthumous single was rumoured to appear this year, and 5/1 on Take That, who suffered the humiliation of being bumped off the top spot by Mr Blobby last year.

Luckily there is no sign of a follow-up from Mr Blobby (10/1), but there is the hotly tipped 'The Girls All Love Me' by The Big Breakfast's anarchic aliens Zig and Zag (8/1). The two Zs' record company, RCA, admits that this is a 'fairly transparent' ploy to cash in on the brightly-coloured, non- human, television-character, stocking-filler market, although a spokesperson insisted that Zig and Zag were different from last year's winner: 'They're not Mr Blobby. They're Mr Blobby with credibility.'

Cliff Richard (14/1) is always worth a flutter, and as luck would have it he has a single out on 14 November. However, his publicity officer denies that opportunism is in the air: 'It's a common fallacy that Cliff has a Christmas hit every year. In fact, he's had only three in his whole career. It just so happens that they have been in recent years. We're re-releasing 'Miss You Nights' to coincide with his UK tour and with his album The Hit List.'

Richard Wilson is at 20/1, along with Madonna, Bad Boys Inc and Frank Sinatra, and the Iglesias/Sting duet is at 25/1.

But the smart money will bide its time for a freak outsider. No one could have predicted that Freddie Mercury would die at the end of November 1991, but when he did, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' went to number one for five weeks.

This year we will have longer than ever to wait before we know whether we can afford an extra-large turkey. For the first time, the Christmas top 40 will be announced on 25 December itself. Before now, if chart day and Christmas Day coincided, the previous week's rundown would count as the official Christmas one and the new one would be delayed by a few days.

A spokesperson for CIN, which compiles the pop charts, said: 'It's the music industry's own chart. Record company executives will be waiting by their faxes on Christmas morning.' So will gamblers, bookies, and Zig and Zag.

(Photograph omitted)