THE final column before Christmas, and firstly a bum note on the carol sheet from Teesdale District Council.

The council owns a jolly little "Season's Greetings" display, cost around £500, which traditionally goes up outside its headquarters in Barnard Castle.

Last year it failed to appear, however - lack of manpower, they said - and this Christmas the good folk of Teesdale must again get by without their municipal salutation.

"We got a totally negative response from the staff," Coun John Yarker told a town council meeting. Comfort and joy? Humbuggers, the lot of them.

ON A more festive footing, we turn with the anticipation of a child at Christmas towards the munificent Mr Tom Champagne, above. Nice name, isn't it, and one with which David Walsh - now leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council - has been familiar since childhood.

David also wonders if we knew what you called the North-East monk who was always being bullied - answer at the foot of the column.

As millions throughout Britain will know, the doubtless effervescent Mr Champagne has for many years had his signature at the bottom of Reader's Digest prize draw offers.

"I almost regard him as a long-term pen-pal," says David. "I had a vision of him as a chap in his mid-50s, who wore a cravat, had had a good war and drove around the Home Counties with a popsy in an open-topped Triumph Herald."

On one long gone occasion, whilst living in modest bachelor accommodation in Saltburn, he was even invited by Mr Champagne to imagine a sparkling new Jaguar XJ6 pulling up outside "Flat 2, 5 Marine Avenue."

Unfortunately, it never arrived.

Now however, the council leader fears the worst for publishing's answer to Baron Bountiful. His latest invitation to have a chance of making a fortune comes simply from the Reader's Digest "Office of data processing records".

Has Tom Champagne finally lost his bottle, or - if ever he existed at all - gone finally to that joyful celebration in the sky?

WELL that bit's enough to spend Christmas in Carey Street, to start with. Reader's Digest not only insists upon the gentleman's genuineness but has been known to produce his birth certificate.

"There are journalists who have discovered, at the cost of a donation to a charity of their choice, that they should never have bet he was a fictitious character," says a website headed "Frequently asked questions."

More recently, the Guardian of November 26 carried a three-line letter, briefly mischievous: "In the search for Osama bin Laden, I note that Tom Champagne of the Reader's Digest prize draw has not been contacted. He seems to know where everybody else is."

It produced several responses, including a suggestion that as soon as bin Laden returned his "exclusive" prize draw numbers the allied forces would know where he was and have him, and another that bin Laden's face was at least occasionally seen, unlike Tom Champagne's.

There is, however, an image of him, glass in hand, on the internet. The guy has clearly worn well.

Mr Champagne himself wrote to The Guardian on November 29, insisting that not only had many people personally received prizes from him but millions more had seen him on television.

David Walsh is glad to hear he's alive and kicking ass. He still awaits the XJ6.

CHAMPAGNE'S one thing, but what of Babycham? Launched nationally in 1953 and loved by ladies everywhere, it's now enjoying a comeback thanks to something called the "retro fashion revolution".

The champagne perry, only the second alcoholic drink to be advertised on television, is just half as strong as the original but continues to hit the spot. The trademark baby deer may have undergone surgery, however.

In the pub they reckon it's more commercial, less cute. Has anyone noticed the difference?

UNTIL yesterday's Eating Owt column, M. Valery Giscard d'Estaing may not have been heard of for years.

Not only had his party stayed at the Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge, we reported, but hotel staff had had to sit a teddy bear at the table when guest numbers reached an unlucky 13.

Now the BBC reveals that the former French president is in line to head a commission charged with reviewing the political shape of Europe.

There are those who claim that, at 75, the former French president is yesterday's man. Might there be still greater concern if they knew that the superstitious M. d'Estaing shares the dinner table with a teddy bear?

JOHN Ingham, our man in and out of Thailand, reports that the Trink column in the Bangkok Post has challenged its readers to find a word which rhymes with "month". A little festive diversion, perhaps.

WHATEVER happened, asked last week's column, to the familiarly fat old policeman? It stirred Mr Ron Hails of Hartlepool from his winter reverie.

Ron's favourite bobby - 5ft 8ins tall, 16 stones - was well known 40 years ago, not just at Hartlepool United matches but among Sir William Gray's shipyard workers.

Those were the days when men went home for dinner, women were there to have it waiting on the table and Middleton Road would be wick (as probably they say in Hartlepool) with push bikes - and hardly, adds Ron, a decent brake block between the lot of them.

"Our friend would let a sizeable group pass, the next group eyeing him with some trepidation in the knowledge that the poor state of the bike would make a quick stop, or any sort of stop, difficult. Then he would strike."

The polliss would suddenly raise a flat, fat hand and point the other one at the leader of the approaching pack. So long as you weren't the leader, says Ron, it was hilariously chaotic.

"Everyone of upwards of two dozen riders would do their best to avoid running him over by clamping a shipyard boot into the front wheel. The result was a tangle of breathless, trembling, shipyard workers."

The fat old policeman tried hard to look suitably stern but didn't always manage it. Ah, sighs Ron, they no longer make bobbies like that.

PERHAPS distracted by too much Christmas shopping, Mr J Barraclough from Woodhamm Village, Newton Aycliffe, writes about "human behaviour".

Why is it, he asks, that when people stop to talk in the street they almost always stand across the flow of pedestrian traffic - "very often involving a pushchair or shopping trolley".

Mr Barraclough thinks it worthy of research: however unseasonal, a tap on the shins may prove equally effective.

....and finally, it is thanks entirely to the season's eternal appeal that with just six days to go we have still not eviscerated the mechanical monstrosity that masquerades as Santa Claus in the Cornmill Centre in Darlington. Nor, since the column doesn't return until January 9, does its comeuppance now seem likely.

It merely remains to wish all readers, and particularly those who so faithfully provide grist for these ever-turning mills, a peaceful and relaxing Christmas.

Oh, and the monk who was always being bullied was the Vulnerable Bede. Have a good 'un.