Sally Stratton was watching last night's edition of ''Celebrity Team Madrigal'' on her minibook, while her electic car drove her to the TV network HQ. A voice interrupted the programme, automatically pausing the action. ''Slowing for pedestrian.'' said the pleasant male voice, kindly. She glanced up as the elderly woman reached the pavement, giving her a friendly half-wave. ''Journey resuming.'' said the voice, and the programme unpaused itself.
John, her twin brother, was scowling at one of the celebrity contestants, a female ex-reality TV ''star'' in her twenties, and his familiar husky voice told her that she would be lucky to survive the vote this week, despite how stunning she had looked each week so far in her ever more elaborate jewel-encrusted Elizabethan dresses. The three male celebrities who made up the rest of her madrigal team stood behind her in their doublets and hose, sniggering as John told her it was all very well to look good in a stomacher and farthingale, but it would help if she could remember her words, and come in on the correct beat of the bar. Oh, and stay in tune.
Sally shook her head. This format was getting distinctly tired, despite the wealth of different ideas for new Celebrity-Reality/Talent shows – commonly known as CelebReTals. She and John had made their fortunes from them, it was true. John was the frontman; the presenter everyone loved to hate. John Stratton, the Truth Teller. He could make or break a career with a barbed remark or a well-aimed compliment. For thirty years, these shows had had a standard three or four judge panel. But the ''nasty one'' always overshadowed the two or three kinder judges. Since she and John had pitched their idea for a one-man presenter/advisor/judge ten years ago, and the format had been an instant success, all the other CelebReTal shows had found their own front man or woman, but John was still the best. And Sally was the creative force behind all his successful shows.
She opened a side window in her minibook, and clicked on forthcoming shows. When the madrigal thing finished in four weeks time, their new show, ''Strictly Come Morris Dancing'' was ready to go. She clicked on the title, and then on contestants: A cricketer, a tennis player, two singers - one male and one female, and the rest were all ex-reality TV stars. The real celebrities were just too difficult to find these days. The viewing figures told a tale. The interest of the Great British Public was waning. And who could blame them. They were getting back to ''old-fashioned'' things such as reading, going out to eat, or to the pub, even going for walks. The theatres, concert halls and cinemas were packed every night. The GBP were tired of telly.
She looked at the Madrigal contestants on her screen again. The period costumes reminded her of the conversation she and Colin had had a few days ago. Maybe it was time for change.
Her latest ideas had been far less successful than she and John had hoped. She had hit upon the idea of CelebReTal shows based on traditional pastimes, due to the popularity of these pursuits with the Great British Public. But her big mistake had been in thinking that just because they were doing them, it followed that they wanted to watch newsreaders, or comedians, or dancers doing them on the television. She was thinking of shelving her proposals for ''Celebrity Jousting''. The Health and Safety people had shaken their heads over that one in any case.
It might be better to return to the tried and trusted occupation-based shows. ''No Parking: Celebrity Traffic Wardens'' had been a major hit. The show in which a former Leader of the Opposition had ticketed the current PM had been legendary. And '' Down In the Mouth CelebStyle'' was still talked about, a year after transmission. Who could have predicted that the former Heavyweight boxing champion would have been voted the best dental hygienist? He was still making a good living from it too, by all accounts. Perhaps she should brainstorm a few new ideas along those lines. Or maybe not.
Destination reached, said the voice of her electric car. She closed her minibook and slipped it into her handbag, then went to the Identibox at the entrance of the building and pressed her right eye to the scanner, allowing the iris recognition program to identify her as an authorised entrant. The door slid open and she entered the foyer.
''Morning Mizz Stratton.'' said the recepdroid, an androgynous blond, wearing a smart blue suit. ''Your brother is in Studio 14.''
She stepped into a nearby Vator, and pressed 14. The perspex box immediately closed its doors and lifted into the air. As always, she avoided looking down. These things were a nightmare for people who suffered from altophobia, as she did, despite their speed. In seconds, the Vator had stopped on the next floor, outside a door marked 14. Sally waited for the doors to open, and stepped out of the Vator, which whooshed downwards, to await its next passengers.
She was about to enter the Studio, when she was distracted by a commotion from rehearsal room next door. She slid the door open, and eased herself into the room. Ah. The celebrity Morris Dancers were in, being put through their paces for next month's launch. They were a mixed bunch, and the white costumes suited some better than others. The eastern European identical twin female singers, who had had some minor chart success thirty years ago, and had been CelebReTal fodder ever since, had chosen to trim the long white cotton trousers to hot-pant length. They were wearing their leg-bells amusingly tied round their tiny waists, and were making them jingle by shaking their tiny bottoms – still surprisingly firm, despite the fact that the ''Girls'' were now in their fifties. They stopped shaking their gluteus maximi, and each gave a finger wave to the back of the rehearsal room. Sally looked towards the small group of spectators. Yes – as she suspected, the Girls' identical twin husbands, both Whig MPs, were finger-waving back at them.
She looked back to the bunch of Morris Men and Women. She wasn't surprised to see that the source of the rumpus was a well known chef, who was having a full-blown strop about something. He was shouting at the dance instructor and pointing at another contestant, whom she recognised as an ex-glamour model, with whom the chef had famously split up six months ago. The culinary master was shouting and swearing colourfully, each expletive accompanied by a stamp of his foot, his leg-bells jingling merrily. On one particularly violent curse word, the foot-stamp was so forceful that one of the little bells flew off, and bounced on the floor, striking one of the Girls on her pert bottom, on the upward trajectory, which caused her twin great hilarity. Sally noted that three cameramen were catching all this, and the dance instructor was making no effort to calm the chef down, knowing that this sort of stuff was just what the GBP loved. She left them to it and slipped out of the room, thinking that it was a blessing that the celebs were not yet learning the stick dances. When the time came for that, with such potentially effective weapons, they might need some first-aiders on standby.
She entered Studio 14, where her brother was lounging in an armchair, with a leg flung over one of the arms, playing on his minibook. Sally glanced at the screen. It appeared to be a Railway building sim-game.
''Yo, Sis!'' he said. ''Seen last night's show?''
''Yes, John. I watched it in the car. You're going to have to lay off the girls, Johnny. The red-tops latch onto these things, and you've still got the misogynist tag hanging over you from last year.''
''Sally, don't sweat, girl! You know it doesn't hurt the ratings. The GBP love it when I give the girls a hard time.''
Sally sat in the adjacent chair. ''Well, there are other considerations, John. I was talking to Andrew last week.'' She sighed. John hadn't even looked up from his game. ''He says the girls are being voted off too quickly, and he's fed up having to do new arrangements of the songs without female voices, because none of the remaining boys can sing the soprano parts as counter-tenor.''
She didn't want to tell John just how annoyed their Musical arranger had been. The Lord, as he was known, was threatening to leave the show if the remaining two girls weren't kept in it until the final. There were three teams in the competition, and one of them was now an all-male combo.
''Well, that's his problem, isn't it?'' His voice indicated that this particular topic was not up for further discussion. Sally opened her mouth to say more, then thought better of it. She had other things to discuss.
''John, I think it's time we tried something new. Well...actually, something... old, really.''
''Yeah? What's that then, Sal?'' He was tapping away on the minibook. She wasn't sure he was even listening, but she went ahead anyway.
''I think we should do a drama serial, something Period.'' She waited. John paused the game, and stroked his chin.
''Hmmm.... Yes, that'd be good. ''I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of This Victorian Mansion'', perhaps. Something like that, you mean? We could get the viewers to kill a character off every week. Now, we'll need some celebs who'll be really lousy actors. Maybe a cricketer or two?''
''No. John, we don't. We want some celebrities who are really good actors. In fact we need some actors who are celebrities because they're such great actors.''
John wrinkled his brow. ''How does that work then? Surely we need a few bad ones, or it'll be too difficult for the GBP to choose who goes, early on.'' He looked genuinely perplexed.
''John, no-one needs to go. That's the point. They can all stay in it to the end, unless they die as part of the story. And no cricketers, John. No singers; no glamour models; no chefs; and certainly no ex-Reality people. Unless they happen to be actors. Real ones!''
She looked at her twin brother. He was really having trouble getting his head round this one. She continued.
''I was talking to Colin last week.'' Predictably, John's face clouded at the mention of their elder brother. ''Yes, we both know what a low opinion he has of our work, but...'' She stood up and went over to sit on the other arm of John's chair. ''He reminded me about the sort of programmes people used to watch when we were children. Good dramas, John. Documentaries. When was the last time you saw a documentary that didn't feature a celebrity? Quality television, rather than the cheap predictable rubbish we, and everyone else in television puts out these days. Isn't it time the celebrities went back to doing what made them famous, instead of appearing in programmes doing something else?
John looked at his minibook screen, then up at Sally.
''Who would write this stuff?''
''Well, that's the good part. It's already been written. Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Hardy. There's so much to choose from. And maybe writers will start writing specifically for television again. Imagine, John.''
John looked at his sister. Perhaps she was right. Could it be time to escape from Reality?