IT WAS there in the paper, an article about how the voluntary sector was in trouble. It told of how people simply weren't giving anymore: paying off their mortgages before they thought of Oxfam or Save the Children or cancer research.
But then I go out on Saturday night to the Grosvenor Park Hotel on Park Lane in London, and I'm introduced to 20 women and 12 men talking about what they'd like to do with their lives, and all of them say they'd like to work for charity. It was practically the only thing on their minds. 'Hello, I'm Sherene Fogg and I like kickboxing and doing things for charity.' The voluntary sector can relax now, for soon coming to its aid are people with perfectly aligned teeth.
But before this happens, there was a contest to win. Miss UK is in its 37th year. It is itself a charity, with all proceeds going to the Variety Club of Great Britain, which helps disadvantaged children. This immediately allays some criticism of the event, and explains the evening's catchphrase of Beauty With A Purpose. But this is just the beginning. Miss UK has become a politically- correct paragon, a parade of consciousness so heartwarming that you swear you will never look at a bikini line again. Contestants do not just want to travel, they want to travel to Rwanda to build orphanages.
After the contest, when we sit down for the meal, we find that even the table mats are heart- shaped. Mid-pudding, we are shown videos about Gold Heart Day. At the end of the dinner we are encouraged to take part in a charity raffle for the two toy monkeys that adorn our tables. There will even be tiny children in waistcoats singing about racial harmony.
Some years ago, a beauty contest winner had been urged to hand back her crown when it became known that she was a single parent. The way it's going these days, even Andrea Dworkin could be in with a chance.
Until then we have to make do with Andrea Thompson, 22, from Sheffield, a cosmetician who likes dressmaking and step aerobics. She speaks a little French. From Grimsby comes Irene Mayberry, 23, a customer adviser at a bank, who likes decorating and Indian cooking. She speaks a little German. And then there is Karen Jean Smith, 22, the winner of the northern regional final, who works as a courier and can speak a little Italian.
For 75 minutes of the programme it was evening wear and swimsuits and African prints and bridal gear to the tune of 'The Most Beautiful Girl In the World' and 'Love Is All Around', up and down the catwalk with a slither of choreography and a perm-o-fix beam. We have seen much of this before on television, in the days before television decided it was too naff. Even Sky baulked at carrying it live, though it will take Miss World next month.
Miss UK is still naff in many ways, but it has long since attained a strange internal logic, and it now functions as a tingling salute to shameless camp taste, a bit like Come Dancing. There is a reassuring certainty to the proceedings: all the entrants are pretty, and they have proved their prettiness over two regional heats, and they all say virtually the same things, and the winner will go to a hot climate to meet other people who have also said the same things.
The PC element extends well beyond these shores. Last month Miss America was won by a deaf woman. At her crowning she said: 'My mom taught me that the last four letters of 'American' spell 'I can'.' This probably didn't make Miss Spain feel too good.
This year, for the first time, there is a Mr UK competition, 12 men in hair gel and Cecil Gee, all of them pumped up to burst. The men were are here to counteract the accusations that the contest degrades women, and so run through the same strut and chat routines. Unlike the victorious woman, the winning man will receive no guaranteed minimum income for the year (Miss UK bags pounds 18,000), and he will not be flying to Sun City to take part in any world final. Also unlike the women, he will not be officially endorsed by Nelson Mandela, another PC bullseye.
Our hosts are Rosemary Ford, who is indeed a presenter of Come Dancing, and Adrian Mills, the man from That's Life who worked with psychotic pets. The judges are Tessa Sanderson, Bruce and Wilnelia Forsyth, former Blue Peter man John Leslie, Marti Caine, Worldwide Snooker Promotions rep John Singh and Eric Morley, the old-timer who appears to have had a hand in Miss UK with his wife co-producer Julia since man first walked upright. The panel also includes male and female 'readers' representatives' from the Sun.
The Sun is sponsoring tonight's event, along with Worldwide Snooker Promotions, a company flogging its Snooker with Beauty Calendar, in which 12 of the finalists pose next to Jimmy White and Terry Griffiths.
Together the judges chose Melanie Abdoun, from London via the Sudan, to wear the victor's crown. This is a popular choice in the hall: she is fine-looking and eloquent, prowls like a jaguar, and is practically on first-name terms with everyone down her local soup kitchen.
Before the ceremony, Amanda Johnson, last year's winner, had promised her 12 months she'd never forget: fashion shows, boat shows, and opening the Harrods' January Sale with Richard Gere.
Before considering the winner of Mr UK, it is worth pausing at Bruce Forsyth's table for a little insider dealing. It is clear he is having quite a night. 'What is so lovely,' he says, 'is that when the men come on most of the women scream. I hope now that when the girls come on in the future we might be able to go 'Corr]' and do a bit of Whey-hey-hey] That would be rather lovely, actually. We men are never allowed to scream. Whether it's because we're with somebody and they might get jealous, I don't know.'
Choosing the winning man had been tricky. 'They all had very good bodies, I must say. I was glad I was wearing a suit when they were doing their swimming costume bit. I was just looking for personality. If someone can talk, that helps. If a woman looks beautiful and she starts to talk, if it isn't really nice, or semi-nice, it puts me right off as a male. I think it's the same with women when they're judging men. If he looks a hunk and there's something about the way he talks that doesn't really register, it puts you right off. The trouble is we've only got two minutes to make up our minds.'
Make that two hours. Most of the judging is done earlier in the afternoon in a private suite, where the panel interviewed all of the contestants in all their costumes.
'It gets very difficult,' Bruce says. 'In the end you're a bit confused.' But he's an old hand at this. 'That's how I met my wife. We were both judges at the Albert Hall in 1980. She was an ex-Miss World . . .' This anecdote is interrupted by an autograph hunter.
'I'm doing an interview here,' says the game show host. 'For the Independent newspaper. You jump in here . . . isn't it marvellous] And who's it for?'
It's for Corinna.
'Koringa?' Bruce asks. 'With an O? KOR . . .'
'No,' the fan says. 'Cross it out]'
Then I take a photograph of Bruce and Corinna.
'So my wife, meeting my wife . . . she'd been invited to the Albert Hall to be one of the judges, and they asked me. Originally they wanted me on the Wednesday and the Thursday. They said, 'The judging is on the Wednesday and the Thursday.' I said 'Two days? I can't do two days.' So I dismissed it from my mind, and the next day they called back and said, 'Well can you just come on the Thursday, we're going to do all the judging on the Thursday]' And I met her on the Thursday, and it was one of those things. We danced to two in the morning. Overnight, from Thursday to Friday.'
Eric Morley then interrupts. It's something about raising lots of money with the the snooker calendar.
'We're good friends of the Morleys,' Bruce says. 'My wife loves these things. It's the excitement and the people. You see, it's nice to see someone win. A lot of this is criticised, but what is wrong in somebody if they're nice-looking and have a little bit of ambition in life? This could transform two people's lives completely. Is that wrong? Is it a bad thing to do, to give two people a chance in life that they wouldn't normally have? I don't think it's wrong. And when you think of all the money that goes to charity - is that wrong?
'So why don't all these minority groups who criticise these evenings, why don't they just let the majority of the people . . . Why don't they just leave us alone? Why don't these minority people just stay out of it?
'Trouble is, we're the silent majority, and we don't complain about them. These minority groups, who shall remain nameless, at least they can't say it's just a cattle market, because we now have the men. Perhaps they think the men are cattle too. I'm going in a little bit strong now.'
When the male contestants come on, all of them say the same thing: 'I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening . . . Do have a great time tonight . . . I'm having a great time: you do too]' One of them says he collects stamps. Another, employed as a florist, said that one of his hobbies was flower-arranging. Another man did impressions of Bruce Forsyth, at which point Bruce almost fell off his chair. And then the contestant did Michael Crawford playing Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.
Frank Spencer wins. He is Gary Edwards: brown hair, green eyes, 6ft 1in, 25, jaw like a box, previously triumphant at the Midlands & South regional final. Just before he gets the title he says he hopes that we are all having a brilliant night, because he is, and he uses the phrase 'Ooooh, Betty'.
In a quiet spot away from the dancefloor at the after-show party, Gary analyses what all this means to him. He sounds like the sort of man you might find swinging on the back of your dodgem car at a fairground. His lady saw the advertisement for the contest in the Sun. He went for the local heat in Ilford. The last four days rehearsing has been fantastic.
'I done modelling when I was young - Marks & Spencer's catalogues when I was eight or nine - but I was missing too much school. When I left school I became a pageboy in the Mayfair Hotel. Then I was a trainee draughtsman, I worked at Kleinwort Benson stockbrokers, then in demolition, so many different kinds of jobs. Now I'm back at the Mayfair Hotel as a luggage porter.'
Well congratulations. What will you be doing over the next year? 'I really don't know.' A little light charity work perhaps? Frank Spencer mulls this over. 'I'd really like to get into modelling.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies