Vinny Cleaver sat in the green room of Studio 5 watching the game-show unfold on the monitor. His palms fizzed. He felt his legs spasm with the desire to move needlessly, endlessly, to assert their existence. He was on next. As his stomach began its relentless rise he wondered if he could go through this after all.
When he had applied to be a contestant on Grasp The Nettle he had done it as a joke; he had never actually believed he would be chosen. The show was halfway through its fifth run, with the recent Christmas celebrity special pulling in nearly twenty million viewers; that was a hell of a lot of people to see him fall flat on his ass, to turn the joke onto him.
On the wall the clock banged out another minute, each cold, slow tick the fall of a guillotine blade.
Just remember what the producer said during rehearsal, he told himself, concentrate on the host and forget about the faceless folks at home, and above all have fun! But Vinny found the show’s host just as intimidating as the thought of Joe Public scrutinising him over their microwave dinners.
Alex ‘Brash’ Bison had enough old school charm to stop the blue rinse brigade from flicking channels, whilst maintaining a certain ironic edge that appealed to the fickle 16 to 25 demographic. He was TV gold and the tabloids loved him for his unapologetic and undisguised excess. Vinny thought him the most insincere man he had ever laid eyes on. Maybe if he had met the mercurial Brash during the run through he wouldn’t be felling so damn nervous, but one of the backroom staff had taken the host’s place, hamming it up magnificently. Brash only did the show once, when it was live and dangerous - ‘It’s the only way to stop yourself getting jaded,’ he told Inside TV.
Josie, the pneumatic doll who led the contestants onto the set and, according to tabloid rumour, Brash’s latest beau, popped her Domestos curls around the fake Chinese rubber tree that shaded the door.
‘On in ten, Mr Beaver.’
‘It’s Cleaver,’ said Vinny, but she was already gone, the artificial plant jiggling in her wake.
Six hundred seconds in which to compose himself. He took a few medicinal deep breaths and returned his gaze back to the monitor, watching the show, letting himself drift away on its mind numbing banality.
On screen Josie was escorting a small wrinkled man in an ill fitting suit onto the Terror Board. Vinny had spoken to some of the other contestants before the show, but not this one; the small man looked even more nervous than Vinny felt. Why do we put ourselves through this? The prizes were rubbish. Was it for the fleeting fame? God help us all.
Vinny surveyed the empty green room, he was the last contestant, the only victim left. At least now he had the complimentary buffet to himself. He flicked open a dog eared sandwich to reveal a wizened slice of cucumber; great combination, he thought, bread and water; Victorian prison food aiming at sophistication.
On the monitor Brash was doing his dance, the one imitated the length and breadth of the country. ‘Arthur Marsh!’ he boomed, ‘I hope you’re in fine fettle…’ pausing, giving the crowd their money’s worth, letting them pitch in and finish his equally imitated catchphrase, ‘…because now’s the time to GRASP THE NETTLE!’
Grasp The Nettle was ostensibly a show about phobias, ‘a breakthrough in psychological gaming’ was how Brash liked to describe it on his many chat show appearances, though an exercise in maximum discomfort would have been closer to the truth. Like all successful shows nowadays mused Vinny, it was really about making a fool out of the contestants and a hero of the host, of making the poor dupes degrade themselves, sell their souls in front of a baying nation, for prizes you would hand back at a funfair.
And yet here he was.
Was he truly any better than the idiots he routinely swore at every night before reaching for the remote? The thought added to his nerves, crippled his confidence even more; could he really go through with this, or could he just slink way now, damn the contract, and hide under his bed?
But the show was live. There would be no time to find a replacement, he would be sued by the network, hauled through every court in the land until even church mice offered to lend him money. That was the kind of fame he could live without. No, he had no option but to carry on, to go through with it, to face his biggest fear within the allotted timeframe before the inevitable humiliation. He turned back and gazed unblinkingly at the monitor.
‘Don’t be nervous Arthur,’ says Brash, but Arthur looks to be scanning all available exits, his eyes moving independently of each other. ‘Tell all the lovely folks out there in Telly Land exactly where you are from.’
‘I’m from Milton Keynes, Brash.’
‘Milton Keynes! How about that! I once went out with a girl from Milton Keynes…she was a right cow!’ Cymbal smash; a flurry of activity as the floor hands scuttle about holding up cards that read LAUGHTER to the audience. Arthur smiles directly into camera one as if he has never been happier.
‘So Arthur Marsh from Milton Keynes, what do you do for a living?’
'I’m a freelance sculptor Brash, specialising in - ‘
‘Unemployed! Excellent! You could probably really use the fantastic prizes we have on offer tonight. Round of applause everybody for Arthur, who could really do with a holiday by the look of him!’
Vinny clenched his teeth. It was real edge of the sleeping bag stuff. He listened as Arthur said his hobby was collecting armour before proceeding to drop his qualifications the way adolescents dropped their testicles. And all the while Brash smiled his false smile, the one that never reached his too blue eyes. Vinny knew that if he went out there and pulled up one of Brash’s immaculately pressed trouser legs he would find, just above the mirror buffed Brogue, a comedy sock - Sex On Legs or something - because Brash was that kind of crazy guy.
The host with the most looks deep into the camera until the crowd grow silent. In his ear he gets his cue.
‘So Arthur, tell us all what you are most afraid of.’
‘I’m…I’m…I’m afraid of swearing at authority figures, Brash,’ says Arthur, unaware that viewers are switching over in their droves; according to a survey carried out by the tabloids viewers tended to prefer the contestants to be put in life threatening positions or at least covered in snakes. It is obvious that Arthur has only made it on in a misguided attempt at variety, or perhaps to add a comic element.
‘Well Arthur,’ says Brash looking slightly bored (he would have snakes on every show if he could), ‘do you know what time it is now?’
A large curtain at the back of the soundstage raises up slowly to reveal a policeman, an army sergeant, and a vicar all standing on a podium.
‘Now the talking’s done… It’s time to overcome!’
The audience, prompted by more dummy cards, join in on this too. Arthur Marsh looks like a man who has just given birth in the back of his trousers and is keen to put the child up for adoption.
In the Green room, munching a hospitality banana, Vinny is laughing. He knows he can go through with this now; the show’s idiocy ceases to rile him now and in a way he finds it oddly comforting. For the first time since his interview he is actually looking forward to it.
Arthur is frogmarched over to the podium by the pneumatic Josie and placed in front of the three men who stare back at him stony eyed as if daring him to speak. On the monitor, in close up, the sergeant’s moustache twitches like an eager ferret, ready to bite. A clock appears on screen for those who have a problem comprehending the concept of thirty seconds. When the crowd yell ‘GRASP THE NETTLE!’, it begins its inexorable countdown. Never has half a minute of television seemed so long.
‘Come on Arthur!’ urges Brash, who loathes being off camera for more than a nanosecond, ‘Do something! Swear at them!’
‘You dirty sods,’ mumbles Arthur, his eyes on the floor.
‘Come on, you can do better than that! Get tore into them!’
‘They said your mother’s ugly Arthur, they did, they told me backstage!’
‘Come on Arthur, only a few seconds left!’
‘They hate you Arthur, they bloody hate you! It rhymes with truck, you can do it Arthur, don’t let them beat you!’
The hideous theme tune blares out to let everyone know that Arthur Marsh has reached round two and will soon be whisked off by the delectable Josie and dressed in an inflatable panda suit.
Alex Brash Bison walks sombrely over to camera four and sticks his rugged, intelligent face directly into your living room.
‘Arthur grasped the nettle folks. He thought he would get stung, but still he overcome. Don’t you wish you’d done that?’
For some reason that was the one thing about the show that irritated Vinny the most.
‘So tell me Arthur, how do you feel about big creepy crawly spiders?’ Brash rubs his hand over Arthur’s bald dome, drumming his fingers on the gleaming pate. ‘How do you feel about s-s-s-s-snakes?’
‘I’m terrified of them Brash.’
‘Really?’ Brash has a disdainful, disbelieving tone, as if he doubts every word foolish enough to venture out of Arthur’s mouth; contestants have been known to lie before. ‘Well, we’ll see after the break, stay where you are folks, back in three!’
Vinny slumps back in his chair as the ads came on, closing his eyes as cute cartoon blackcurrants urge him to drink their blood. He has a bad taste in his mouth like he had just licked rancid butter off a knife.
‘Ready?’ Josie pops her head around the rubber plant again. Vinny stands up and smoothes the creases out of his trousers, fixing his hair the best he can through the grinning portrait of Brash adhered to the mirror.
Josie grabs his arm like a favourite handbag. ‘Enjoy your big moment,’ she says, her voice as terse as a text message. Her hands are equipped with talon like fingernails that would not withstand foreplay, her weary eyes promise joyless, robotic sex; up close everything is flawed muses Vinny, yet we are still ordered to enjoy it.
‘I’ll try,’ he says as she leads him out into the blaring lights and the screaming crowd. He feels like a Christian at the Coliseum, about to play Blind Date with a lion. Here I come, he thinks, sweaty or not.
‘…Vinny Cleaver!’ hollers Bison as Vinny is escorted down the glittering steps, trying his level best not to ogle Josie’s jiggling breasts; his mum and dad are recording this.
‘Well now Vincent, don’t be nervous. Everyone here wants you to win, and win big.’
Up close Brash is a mummified dog turd with shredded wheat hair that has been ironed into position. It was all smoke and mirrors, all one big lie from the start, that was the nettle that Vinny grasped tonight.
‘Tell the folks in Tellyland something about yourself Vincent.’
‘My father was a Yeti.’
Brash looks puzzled, he had been expecting an anecdote about being chased by swans on a school trip; he carries on though like the professional he is.
‘So Yeti boy, tell all the folks what you are most afraid of.’
‘Well Brash, my deepest fear is becoming just another pathetic wannabe, famous for being famous. I want to earn my fame.’
Brash is genuinely fazed now, it says spiders on his card.
Vinny produces a pistol from the waistband of his jeans; it has been digging into him all evening long.
The retort of the gun drowns out the shrieks of alarm from the audience. Afterwards there is silence, there are no dummy cards for this. Vinny Cleaver saunters up to Camera Four and, wiping the blood skull debris from it’s matted lens, puts his smiling face into millions of stunned households.
‘Hey all you folks in Tellyland, don’t you wish you’d done that?’