The race for the U.K.'s Christmas No.1 single can be as calculated as the pop industry itself. But it can always redeem itself with a left-field surprise. This year, that surprise arrives in the form

The race for the U.K.'s Christmas No.1 single can be as calculated as the pop industry itself. But it can always redeem itself with a left-field surprise. This year, that surprise arrives in the form of an obscure, middle-aged veteran whose resume includes stints in King Crimson and the Flowerpot Men.

Fifty-five-year-old Gordon Haskell -- who even two months ago was playing to only as many people as would turn up to see him in pubs and clubs -- has emerged as an unlikely but convincing contender for the festive best seller with the romantic, jazzy ballad "How Wonderful You Are" (released Dec. 17 in the U.K. on the independent label Flying Sparks, and licensed to EastWest).

Haskell's story is remarkable, both for the re-emergence of an artist who was last close to the mainstream 30 years ago, and because his record has the audacity to compete against the pop might of a much-publicized duet by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman -- not to mention the toddler power that provides the retail impetus for the latest children's TV spin-off, the Lampies.

If the key to Christmas honors in Britain lies in a combination of timing and publicity, then with the media suddenly lining up to cover him and his single, Haskell may have judged his run to perfection.

Williams and Kidman's cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra's 1967 No. 1 "Somethin' Stupid" (Chrysalis), from Williams' current smash album "Swing When You're Winning," swung to No. 1 this week, ahead of the official seasonal chart, following its Dec. 10 release. Pre-school favorites the Lampies' "Light Up the World for Christmas," was also released that day on the Bluecrest label, with independent distribution by Pinnacle.

New releases from both Michael Jackson ("Cry," Epic) and sister Janet ("Son of a Gun," Virgin) were also issued Dec. 10, but managed only modest performance on the chart released on Sunday (Dec. 16). Her "Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song)" featuring Carly Simon (Virgin) entered at No. 13, while his "Cry" (Epic) debuted at No. 25. Also in the hunt were releases from Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton, Finnish hip-hop hitmakers Bomfunk MC's, and melodic modern-rock flag-bearer Starsailor.

On Monday, Mariah Carey, Faithless, and others joined the parade. EMI has confirmed a tribute reissue of George Harrison's 1971 signature hit "My Sweet Lord," but that single is now not due until Jan. 14, not in time to make the Christmas chart.

A yuletide regular -- indeed the most successful domestic artist in British singles chart history -- is already back among the singles action.

Cliff Richard's medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" (Papillon) charted Dec. 9 at No. 11. While it's unlikely to give Richard another chart-topper in the vein of 1988's "Mistletoe & Wine" or 1990's "Saviour's Day," it may yet become an extraordinary 65th top-10 hit for an artist whose first hit was in 1958, having already extended his chart history into a sixth decade.

"Christmas songs don't come around that often. It's so hard to get a strong one that isn't 'Jingle Bells,'" Richard says. "I've managed to do it a couple of times, but my other Christmas No. 1s were 'The Next Time'/'Bachelor Boy' in 1962 and a pop song called 'I Love You' in 1960. So, sometimes they're only Christmas hits because it happens to be a Christmas period."

"Everybody and their mother releases a record at Christmas, so you have to battle your way through some great artists," he continues. "That's why I'm always amazed that people assume I'm the only one that ever releases a record at this time of year."

The Williams/Kidman release was the hot favorite for this past Sunday's chart, but it's the Dec. 23 survey, summarizing the Dec. 16-22 sales period, that is the official Christmas chart. Haskell's single is being released Dec. 17 on indie label Flying Sparks, normally distributed by Vital. But to cope with the immense public demand, Haskell and Flying Sparks signed a deal Dec. 10 with EastWest for the single and an album due in January 2002.

"They can press buttons for the world," Haskell told Billboard moments before signing the deal, which affords access to EastWest's major-label machinery but keeps all of the 16-strong Flying Sparks team on board. "They're such good guys, I didn't want to lose them, and this is like having a double-barrelled shotgun."

The deal also brings Haskell back to the Warner Music Group after a brief spell in 1970 as a member of King Crimson, signed in the U.S. to Atlantic, for whom he then recorded as a solo artist with production giant Arif Mardin. Haskell had previously worked with band leader Robert Fripp in 1960s groups the Ravens and the League of Gentlemen, then in the U.K. chart bands Cupid's Inspiration and the Flowerpot Men.

After "15 years in the wilderness," as he describes it, in which he nevertheless honed his gigging skills, Haskell has latterly "got into a state of contentment, because I'd seen how James Taylor's career had progressed, without hit singles. You just do what you can do, and the rest is baloney."

Haskell gives "total" credit for the emergence of "How Wonderful You Are" to national adult contemporary broadcaster BBC Radio 2, notably drive-time presenter Johnnie Walker, the first to play the song on the network, and executive producer (music) Colin Martin.

"When Johnnie played it, I happened to hear it in the car going home," Martin says. "I put it on the A-list straight away, and I can't tell you the response. The PAs [secretaries] here immediately said they hated it -- because it created so much paperwork from listeners calling in."

Following Radio 2's key role in breaking the late Eva Cassidy to a wider audience, the interest surrounding "How Wonderful You Are" also demonstrates the station's ever-increasing influence at retail.

"It's the old-fashioned way -- just a good record," Martin says. "I don't think there's any doubt now that Radio 2 has a big influence on what people will buy. Hopefully, that will help to slow the chart down."

Haskell says he is "bemused" by the sudden frenzy of U.K. media attention, "and it's amusing to play some kind of circus game. But I love this, because it was a theory of mine. I wasn't interested in making a pop record. I was interested in reliving my childhood, when you heard Jerry Lee Lewis. I always said, 'If I wrote "Great Balls of Fire," kids would go out and buy it today.' Fashion doesn't dictate it -- great music does."