INTERNATIONAL

It's festivities sans cheer in U.K.

LONDON DEC. 25. Christmas? What Christmas?

The Queen is nursing a sprained knee, the Duke of Edinburgh is rumoured to have had a fall, though it has been strongly denied, Downing Street is still trying to recover from the `Cheriegate' affair, young men are being prepared for a war which nobody wants, terrorists are alleged to be knocking at the gates, and-not that anyone cares anymore — Her Majesty's Opposition is in a meltdown with Tories down to their worst-ever ratings.

It is a measure of the mood in the country that for the first time TV channels have been running `promos' of the Queen's traditional Christmas Day message to make sure that her subjects remember to hear it. Normally a zealously-guarded `secret' until the moment of the broadcast, this year it vied with other commercials to find a slot in between programmes in a move prompted by declining viewership figures.

The royal family however still arouses curiosity, and this morning there was a fair crowd at Sandringham, to watch the Queen and her family as they arrived for a church service but the crowd was reported to be much smaller than in previous years.

For the second consecutive year, drum beats of war drowned out the festivities. Last year, it was Afghanistan-this year, Iraq with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, looking even more isolated than over Afghanistan. If Mr. Blair had little to cheer about, his opposite number in the Commons, the Tory leader, Ian Duncan Smith, found himself in even more gloomy circumstances as a leadership challenge loomed large barely a year after he was elected to rebuild the party.

The Queen's description of the past 12 months as "full a year as I can remember'' summed up a year whose seamier side — the political rows and the royal `scandals'— was also the most entertaining.