Last in the Present Series. By David McVey

7

Ronald Startham wondered if there would be any assassins in the studio tonight.

He was sitting in the semi-darkness of his dressing-room. If it was windowless and lit only by a single feeble low-energy bulb, it was at least his own. Most of the talent at this company had to share.

He studied his reflection in the mirror – greying and distinguished, but perhaps running more to fat than he liked – and began to assume his characteristic on-screen manner, for he had convinced himself that it was a manner, much more than merely a smile for the camera. There was also an empathy for the contestants on the programme, an intelligence, and perhaps even a hint of integrity.

He had kept a copy of that article in The Times that spoke about ‘Startham’s genuineness and warmth which ensure that, while contestants on the programme are genuinely challenged by the questions, it is never at the expense of their dignity’. During the interview on which that article had been based he’d told the journalist about his stage work, especially his Hamlet at the Edinburgh Fringe, his willingness to work for small, innovative companies throughout the country rather than simply stagnating in London theatreland, his first novel (‘slight but engaging and beautifully written,’ The Scotsman) and the free theatre workshops he ran in state schools.

But the published article had disposed of all that in a brief paragraph. What the journalist was interested in, and what the readers got, was a piece almost entirely about Body of Knowledge, the quiz programme phenomenon that he had presented for five years. Oh, yes, there had also been an aside about his supporting role (and ‘supporting’ in this context meant less than a minute in total on-screen) in a gormless Hollywood comic-book superhero film called Captain Steel that had filmed in Britain the year before. Mind you, for one day’s shooting at Pinewood he’d earned as much as he did for an entire series of Body of Knowledge.

There was a bang on the door and a production assistant pushed her bright ponytailed head into the tiny room. ‘Make-up’s ready for you, Ronald.’

‘Thanks, Emma – I’ll be along in a minute.’

‘Most of them look all right today, though I think one of them might be a bit thick.’

‘I’ve told you before, Emma; no one is ‘thick’. There are people who have not had the opportunities to make the most of their abilities. And then there are those, often highly intelligent, who are wilfully stupid and ignorant.’

‘This one’s definitely the latter.’

‘Marvellous. Any assassins?’

‘Don’t think so.’

He was disappointed with himself to be so annoyed by the Times article because he was genuinely proud of Body of Knowledge. As the name implied, it was not a quiz programme that relied on the contestants answering random questions. Instead, beginning with starter questions, topics were examined in depth, links were made to related subjects which were in turn opened up and explored. It was aspirational TV, a programme that celebrated reading and learning and organised knowledge – what Startham liked to think of as ‘understanding’. Indeed, he’d been recruited as presenter because he was recognised as a cerebral celeb, the sort who was often chosen to appear on panel shows when Stephen Fry was unavailable.

He’d accepted the job because he’d liked the programme’s premise. You couldn’t just mug up on Whitaker’s Almanac, sports results and the Periodic Table before appearing; rather, Body of Knowledge suited the well-read and culturally aware who knew their sitcoms as well as their Shakespeare, their Bond films as well as their modern art, and who could make connections between them. The kind of contestants who were dedicated pub quizzers rarely did well. Startham dismissed them as ‘assassins’.

Emma reappeared and Startham stood up, ready to head for make-up. ‘Are we ready to rid the world of all its evils?’ he said.

‘Eh?’

‘Oh, just my opening line in the egregious Captain Steel. The first of a mere three, I might add.’

‘Oh, I can’t wait to see that.’

‘Don’t. Stay in and watch old crime repeats on ITV3 instead. I often get murdered in those.’

Even more than the assassins, Startham disliked those he called ‘wilfully ignorant’. Body of Knowledge saw fewer of them than most but Startham couldn’t understand why any of them, their reading limited to The Sun or Heat, would want to expose themselves on a demanding quiz programme that required an extensive and structured background of learning. Why didn’t they go on a programme fronted by Davina McCall or Vernon Kay, where they would blend in perfectly?

Startham went straight from make-up to the Green Room. In the studio the audience was filing in and the crew were carrying out their last checks on equipment and lighting. In the Green Room, the five contestants were waiting for the call to go onto the set. Startham was valued at this point because his personal qualities always helped to calm the nervous ones.

‘We saw the audience queuing outside the studio,’ Pauline, a vivacious middle-aged black lady from Newcastle, told him, ‘there seemed so many of them. I just hope I’m not struck dumb when I’m out there.’

‘Try not to worry. You’re among friends, here. Even if there is a problem, we’ll stop, go again, and edit out anything that doesn’t work. That’s the magic of television.’

Startham particularly disliked the assassins’ competitiveness. He cherished the culture the programme had developed; contestants wanted to win, obviously, but even if they didn’t, most of them generously applauded those who did, and there was usually a strong camaraderie among them. The assassins, with their ‘YESSS!!’ and ‘GET IN!!!’ and their air-punching jarred with this prevailing decency. It was, as Startham often mused about most things, all Thatcher’s fault. She had fetishised not so much competition as winning; winning in business, in government, in the community, the health service, in church, in school, on soon-forgotten quiz programmes.

Even as he chatted away with the contestants, imperceptibly easing their nerves, he reflected that Thatcherite attitudes still prevailed in this very TV company. Before going to the studio to record this last programme in the series, he had been called to a meeting with the Channel Controller. At first he wondered if he was going to be sacked, but the controller was actually very upbeat and showered him with clichés as only 30-year-old high-flying executives can.

‘Show’s still flying, Ron. Ratings good, focus group feedback good. We’ve got gears, we’ve got legs, you know what I mean?’

‘Glad to hear it, Jake.’ What sort of Christian name was ‘Jake’ anyway? Mind you, it did suit this shallow man-child who probably hadn’t worn a tie since his schooldays, and perhaps not even then.

‘So we’ve been looking at ways of pulling in even wider audiences going forward,’ continued Jake, ‘and the plan is to target the youth demographic, so we…’

‘Youth?’ said Startham, ‘we already get a bigger share of the under-30s than any other general knowledge quiz programme.’ He sensed the approach of a dangerous announcement so continued to fire out statistics. ‘We’re very big with university students. They make up more than 20% of our audience and 30% of our contestants.’

Jake smiled, took off his shades and smiled in a barely-perceptible but highly provoking way. ‘Yeah, university students. I want you to think inclusive, Ron. This should be a programme for everyone, not just pointy-headed, er, eggheads.’

‘So you’re not especially interested in young people, but rather stupid people?’

‘I see what you did there, Ron, cool! But seriously, for the next season we’re planning to bring in Garii Moyles, you know, from that music channel on Sky? He’ll co-present with you. He’s really cool and funny and he’ll totally snare the kids, yeah?’

‘Yes, I know who he is. My five year old daughter likes him. Though I’m not sure if someone who can’t spell his own Christian name is right for our programme.’

‘Ha, ha! I know you don’t mean that. He’ll be cool. He’ll help make sure the show doesn’t intimidate people who aren’t as brainy as you, yeah?’

‘I don’t think I intimidate anyone. That’s why I’m so good at the job.’

‘Yeah, like, anyway, Ron, I gotta go to another meeting. Meetings, eh? We’ll talk about this again. You off to record the last show of the season, then?’

‘I’m off to record the last programme of the series, yes.’

‘Great, Ron, cool.’

The warm-up was now working the audience. He was a grizzled old northern comedian called Natty Brian who channelled Les Dawson. Startham was in the wings, standing with the contestants, as usual a calm and reassuring presence. One contestant, Jason, showed no nerves and was desperate to get started. A twentysomething lad in a Ben Sherman shirt from somewhere outside London who ‘worked in New Media’, Jason brayed in an estuary whine and Startham decided this was the individual Emma had branded a ‘thicko’. He had the boundless self-confidence of someone who didn’t know his limitations. He pointed to Natty Brian. ‘Bleedin crap, him, innee?’

‘He’s made a living in showbusiness for over forty years,’ said Startham, calmly, ‘he must be doing something right.’

‘Well, I’ve never ‘eard of ‘im.’

Startham struggled to repress an uncharacteristic anger. Partly it was the meeting with the Controller of Programmes, partly it was the thought of co-presenting with Garii Moyles, and partly it was the lumpen presence of Jason. He pondered handing in his resignation, but perhaps he ought to speak to his agent before he did that.

A gentle wave-crash of applause indicated that Natty Brian was finished and he marched off with the band playing his signature tune. In passing, he said ‘Break a leg, Ronnie, lad,’ and Startham went on stage to a burst of applause and cheering on an entirely different level. The contestants came on and he introduced them to the audience. Then they went to their respective podiums and the recording began. The programme started with an individual round for each contestant, and after four rounds, Pauline seemed relaxed and was doing well, in second place just behind Fergus, a Sports Science student from Glasgow. Now it was Jason’s turn.

It was a conceit of Startham’s that he was completely unbiased and even-handed, even when he strongly disliked a contestant. Jason performed abominably, yet Startham still spoke in his finest rich, smooth actor’s voice, the very sound of reassurance. By the time the first four contestants’ three minutes had been up, they had managed to answer several questions beyond their starter, and Pauline and Fergus had gained extra points by branching out into related topics. But Jason had only had starters and had got them all wrong. There was time for only one more. ‘This category is Cinema, Jason; name the director of the 1958 film Vertigo.’ Then there was silence, but for the theatrical ‘tick-tock’ of the countdown.

Jason spoke. ‘Nah, sorry, 1958’s way before my time, yeah?’ The deep, sonorous bell that marked ‘time up’ sounded. An awkward silence followed.

‘Because Vertigo was made before you were born, it’s not worthy of your attention, is that what you’re saying, Jason?’ said Startham, striking a few nervous giggles from the audience.

‘Eh? Wot?’ said Jason.

‘Perhaps you’re right, Jason. Perhaps every film made before your birth date, even if directed by Alfred Hitchcock – you may have heard of him? – every play written by Shaw or Wilde or Shakespeare, every short story by Katherine Mansfield, every novel by the Brontes or Evelyn Waugh, television like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Young Ones, Art Deco architecture, medieval cathedrals, Stonehenge, Leptis Magna, the Hill of Tara, ancient Zimbabwe, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the art of Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Gauguin, Dali, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment are, all, invalidated by the mere event of your birth because then you immediately became the centre of the fucking universe and everything that came before you ceased to matter. You fucking moron!’

‘Er, cut,’ came the faint voice of the Studio Manager. There was a hushed silence on the stage, whispering in the audience and the sounds of frantic emergency activity behind the scenes.

‘Jason,’ Startham continued, ‘many people come on this programme. People aged 19 and 90, council cleaners and research scientists, people with PhDs and people with no qualifications, but they all respect each other and enjoy learning from each other. That’s what this programme’s about. But you? I find myself wondering what you do with your time, Jason. I think you spend most of it looking at yourself in the fucking mirror.’

‘Get his wife and get a doctor,’ someone who mattered said to Emma, and ran over to Startham who was now bent over his podium with his head in his hands.’

‘No bleedin right to say any of that,’ said Jason.

‘I suppose they’ll cut this?’ said Pauline.

For a brief moment there was silence in the studio, like in church just after the benediction. Then, in what seemed like a single movement, the entire studio audience rose to its feet and began a thunderous and prolonged round of applause, which developed into cheering and whooping and, finally, when the clapping had ceased, a chant of ‘RONALD! RONALD!’

Natty Brian was hustled back on the stage and the contestants were escorted back to the Green Room. The audience cheering continued, with repeated chants of ‘WE WANT RONALD!’ When they finally settled, Natty Brian approached the mike. ‘I’ll tell thee summat,’ he began, ‘when I leave here I’m heading straight for t’nearest library before Ron gets on me case…’ Natty Brian got his biggest cheer of the night.

An hour later, the TV company’s legal expert squeezed into Startham’s dressing-room, where the presenter seemed to have settled down and was chatting quietly to his wife. Emma stood nearby, clutching an iPad to her chest.

‘Right, Ron,’ said the legal man, ‘we’ve had a nice word with the contestants and the audience and they’ve promised not to report what they’ve seen. Of course, they may well all be letting rip on Twitter as we speak.

‘They won’t send out anything bad,’ said Emma, ‘not the audience or the contestants. Except maybe Jason.’

‘Why do you say that?’ asked the legal man.

‘Because they totally agree with Ron and won’t want to make trouble for him.’

‘Hmmm. Perhaps. Well, I suppose we’ll have to make an offer to Jason. He strikes me as the sort of person who likes money.’

‘And, Ron,’ we have to get the recording finished.’ said Emma.

Startham nodded silently a few times, before speaking in a slow, dry, quiet voice, ‘Yes, I’m ready.’

Watching the re-recording of Jason’s final question (replaced by something about Manchester United in the Champions’ League, which Jason got right) Emma wondered whether the hostility between Jason and Ron, palpable in the studio, would come across on TV. Probably not; she watched the famous Startham warmth being turned on as Jason was dismissed from the programme. ‘So sorry to be losing you so soon, Jason, but it’s been great to meet you. Jason, ladies and gentlemen!’ The audience obligingly offered a meagre murmur of applause. They had booed Jason loudly when he’d returned to the stage.

Pauline eventually won the programme and after the stately round of applause for the closing credits the audience again broke into wild cheering and chanting and whooping for Startham. They refused to move and began chanting his name, like a football crowd. And yet, as a stupefied-looking Startham walked slowly and silently back to his wife’s embrace, Emma knew that everything had changed. The next series would be fronted solo by Garii Moyles, she had no doubts about that.

A quick bite to eat on the way home, and then she would spend most of the evening online looking at the BBC jobs page.

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