TVUK Channel 31

The ratings for Channel 31 were 53 that night. That made it the lowest out of any any channel in the UK's home-grown market. What the ratings didn't show was who those 53 were. 52 of them were people who'd flicked through the channels and landed here randomly, for instance Mr. Gorton of Tammel Terrace, Oxford, who was now brushing his teeth and who would be back in a minute to start channel-hopping again, or Amy Steingrove from Thames Street, Northampton, whose remote had died on her mid-flick and who was searching for a new battery.

That still left the 53rd viewer. Her name was Bella Pleasance and she was watching the show avidly.

"Through the door on our right will you welcome Steeeeeeve Japhur. YAAAAAAY!" screamed the host. The live audience clapped loudly, just as they had been instructed.

"I don't fancy the host anymore," said Bella, leaning towards her microphone. "Get another one."

"So," beamed the glitter-encrusted host to Steve Japhur. "Welcome to England. And welcome to 'BELLA'S GUESTS AT MIDNIGHT!' YAAAAAAY!"

The audience were once again instructed to clap and did as they were bidden.

"Now, Steve," smiled the host engratiatingly, "you have invented what I understand to be the world's only..."

The man was cut short by the hurried arrival of two worried-looking young men in black t-shirts on stage, each sporting a large pair of earphones.

"Sorry, mate, you gotta go," said one. They each linked an arm with the ex-host of "Bella's Guests at Midnight" and marched him to the door. His pretence of a smile had disappeared but he was making no protest either verbal or physical. He knew the score around here.

"Sorry, you'll get your money - I promise," said Jim, the man in black who hadn't yet spoken as he closed the metal fire doors in the old host's face.

With a mixture of horror and pride, Jim listened to the message in his ear. He came into Bella's office and changed in front of her into a tacky glittering suit and top hat. She looked on approvingly.

Jim strode on stage, gave his best, most confident fake laugh and sat on the lips-shaped sofa next to Steve Japhur.

"So, Steve, I understand you have invented the only..."

"What is happening, please?" asked Jim's guest.

"We were encountering some problems back stage and the other guy just went to help fix them. Moving swiftly on, I understand that you're the only person ever to think of inventing..."

"This is too crazy for me. I am not liking it like this, you know," said Steve, removing his microphone and walking out.

(Little did anyone at Channel 31 know but their viewership had just gone up by four - three of the statistics were a group of squatters who were stoned out of their minds and who were just sitting staring at "Bella's Guests at Midnight" and giggling and one was a student who needed a bit of randomness whilst drinking a Red Bull before continuing with their essay.)

Bella leaned in again.

"I like you," she said, "Stuff the guest - he was boring anyway. Let's see your chest."

"It's a bit hot, ladies and gentlemen. I need to take my jacket off," said the new host. "Actually, I think I'll take my shirt off as well."

Having proceeded thus far he suddenly realised that the studio lighting was making him fee a bit too hot and he needed to take his vest off as well. His chest was pale and almost hairless. Bella liked 'em like that.

The audience were now instructed to make "Whoooooo!" noises.

An hour later it was over. The audience were able to stop laughing at unfunny jokes and going "whoooooo" at things that didn't excite them. It had been worth it, they were sure. Their agency had told each and every one of them that if they turned up here a producer on a bigger show would be sure to notice them and would probably sign them up for some full-time acting work. And each and every one of them had believed it.

Jim, who'd been hired through the same agency, had been told exactly the same thing and so felt that his humiliation had all been worth it. He was summoned to Bella's room. He had to remain standing and watch her while she ate her way through an entire bunch of grapes while she told him how good-looking he was. (Maybe she felt it would spoil his fine figure if she offered him any of the grapes?)

"Buy me a box of chocolates," she said at the end of their audience. "Put a message on it saying "Bella, I love you, from Jim. Put three kisses on it. No put four kisses on it. No, I don't want four. Put three kisses on it. Write it in red. It looks romantic in red, doesn't it?"

He laughed and repeated some of her words back to her and did all the other tricks that we do to show someone we're listening when we're not.

He went home happy, knowing he'd be well-paid for having been picked by Bella Pleasance. It would be profile-raising and would look great on his CV. He could use it as a springboard for doing what he actually wanted to do, which was wildlife documentaries.

The next evening just as he was about to step through the door Jim's 'phone rang. He picked it up and was greeted by the voice of a man whom he didn't recognise.

"Hello?" he said.

"Do you work for Bella Pleasance?" asked the voice, bypassing the customary greetings and introductions.

"Why do you need to know that?"

"Well stay away from her - she's poison."

"What do you know?"

"Everything!" said the voice. There then followed a click.

"Hello?" said Jim.

"The other person has hung up," said a soothing automated voice in Jim's ear.

The End

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