Watching brief - Amanda Platell on Tony Blair's birthday treats

The Prime Minister gets a few birthday treats thanks to a fab photographer, a loyal lackey and a new

To celebrate Tony Blair's 50th birthday, BBC2 rustled up Cilla Black to sing for him. The two women may have been born around the same time, but Marilyn Monroe she ain't. I'm sure he would have preferred Carole Caplin in a slinky frock purring "Happy Birthday, Mr Prime Minister".

As the Times pointed out, the marking of this PM's 50th is unprecedented. Poor old John Major was neither loved nor celebrated. These days you can't open a newspaper without a picture of a guitar-playing Blair grinning out at you.

But the best gift to our Tone was a Times poll - the Baghdad bounce made his popularity rise again. Even the Guardian was kind on the day, with Michael White, the political editor, concluding that "the novice of 1997 has learned the job . . . He is harder, more confident of his power."

The Independent was less flattering; his biographer John Rentoul argued that this is a weakened Prime Minister, and a vain one, driven by the same craven ambition as Margaret Thatcher to stay on,whatever the cost.

Blair's usual adversaries were full of birthday cheer. The Telegraph listed 50 good things about Blair including his manners, his marriage and the fact that he isn't John Prescott . . . or Neil Kinnock.

A favourite moment came in the Daily Mail, which listed 50 things, some of which the PM would rather we didn't know, such as that "he got close to Cherie for the first time at a party in 1976 when they played a game" passing a balloon "through each other's legs". I didn't realise they made balloons that small.

Tony Blair stares resolutely into the middle distance, seated aboard an RAF jet, earmuffs on to silence the scream of the engine. Tony Blair plays the guitar in jeans and sweater, surrounded by his children's toys. Tony Blair walks resolutely past baby Leo's playroom on his way out to the Azores, on the piano the sheet music for "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat".

No, Prime Minister, you thought you saw a photo opportunity. You did, you did, you did see a photo op. The only one who didn't see it was Sir Peter Stothard, whose new book Thirty Days was serialised in the Times.

Be wary the writer who claims "unprecedented access", as it always comes at a cost - and that cost is honesty. What serious and independent-minded journalist could write: "There is less 'spinning' of stories to press and parliament now", as Stothard does?

On the other hand, the photographer Nick Danziger has done a brilliant job of capturing the mood and the momentum of Blair's war. The photo-reportage has a real intimacy and a depth missing from the text. It's worth buying the book for the pictures alone, if the Times Magazine is anything to go by.

"In his first years as Prime Minister Tony Blair was always anxious about how he appeared. In his second term he has cared less," writes Sir Pete. The very fact that Blair authorised a favoured and loyal journalist - a man he knighted - to record his war makes one doubt that assertion.

As William Hague's head of media, I waited years for the kind of coverage he is now getting. Almost two years since he told the world he was standing down as leader of the Conservative Party, the Yorkshire lad is being urged to come forward again. In an insightful profile, the Sunday Times asked whether destiny was calling again for Billy the Tory Kid.

And all this on the back of a couple of good performances in the House of Commons during the war, which no one saw, and an even better appearance as guest host of Have I Got News For You, which millions watched. There he displayed the rare combination of great humour and even greater intelligence that has always been his hallmark.

With those traits transposed on to a game show, Hague was transformed - the former Tory leader was so good, he even managed to best the beastly Paul Merton. The line between showbiz and politics has never been so fragile. Surely the short cut to Downing Street cannot be a TV studio?

First, the footballer David Ginola attacks our "shameless, drunken" women; now Madonna casts aspersions on our English roses. In an interview with Jonathan Ross for BBC1, Madonna gave about as convincing a performance as a Londoner as her depiction of a socialite in her latest movie, Swept Away, which was such a turkey that it went straight to video.

"I get drunk with him," she said of her husband and turkey director, Guy Ritchie. "I become one of those English drunken girls. All it takes is half a pint."

First, Madonna: at 44 you're no girl. Second, no self-respecting English ladette gets drunk on half a pint of lager.

The one thing Madonna's cockney-meets-Cheltenham act and silly, affected English accent did achieve was to distract attention from her singing.

We should be grateful for small mercies.