Authors: Ben Elton
Tags: #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #Reality television programs - England - London, #Detective and mystery stories, #Reality television programs, #Television series, #Mystery & Detective, #Humorous, #British Broadcasting Corporation, #Humorous stories, #Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Murder - Investigation, #Modern fiction, #Mystery fiction, #General & Literary Fiction, #Suspense, #General, #Television serials, #Television serials - England - London
by Ben Elton
Still has some scan errors
One house. Ten contestants. Thirty cameras. Forty microphones.
Yet again the public gorges its voyeuristic appetite as another group of unknown and unremarkable people submit themselves to the brutal exposure of the televised real-life soap opera, House Arrest.
Everybody knows the rules: total strangers are forced to live together while the rest of the country watches them do it. Who will crack first? Who will have sex with whom? Who will the public love and who will they hate? All the usual questions. And then suddenly, there are some new ones.
Who is the murderer? How did he or she manage to kill under the constant gaze of the thirty cameras? Why did they do it? And who will be next?
: Real job: actor. Star sign: Aries.
: Real job: trainee chef. Star sign: Leo (cusp of Cancer).
: Real job: sales consultant. Star sign: Libra.
: Real job: female bouncer. Star sign: Aries.
: Real job: van driver. Star sign: Cancer.
: Real job: circus trapeze artiste and occasional lap dancer. Star sign: Capricorn.
: Real job: junior doctor. Star sign: Leo.
: Real job: anarchist. Star sign: claims to be all twelve.
: Real job: fashion designer and retail supervisor. Star sign: Scorpio.
: Real job: trauma therapist. Star sign: Taurus.
The murder took place on day twenty-seven in the house.
DAY TWENTY-NINE. 9.15 a.m.
elevision presenter, television presenter, television presenter, television presenter, train driver.’ Sergeant Hooper looked up.
‘I’m sorry, my mistake. Television presenter.’ Chief Inspector Coleridge dumped the thick file of suspect profiles onto his desk and turned his attention once more to the big video screen that had been erected in the corner of the incident room. For the previous two hours he had been watching tapes at random. Garry lounged on the green couch. The pause button was down and Carry’s image was frozen. Had the tape been running, the picture would have been much the same, for Garry was in his customary position, legs spread wide, muscles flexed, left hand idly fondling his testicles. A blurred blue eagle hovered above his right ankle. Coleridge hated that eagle. Just what the hell did this pointless lump of arrogance and ignorance think he had in common with an eagle? He pressed play and Garry spoke.
‘Your basic English Premier League team consists of ten idiots and one big gorilla hanging about up at the front, usually a black geezer.’ Coleridge struggled to care. Already his mind was drifting. How much rubbish could these people talk? Everybody talked rubbish, of course, but with most people it just disappeared into the ether; with this lot it was there for ever. What was more, it was evidence. He had to listen to it.
‘…What the ten idiots have to do is keep kicking the ball up to the gorilla in the hope that he’ll be unmarked and get a lucky shot in.’
The world had heard these sparkling observations before: they had been chosen for broadcast, the people at Peeping Tom Productions having been thrilled with them. The words ‘black’ and ‘gorilla’ in the same sentence would make a terrific reality TV moment.
‘Bold,provocative and controversial’,’Coleridge muttered under his breath. He was quoting from a newspaper article he had found inside the box of the video tape he was watching. All of the House Arrest tapes had arrived with the appropriate press clippings attached. The Peeping Tom media office were nothing if not thorough. When you asked for their archive, you got it. The article Coleridge had read was a profile of Geraldine Hennessy, the celebrated producer behind House Arrest.
‘We’re not BBC TV,’ Geraldine, known to the press as Geraldine the Gaoler, was quoted as saying.
‘We’re BPC TV: Bold, Provocative, Controversial, and allowing the world a window into Carry’s casual, unconscious racism is just that.’ Coleridge sighed. Provocative? Controversial? What sort of ambitions were those for a grown-up woman? He turned his attention to the man sitting opposite Carry, the one on the orange couch: flashy Jasper, known as Jazz, so cool, so hip, such strutting self-confidence, always grinning, except when he was sneering, which he was doing now.
‘That’s it, mate,’ Garry continued, ‘no skill, no finesse, no planning. The entire national game based on the strategy of the lucky break.’ Once more he rearranged his genitals, the shape of which could clearly be made out beneath the lime-green satin of his sports shorts. The camera moved in closer. Peeping Tom clearly liked genitals; presumably they were BPC.
‘Don’t get me wrong about saying the big bloke’s black, Jazz,’ Garry added.
‘Fact is, most League strikers are these days.’ Jazz fixed Garry with a gaze he clearly believed was both enigmatic and intimidating. Jazz’s body was even better than Carry’s and he too kept his muscles in a pretty continuous state of tension. They seemed almost to ripple up and down his arms as he idly fondled the thick gold chain that hung round his neck and lay heavy on his beautiful honed chest.
‘You didn’t say ‘bloke’, you said ‘gorilla’.’
‘Did I? Well, what I mean is gorillas are big and strong, ain’t they? Like your lot.’ Over by the kitchen units Layla, the blonde hippie supermodel in her own mind, tossed her fabulous beaded braids in disgust. Inspector Coleridge knew that Layla had tossed her lovely hair in disgust, because the video edit he was watching had cut abruptly to her. There was no way that Peeping Tom was going to miss that snooty little middle-class sneer. Coleridge was quickly coming to realize that Peeping Tom’s editorial position was firmly anti intellectual pretension.
‘We consider ourselves to be the People’s Peeping Tom,’ Geraldine was quoted as saying in the article. Clearly she also considered Layla to be a stuck-up, humourless, middle-class bitch, for that was how the edit was portraying her. Coleridge cursed the screen. He had been watching Jazz, he wanted to watch Jazz, but one of the principal handicaps of his investigation was that he could only watch whoever Peeping Tom had wanted to be watched at the time, and Inspector Coleridge had a very different agenda from that of Peeping Tom. Peeping Tom had been trying to make what they called ‘great telly’. Coleridge was trying to catch a murderer. Now the camera was back with Garry and his testicles. Coleridge did not think that Garry was the murderer. He knew Garry, he had banged up twenty Garrys every Saturday night during his long years in uniform. Carry’s type were all the same, so loud, so smug, so cocky. Coleridge thought back to how Garry had looked two nights before, in the aftermath of a murder, when they had faced each other over a police tape recorder. Garry hadn’t looked so cocky then, he had looked scared. But Coleridge knew Garry. Garrys got in fights, but they didn’t murder people, unless they were very unlucky, or drunk and at the wheel of a car. Coleridge most certainly did not like this strutting, pumped-up, tattooed, cockney geezer, but he did not think that he was evil. He did not think that he was the sort of person to sneak up on a fellow human being, plunge a kitchen knife into their neck, pull it out again and then bury it deep into their skull. Coleridge did not think that Garry would do something like that. But, then again, Coleridge had been wrong before, lots of times. The nation didn’t think that Garry was the murderer either. He was one of their favourites. Gazzer the Geezer had been amongst the early tabloid tips to win the game before it had turned into a real-life whodunit, and he rarely topped the poll when the media considered the identity of the killer. Coleridge smiled to himself, a sad, rather superior smile. The only sort of smile he seemed able to muster these days. The nation did not really know Gazzer. They thought they did, but they didn’t. They had been given only his best bits, his chirpy one- liners, his unnerving ability to spot what he thought to be a snob or a clever dick, the relentless and gleeful way he wound up the snooty, self-important Layla. And the bold chunky penis end that had once been glimpsed peeping out from beneath his running shorts. An image that had immediately found its way onto T-shirts sold at Camden Lock market.
‘Cyclops! In your bed!’ Garry had shouted as if addressing a dog, before relocating the offending member.
‘Sorry, girls, it’s just I don’t wear no pants, see. They make my love furniture sweaty.’ That was all the nation saw of Garry, just bite-sized chunks of honest, no-nonsense, common-sense geezer, and on the whole they liked him for it. On the screen, Garry, like the video editor who had created the tape that Coleridge was watching, had noted Layla’s doubtful response to his homily on racial characteristics and, sensing the reaction of a snob and a clever dick, had decided to press his point.
‘It’s true!’ He protested, laughing at Layla’s discomfort.
‘I know you ain’t supposed to say it, but bollocks to fucking political correctness. I’m paying Jazz a compliment. Blacks are faster and stronger and that’s a proven fact. Look at boxing, look at the Olympics. Fuck me, the white blokes ought to get a medal for having the guts to compete at all! It’s even worse with the birds. You seen them black birds run? Half a dozen bleeding ebony amazons charge past the finishing tape in a pack and then about ten minutes later a couple of bony-arsed gingers from Glasgow turn up.’ Bold stuff: bold, provocative and controversial.
‘Yes, but that’s because…’ Layla stuttered, knowing she must refute these appalling sentiments.
‘Because fucking what?’
‘Well…Because black people have to turn to sport on account of the fact that other opportunities in society are closed off to them. That’s why they’re disproportionately over-represented in physical activities.’ Now Jazz chipped in, but not to support Layla.
‘So what you’re saying, right, is that in fact a load of white geezers could actually beat us blacks at running and boxing and stuff like that if only they wasn’t so busy becoming doctors and prime ministers? Is that it, Layles?’
‘You’re the fucking racist, girl, that is disgusting!’ Layla looked as if she was going to cry. Garry and Jazz laughed together. No wonder the nation preferred them to her. A large section of the viewing public saw Gazzer and Jazz as their repre sentatives in the house. Jovial, no bullshit, downto- earth blokes. Top lads, diamond geezers. But how would the nation feel, Coleridge wondered, if it had to suffer them twenty-four hours a day? Suffer them as the other inmates did? Day after day, week after week, with their unabashed arrogance bouncing off the walls and ceiling. How irritating would that be? How much might someone secretly hate them? Enough to attack either of them in some way? Enough to force one or both of them onto the defensive? Enough to provoke them to murder? But people didn’t murder each other because they found each other irritating, did they? Yes. As a matter of fact, in Coleridge’s experience, they did. Irritation was the commonest motive of all. Sad, petty, human disputes blown up suddenly and unintention ally into lethal proportions. How many times had Coleridge sat opposite some distraught family member as they struggled to come to terms with what they’d done because of irritation;
‘I couldn’t stand him any more. I just snapped.’
‘She drove me to it.’ Most murders took place in a domestic situation between people who knew each other. Well, you couldn’t get a much more domestic situation than House Arrest, and by the time of the murder the inmates knew each other very well, or at least knew the bits of each other that were on show, which is all anybody ever knows about anyone. These people did virtually nothing but talk to and about each other every waking moment of the day and night. Perhaps one of them really had simply become irritating enough to get themselves killed? But they were all irritating. Or at least they were to Coleridge. Every single one of them, with their toned tummies and their bare buttocks, their biceps and their triceps, their tattoos and their nipple rings, their mutual interest in star signs, their endless hugging and touching, and above all their complete lack of genuine intellectual curiosity about one single thing on this planet that was not directly connected with themselves. Inspector Coleridge would happily have killed them all.
‘Your problem is you’re a snob, sir,’ said Sergeant Hooper, who had been watching Coleridge watch the video and had followed his train of thought as surely as if Coleridge had had a glass head.
‘Why the hell would anybody want to be a train driver these days anyway? There aren’t any train drivers as a matter of fact, just some bloke that pushes the start button and goes on strike every now and then. It’s hardly a noble calling, is it? I’d much rather be a TV presenter. Frankly, I’d rather be a TV presenter than a copper.’
‘Get on with your work. Hooper,’ said Coleridge. Coleridge knew that they all laughed at him. They laughed at him because they thought he was old fashioned. Old fashioned because he was interested in things other than astrology and celebrity. Was he the last man on earth interested in anything other than astrology and celebrity? Things like books and trains? He was only fifty-four years old, for heaven’s sake, but as far as most of his officers were concerned he might as well have been two hundred. To them Coleridge was just so weird. He was a member of the Folio Society, a lay minister, he never failed to visit a war memorial on Armistice Day, and he grew plants from seeds rather than buying them ready-made from a garden centre. The fact that it had fallen to Coleridge to watch the entire avail able footage of House Arrest. To sit and watch a group of pointless twentysomethings living in a house together and subjected to constant video surveillance was a cruel joke indeed. It was safe to say that under normal circumstances there was no other show in the history of television that Coleridge would have been less inclined to watch than House Arrest. Coleridge gripped the handle of the proper china mug he insisted on using despite the fact that it required washing up.
‘When I want your opinion. Hooper, on train drivers or any other subject for that matter, I shall ask for it.’
‘And I will always be happy to oblige, sir.’ Coleridge knew that the sergeant was right. Who could blame today’s youth for its lack of sober ambition? In the days when little boys wanted to grow up to be train drivers they had wanted to grow up to be the master of a vast machine. A fabulous spitting, steaming, snarling, living beast, a monster in metal that required skill and daring to handle, care and understanding to maintain. Nowadays, of course, technology was so complex that nobody knew how anything worked at all except Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. The human race was out of the loop, to employ a phrase he often heard Hooper using. No wonder all young people wanted was to be on television. What else was there to do? He stared wearily at the huge piles of video tapes and computer disks that seemed to fill most of the room.
‘Well, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? Attack this thing in order.’ He picked up a tape marked ‘First broadcast edit’ and put it into the machine. One house. Ten contestants. Thirty cameras. Forty microphones. One survivor. The words punched themselves onto the screen like fists slamming into a face. Frantic, angry rock music accompanied the post-punk graphics and the grainy images supporting them. A spinning hot-head camera. A barbed wire fence. A snarling guard dog. A girl with her back to the camera removing her bra. A close-up of a mouth, screaming and contorted with rage. More big guitar noise. More jagged graphics. Nobody watching could be in the slightest doubt that this was telly from the hip and for the hip. The message was clear: boring people should seek their entertainment elsewhere, but if you happened to be young, bigged up and mad for it, this was the show for you.