Last night


It was a scary Saturday night's television. BBC1 showed edited highlights of tornadoes. BBC2 had Boris Karloff in The Mummy. A Homebase commercial had the sky raining buckets (and other DIY items). Another ad reincarnated P J O'Rourke into a salesman for BA. ITV ran an old An Audience with Jimmy Tarbuck, in which Tarby "sang" Elvis. "Some say the world will end in fire,/Some in ice," wrote Robert Frost. I think I know enough of TV to say that summer schedules would suffice.

It was Channel 4, however, that officially bowed and scraped before Nostradamus's well-aired prediction that the world was ending. Eight hours of themed programmes were given added weirdness by the continuity department's decision to announce that programmes would follow at times that had already elapsed. This trick, telling us at 10.33pm, for example, that Welcome to Armageddon would follow at 10.30, put me in mind of Willie Whitelaw's accidental aphorism that we must not prejudge the past. At least you could not accuse of C4 of going round stirring up apathy. Over the night it tried every approach to Armageddon, from credulous to comical.

It began with The Real Nostradamus, which wasn't a patch on the usual, wearily debunking Real programmes. Father Lionel Fanthorpe, better known as the biking vicar of Fortean TV, made out that Michel of Nostradame was not only a terribly nice guy, a fearless plague doctor who lost his own family to it, but a dab hand at predictions. The only "downside" of his heritage, he conceded, was the "death cults". Having established from the expert of his choice, one Peter Le Mesurier, that Nostradamus had predicted the rise and fall of communist Russia, he moved on to the so-how-did-he-do-it question. To give us an idea, he visited a clairvoyant who "scried" in her mirror the bombing of a hospital. (Two days later, on 20 May, Nato did bomb a Belgrade hospital - not an amazing guess, given that by the time of her forecast we had already managed to hit the Chinese embassy.)

Later, Le Mesurier seemed to turn hostile witness, explaining that the so-called Hitler predictions were actually about the Danube and that this talk of the world ending with the arrival of a king of terror ("roy d'effraieur") was a punctuation error. What Nostradamus actually predicted was a "roy deffraieur", a king who defrayed taxes. But you could see Fanthorpe and Le Mesurier's game, which was to praise Nostradamus when he got things right and complain that he'd been misunderstood when he got things wrong. What this programme really needed was to be followed by a studio discussion in which some of this could be challenged. Fanthorpe, however, was allowed to shelter in Channel 4's website chat-room.

If you were to judge Nostradamus by the company he keeps, he would be well damned. Paul Yule's documentary about end-of-the-world cults, Welcome to Armageddon, was the plum of the evening, containing an interview with the mother of the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, who revealed that he had first sought fame as a pop star and had only turned fruitcake when he was spurned by a girl. Footage of Marshall Applewhite talking on video to his Heaven's Gate recruits was another creepy find.

"There is a kingdom beyond here and if you want to go there you'll have to follow me because I'm the guy who's got the key," he said, adding with a pang of modesty, "at the moment."

"Obviously not from this planet," an extant Heaven's Gater enthused - and I did see a resemblance between Applewhite and Ray Walston in My Favourite Martian.

Of still-growing death cults, the one that required everyone to change their name to Hawkins showed promise, but my favourite was the outfit run by a stetsoned Texan called Hayseed Stephens who, from close textual reading of the New Testament, had got the co-ordinates to drill for oil in the Dead Sea. Did I say Nostradamus was damned by association? In fact the gusty precision of these forecasts suggests that contemporary seers stand head and shoulders above the 16th century's great fudger.

And so time ran out, and then on. There was a worrying documentary, Three Minutes to Impact, about asteroid collisions, joke news bulletins that didn't quite come off ("We've just heard the rooks have left the Tower of London") and An A-Z of the End of the World, an MTV-style remix of eco-disasters designed to be watched under the influence of drugs - or so I assume, since it did nothing for me under the influence of alcohol.

Yet there are things that will stay with me from my doomy night in: the entirely useless phrase "pre-tribulation rapture", for example, and the retired civil servant who believes that time will end on 11 August and, in preparation, has booked a hotel room in Lewes. Most of all, however, I am haunted by the sight of O'Rourke taking Bob Ayling's shilling. It's damn near the end of the world when not only the best lose all conviction, but the worst, too.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?