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Cruising gets the X Factor; Entertainment is increasingly important when choosing a cruise holiday. PAUL COLE reports on celebrities, game shows and iPods.

Byline: PAUL COLE

FIRST time I ever set to sea on a cruise ship, the entertainment on offer hit the giddy heights of napkin folding, deck quoits and shuffleboard.

And it wasn't all that long ago. Liners tended to be staid, rather stuffy affairs for the rich and famous. Hercule Poirot would have felt at home.

But the times, they are a-changing. The new generation of passenger ships has embraced pop culture, reality TV and the cult of celebrity.

While ports of call are the first thing you check when planning a cruise holiday, the quality of entertainment onboard is increasingly important when choosing which ship you want to sail on. And for some passengers, it's now the No 1 attraction.

Cruise giant P&O's fastest-selling itinerary last year was a humble mini-cruise to the Continent. Although the good ship Aurora sailed only from Southampton to Zeebrugge and Le Havre, it boasted something - or rather someone - no other had.

Derren Brown. Canny cruise chiefs recognised the mentalist's magic, and booked him for what might otherwise have been an average 'taster' trip for first-timers. Sales shot through the roof.

"The itinerary sold out in record time," says P&O entertainment boss Morgan Van Selman.

"We will definitely be looking to do something similar with more big-name entertainers in the future, particularly on our short cruises."

Over at sister company Cunard, big draws in the past 12 months have included US singer-songwriter James Taylor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, comedy genius John Cleese and sex therapist Dr Ruth.

Napkin folding, this is not. Van Selman says the changing face of fun is driven by audience demand. Passenger questionnaire forms are being increasingly used to plan ahead as passengers get younger.

But who do guests most want to see on a ship? A survey by Carnival UK reveals funnyman Peter Kay to be the No 1 choice, followed closely by comedian Michael McIntyre, crooner Michael Bubl, Britain's Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle and singer Jane McDonald.

Spectacular Katherine Jenkins, Rod Stewart, Billy Connolly and Stephen Fry also figure highly, as do pretty much all the finalists from the latest series of X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.

As well as the big names, staple 60s pop veterans and West End-style shows (which can range from a fully-fledged circus to an ice dance spectacular, depending on your ship), there are big growth areas.

I've just returned from the first leg of P&O liner Arcadia's world cruise, where attractions included Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker, a 14-night murder mystery run by a former top cop and a Nintendo Wii skittles tournament.

The whodunnit was hugely popular, acting also as an ice breaker to get passengers chatting with each other, and rapidly became one of the hot topics at the dinner table in the many restaurants.

But also apparent were carbon copies of TV quiz shows, such as Who Wants To Win A Million, the A-Factor and The Weak Link.

Van Selman explains: "The popularity of X Factor, Pop Idol and Strictly Come Dancing has meant a revival of interest in this kind of live variety entertainment. We plan a Strictly-style show on our new ship Azura, where passengers can vote for other couples dancing.

"The other major TV influence has come from the game shows. There have been pale imitations of these on cruise ships for some time, but we have taken things a step forward.

"We decided to use a company which acquires the full rights to replicate these shows, albeit with pounds 250 rather than, say, pounds 250,000 as the top prize.

"It does mean, though, that we can use the same music, jingles and props so that the show looks like the one passengers see on television at home, with our staff standing in for Chris Tarrant or Anne Robinson."

Tribute groups are also popular, especially with the younger cruise passengers.

But gone are the days of cringeworthy Elvis impressionists. These days you're more likely to see a top quality Robbie Williams or Oasis act.

The man charged with keeping passengers entertained on Arcadia's world trek is cruise director Nigel Travis, who cites Kate Adie, Terry Waite, Murray Walker and Jools Holland among his favourite bookings.

As well as the new-look entertainment options, he points to another way in which cruises have moved with the times.

"Go back a couple of years and the only people you saw carrying laptops were our guest lecturers," he says. "Now everyone has them, whatever their age, and our IT skills sessions are always packed.

"There is a big demand to learn about things like Facebook, ebay, Photoshop and iTunes.

Celebrity "We have increased our wi-fi areas, and the ship's blog is also hugely popular.

It's written by our executive purser James Cusick and appears on the P&O website.

"His reports and pictures of our passage through the Panama Canal the other week were particularly popular, getting thousands of hits. This is a new generation of cruise ship passenger we are talking about."

It is not just P&O who are investing in hi-tech education. When Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Eclipse launches in April, guests will find the first 'Celebrity iLounge' onboard, designed to offer what guests said they wanted most in an internet caf.

In a link with Apple, the lounge will offer courses on do-it-yourself photo books, movie editing and web design, through programmes including iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iWeb. There'll also be iPod and iPhone sessions.

Step up on deck, and there's a sea change, too. While there's still a place for traditional deck sports, Royal Caribbean's Independence Of The Seas offers a fully featured surf simulator complete with rushing water.

P&O's new ship Azura, to be launched next month, will boast an open-air movie theatre by the poolside; there's even talk of one of the big American ships being equipped with a rollercoaster. What next? Walking the plank? Or might Derren make the ship disappear? the dream team The celebrities passengers would most like to see on their ship... 1. PETER KAY 2. MICHAEL MCINTYRE 3. MICHAEL BUBL[ETH] (pictured) 4. SUSAN BOYLE 5. JANE McDONALD 6. KEN DODD 7. ROD STEWART 8. SHIRLEY BASSEY 9. CLIFF RICHARD 10. KATHERINE JENKINS 11. VICTORIA WOOD 12. BILLY CONNOLLY 13. TOM JONES 14. MICHAEL BALL 15. STEPHEN FRY (Survey of 4,764 passengers in January 2010)

CAPTION(S):

STAR TREATMENT: Katherine Jenkins, John Cleese, Susan Boyle, Derren Brown, Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay and Desmond Tutu are all in demand. Main picture, an artist's impression of new liner Azura.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 7, 2010
Words:1095
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