Madness in millinery and the reverse weep

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The Independent Online
If you want to get ahead, they used to say, get a hat. This does not apply at Royal Ascot (BBC1), where if you are a socially amibitious female you will not make progress, it seems, unless you adorn your bonce with more ambitious headgear: a four-foot fake sunflower, say, or, in the case of one particularly sizzling creation, a fabric rendition of a full English breakfast. Food for thought indeed.

In the area of dubious headgear, as in so many other aspects of social dysfunction in this country, the Royal family lead by example. On Thursday, the Queen sported a royal blue lampshade, the Queen Mother, who has been going racing at Ascot since 1937, became confused and attended this year equipped for bee-keeping in a veiled cloche, while Princess Margaret wore what seemed to be a hollowed-out albino hedgehog. "Hmm, a rococo twirl," Eve Pollard, the BBC's style commentator, noted.

Pollard's view may have been obscured by her own creation, which was based on a dustbin lid. The ample shade it provided did not quite conceal her chestnut complexion and prominent teeth, however, giving rise to fears that if she lingered too close to the paddock an over-enthusiastic stable lad might try to saddle her up.

Her co-presenter, Clare Balding, was lucky to be on screen at all, having survived a high-speed collision with a crow shortly before transmission. The bird had not been so fortunate: half of it was buried in her head as she introduced the first race.

Pollard moved on from hats to what was worn below them. There was, she explained, "a slightly Ab Fab feeling" about Ascot this year, which was her not particularly subtle way of saying that the whole affair was spectacularly tasteless.

Scarlet, pink, bright yellow, mint sorbet: the paddock looked like an explosion in an ice cream factory. Even some of the men were affected, sporting technicolour waistcoats of emetic flamboyance. "Morning suits cover a multitude of sins," Pollard cooed. If only they had.

One who would have loved to be there, if only because proximity to royalty induces in him lip-trembling pride, was HD "Dickie" Bird, who was otherwise engaged on Thursday, walking out at Lord's to umpire his last Test match.

And what a reception he got: a guard of honour from the teams, a standing ovation from a packed house, even a formation fly-past from the pigeons that have tormented him for so long. It was enough to bring a tear to the eye, and Dickie, who is never slow to reach for his hankie at such moments, cried buckets.

Earlier in the week he had been the subject of an affectionate tribute in Dickie Bird: A Rare Species (BBC2). Harry Gration's charming documentary followed its subject around the county circuit and talked to cricketers, television presenters, a billionaire and a prime minister about the man they all love.

"Dickie was the most nervous cricketer I have ever known," recalled Michael Parkinson, who opened with him for Barnsley in bygone days. "He used to sit in the pavilion chewing right through his batting gloves." In those days, when Dickie got a lump in the throat it was more likely to be horsehair than emotion.

John Major described Bird as "an original", so at least he has got one thing right this month. Paul Getty said how easy he was to get on with, high praise indeed from a recluse, and players, from David Gower to Imran Khan, Clive Lloyd to Ian Botham, united in praise and affection. Botham, as usual, had the last word. "He is the best umpire there has ever been," he declared. "And the most important credential that he has is that without a doubt he is barking mad."

The qualities that had inspired these eulogies were not lunacy, but Bird's integrity, common sense and refusal to be intimidated. He recalled a confrontation with the fire-breathing Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes. "His language wasn't very nice. I said to him, 'Mervyn, I don't want you swearing at Mr Hick. He's a nice man. He's done you no wrong.' And Mervyn looked me in the eye and said: 'Dickie Bird, you're a legend.'" Mervyn was right.

Now to a less delightful matter, ITV's coverage of Euro 96. There is no problem with commentary, as Brian Moore is as authoritative as ever. The trouble starts back in the studio, where you get a lot of guff and not very much action, witness the great chunks of Sunday's highlights programme devoted to windbagging about Saturday's match when we could have been watching the best of Sunday's game.

This wouldn't matter so much if the presenters and pundits were relaxed and amusing. But Messrs Wilson and Rosenthal are dull, Alex Ferguson and Big Ron seem ill at ease, and Lee Hurst, supposedly there to provide much- needed light relief, is an embarrassment to himself and to his colleagues. Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable, but Hurst must go.