Brett Dagland entered the large control room at Wide Eye Studios. The room was circular, a dozen operators seated around a central horseshoe-shaped desk. Other staff walked around with clipboards, or mobile phones. The room was filled with the buzz of machinery, fans and chatter.
Brett snapped his fingers at his PA; Adam brought forward Brett’s morning coffee. Adam pointed to one of a dozen television monitors arranged on a rack above the central desk. ‘You’ve got problems,’ he said. Brett read the monitor quickly. ‘Already?’ he said, putting his drink down on the nearest flat surface. Adam picked up the cup and wiped away the ring of brown liquid that had already formed on the top of the computer monitor. ‘There’s only been eighteen series,’ Brett said. ‘Guy in a Room was one of our highest rated shows.’ ‘It’s still getting seven million viewers,’ Adam pointed out. Brett patted him on the shoulder. ‘Thinking like that is the reason you’re still a PA, Adam,’ he said. ‘Seven million is nothing. We want twelve, fifteen –’ his eyes glimmered, ‘– twenty-one million viewers.’
Ruth, the station manager, sauntered in to the room and put on what Brett had always thought of as her ‘angry spectacles’. ‘Guy in a Room isn’t doing very well,’ she said, as she approached. Brett nodded. ‘We need something new,’ he said. ‘Something fresh,’ Ruth said. Brett leaned his weight against the backrest of a nearby chair. The occupier gave him a look that did not register with him, then returned to her work, leaning forwards so as to keep his fingers away from the base of her neck. Brett clucked his tongue as he thought, letting out deep breaths. Ruth folded her arms and started tapping the fingers of her right hand on her left elbow. Brett stood up and let go of the chair’s backrest, which sprang back to where it should have been.
‘I’ve got it!’ he said, as the chair’s occupant was smacked by the backrest of her own chair and sent head-first into her monitor. ‘What about…Woman in a Room?’ Ruth’s mouth fell open. ‘It’s incredible,’ she breathed. ‘No it isn’t,’ Adam said. ‘The ‘guy’ part. It was just so damn boring to watch.’ Brett recoiled, his open mouth flapping like a windsock. ‘Boring?’ he echoed. ‘What the hell made it boring?’ Adam looked from Brett to Ruth, who closed in around him like a pair of Cheetahs circling a weakened Zebra. ‘All he ever did was watch TV,’ he said. Brett shrugged and raised an eyebrow. ‘So?’ he asked. ‘There are tonnes of great shows on TV.’ ‘Yes, but no one wants to watch a reality television show about a man who sits around all day watching reality television shows,’ Adam said. Ruth shook her head. ‘What a load of crap,’ she said. ‘It’s a valuable social commentary.’ ‘Yeah, it’s holding up a mirror to reality,’ Brett said. Adam glanced from Brett to Ruth, and rubbed his temples. ‘What will she do?’ Brett’s forehead wrinkled up as he pondered the question. ‘Watch TV, probably,’ he said. Adam slapped himself on the forehead. ‘For God’s sake, Brett,’ he said. ‘It’ll be just as boring as before!’ Ruth and Brett exchanged a look. ‘Well,’ Ruth said. ‘I don’t remember Adam ever producing or directing any smash-hit television shows.’ ‘Me neither,’ Brett said. ‘You understand, Adam, right? Now, perhaps we could start talking about who could be the Woman in a Room?’
Adam, his cheeks growing red, walked to a filing cabinet on the other side of the room. He pulled out the top drawer with a lot more force than Brett thought necessary, and began leafing through labels. Adam came back to them, a thin paper file in his hand. ‘What’s that?’ Brett asked. ‘This,’ Adam said, flipping it open, ‘is a list of all the contact details of people who applied to be in previous reality shows but were turned down.’ ‘It’s a bit thin,’ Ruth said. ‘I thought everyone wanted to be in our shows?’ ‘They did,’ Adam said, ‘and they are. They’ve all been given other shows. Ah, here. This is who I was thinking of.’ He held up a couple of sheets of paper with the words ‘Personal Statement’ printed on the first one. Underneath were several paragraphs of dark black lines that Brett could not read from where he was standing. A photo of a middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair was paper-clipped to the sheets. ‘Mary Coast,’ Adam said. ‘She auditioned to be Woman Who Works at a Dog Kennel, but we found someone better. Remember, that woman who thought the dogs could talk, and kept trying to catch them whispering behind her back?’ Brett grinned. ‘Yeah, I remember. What ever happened to that show?’ ‘It’s on Channel 88,’ Ruth said. ‘Gets three million viewers.’ Brett wrinkled his nose. ‘Are there any other women in there?’ he asked. Adam shook his head. ‘We’ve used them all for other things. The last one was for Puritan Woman Who Works in a Sex Shop.’ Brett gestured to the corridor. ‘Fine. Bring two coffees into the production office and I’ll give her a ring.’
The dull burble of the ringtone could be heard throughout the office. Brett wound the telephone cord around his finger repeatedly, until Ruth slapped his hand. ‘That’s how it got all curly like that in the first place,’ she said. ‘No, it came like that.’ ‘Did it?’ A beep came from the phone and Brett held the receiver away from his ear as the robotic tones of an answer machine filled the office. He pressed the redial button. This time he put it on speaker, and placed the receiver on the table. Again the loud cycles of the telephone dialling could be heard. ‘Why isn’t she answering?’ Ruth asked. ‘Surely everyone keeps their phone right next to the television?’ Brett asked. ‘What if they want to order a pizza or something whilst their programme is on?’ Again, they reached the answering machine. Brett cut the call off, and leaned back in his chair, hand stroking his chin. Ruth opened the office door and checked the hallway for signs of Adam reappearing, muttering something about asking for biscuits, before returning to her seat. After a quick debate, they decided to ring again.
‘Hello? What is it?’ ‘Miss Coast?’ Brett asked. ‘Is this important? I’m watching the television,’ Mary said. ‘What is it you are watching?’ ‘Chef Eats Cakes and Tells the Maker That They’re Crap.’ Brett smiled. That was a new addition, and the ratings were at ten million. Not his best, he thought, and the ratings proved it, but not bad enough to suggest he was in any way losing his touch. ‘Have you ever watched Guy in a Room?’ he asked. ‘No, that one’s boring,’ Mary said. ‘All he does is sit around and watch television. What sort of a life is that? Could you make this quick, whatever it is; the adverts are on now and I haven’t been to the toilet since this programme started.’ Brett glanced at the clock, running the schedules through his mind. He looked across to Ruth, who held up a number of fingers. Brett’s eyes widened, and he suddenly had an image of Mary looking like a Spacehopper filled with apple juice. ‘You really love your show, huh?’ he asked. ‘Oh yes,’ Mary said. ‘It’s so interesting, isn’t it, seeing what you can do with your life?’ ‘Well I’m glad you think so,’ Brett said. ‘You see, the thing is, a lot of people are finding Guy in a Room a bit…well not to their tastes, so we’ve decided to replace it with a radical new show.’ ‘Oh, what’s that then?’ ‘Woman in a Room.’ ‘Wow, sounds great. What are you calling me for, anyway?’ ‘We were wondering if you wanted to be the woman?’ Brett said. ‘No,’ Mary said. Ruth was so taken aback that her glasses fell off her face and bounced across the table. Brett picked them up and slid them back. Ruth buffed them on her sleeve and held them up to the light to look for scratches, before putting them back on her face. She sat there blinking like a cave-dwelling animal entering daylight for the first time.
‘No?’ Brett repeated. ‘No,’ Mary said. ‘I’d miss all my programmes!’ ‘We’d just be putting cameras in your room,’ Brett said. ‘You could still watch all of your programmes, and other people would be able to watch you watching them.’ ‘No, I don’t like the idea of it,’ Mary said. ‘It sounds like a boring job.’ Brett brandished the phone at the wall, hoping that shaking the receiver on his end would somehow impart the force of his actions upon Mary, at the other end of the line. ‘I shouldn’t have auditioned for Woman Who Works in a Dog Kennel,’ Mary said. ‘Yes, I love animals, but now that I didn’t get it I can watch it, so it’s like I’m there and I never have to pick up any sh-’ ‘Yes I get what you mean,’ Brett said, his face falling. ‘So, you won’t do it?’ ‘There’s no point, is there?’ Mary asked. ‘It’s a lot of effort to go to, when I could just watch someone else do it and get the same experience.’ ‘But what about the feel of it?’ Brett asked. ‘What about the tangibility, the interaction, the physicality?’ Mary snorted. ‘Love, if I wanted any of that I wouldn’t spend all day watching television, would I?’ To Brett and Ruth’s great surprise, she said her goodbyes and put the phone down before either of them could utter another word.
They both sat in silence, staring at each other across the table. The door creaked open, and Adam backed into the room, three coffees trapped between his triangled fingers like giant snooker balls at the beginning of a game. He closed the door with his rump, and set the drinks down on the table, taking his own and sipping from the plastic lid. ‘How did it go?’ he asked. ‘She doesn’t want to do it,’ Brett said. He felt as if he had just said the phone had decided it did not want to be a phone anymore and had become an epilator, so they could not get hold of Mary Coast to ask her in the first place. ‘Oh,’ Adam said, although there was little sympathy, or interest, in his voice. ‘What do we do now?’ Ruth asked. Brett shrugged. ‘Find someone else,’ he said. ‘There is no one else,’ Adam growled. ‘There isn’t?’ Brett looked crestfallen. ‘All the people that wanted to be in shows are now in other shows, and the rest of the population are too busy watching them to want to be in them,’ Adam said. Brett had gone pale. ‘But,’ he stammered, ‘what are we going to do? I need another smash hit! I’m Brett Dagland.’ He looked between the two of them wildly. ‘We’ve got to find someone,’ Brett said, his voice rising to almost a squeak. Ruth shrugged. ‘We’ve run out of resources,’ she said. ‘Can’t we just shake up the format of Guy in a Room?’ ‘Like what?’ ‘I dunno, give him an aqualung, fill the place with water?’ ‘Why not make up a new show?’ Adam suggested. ‘How about something fictional?’ Ruth choked on her coffee; Brett sprayed his across the table. They both looked up at Adam. ‘What?’ Ruth coughed. ‘Make something up? Something that isn’t real?’ ‘Why on earth would people watch something like that?’ Brett said. ‘They’d need-’ his face twisted in disgust ‘-to think about what was going on. To imagine.’ He stood up, shaking his head and taking deep breaths. ‘There’s only one thing for it,’ he said. ‘Find some cameramen, get them equipped, and follow me.’ Adam and Ruth shared a worried look. ‘Why?’ they both asked in unison. ‘We’ll just have to use the resources we’ve got left,’ Brett said. ‘It’s time to make Producer Who Has Run Out Of Ideas Tries to Make Reality Show About Producer Who Has Run Out Of Ideas.’