charity, had shown him a quick way up a fire escape on the outside of the building, which avoided waiting for slow lifts. He started up the metal steps, thinking what a flimsy structure it was on the outside of a comparatively modern block. He looked down to the car park some forty feet below.

He was half way up before he remembered the notes. Of course, he must remember that being in work did involve actually doing the job as well as drinking amiably in the bar. He started back down the metal fire escape.

The Production Control box was empty when he got there. All the banks of monitor screens were either blank or showing test cards. There was no one visible through the glass to the left in Vision Control, or to the right in Sound Control. They must be doing the notes elsewhere.

As he turned to go, he heard a voice clearly from one of the speakers. It was a familiar voice, recognisable from its South African twang, and even more recognisable from its tone of contempt.

He only heard two sentences, before the Sound Controller appeared in the box to his right and switched off the sound.

The two sentences were: ‘You couldn’t kill me. You haven’t got it in you.

CHAPTER TWO

‘Everything okay, Charles?’ asked Peter Lipscombe from his position at the bar.

‘Fine, thanks.’ Then, feeling that some comment was required, Charles offered the opinion that the recording had gone all right.

The producer confided that he thought it was very exciting, but very exciting. That wasn’t exactly the word Charles would have used for the evening but, since the next question was what he would like to drink, he didn’t discuss it. The importance of most things diminished when he had a large Bell’s in his hand.

Because he had only been in costume above the waist (barmen always being shot with their bottom half obscured by the bar), because he hadn’t bothered to remove his make-up, and because he knew the short cut up the fire escape, Charles had managed to be the first of the cast to arrive in the bar. (He didn’t pride himself on many abilities, but, in all modesty, had to recognise that he had few rivals in speed of getting to bars after performances.) He sat down with his drink and watched the rest of the actors and crew assemble.

As he did so, he witnessed a transformation of Peter Lipscombe. Whereas during the week of rehearsal the producer had been little in evidence and, when present, unobtrusive and diffident, he was now showing real dynamism in the business of taking people’s orders for drinks and putting them through to the barman. Charles wondered whether he had finally answered a question that had puzzled him in all his previous dealings with television comedy. While the director’s function, taking rehearsals and organising cameras, was obvious, what on earth was the producer there for? Peter Lipscombe’s proficiency as a waiter suggested that at last the function had been explained.

‘I think you may have to cope with a success for the first time in your life, Charles.’

The actor looked up to the familiar voice and saw the perfectly groomed figure of his friend Gerald Venables. He had forgotten that the solicitor had asked for a ticket for the recording. Though they had first met at Oxford in the OUDS, for whom Gerald had been an assiduous and commercially successful treasurer, he had never shown much interest in Charles’s subsequent theatrical career, except when it involved television. The actor secretly believed that this was because commercial television was the medium whose values were closest to Gerald’s own — those being that the sole aim of the arts is to make as much money as possible. The solicitor had certainly followed this tenet in his own show-biz practice, which was one of the reasons why he always walked around looking like the ideal executive in an American Express advertisement. On this occasion he favoured a dark blue double-breasted suit with a nuance of a chalk stripe, a blue-and-red paisley silk tie, and black patent-leather shoes restrained by a redundant strip of metal. The silver hair was trendily coiffed, and the tan would suggest to the uninitiated regular winter use of the sunlamp, but to those who knew Gerald’s habits, a recent return from skiing in Verbier.

Charles, now back in his customary sports jacket (described once by a fellow actor as ‘a sack with an identity problem’), reflected again on the incongruity of the friendship, as he offered Gerald a drink.

‘No, I’m fine, thanks. Just been talking to the Head of Contracts and he bought me one.’

‘And you really think this show’ll work?’

‘Oh, absolutely. It has all the hallmarks of a successful situation comedy.’

‘What, you mean total witlessness, exaggerated performances and the perpetuation of harmful prejudices?’

‘Now, Charles, you must curb your cynicism. Not only does this offer you more chance of making money than you’ve ever had in your so-called career, it is also a perfectly adequate, well crafted and well cast little show, which should be good for at least three series.’

‘Sorry, I can never judge this sort of comedy. Enumerate its virtues for me, would you?’

‘Okay. One, it’s a good, simple situation — old fogey from the days of Empire, discipline, National Service, etc. reacting to the slackness of modern life. Two, the script has jokes in the right places and in the right frequency.’

‘But they’re pretty old ones.’

‘That doesn’t matter. Audiences like recognition. Old jokes make them feel cosy. Three, it has a very good cast. George Birkitt is a real find. I think that crusty pig-headedness could catch on just like Alf Garnett. The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate. .’

‘Thank you,’ said Charles with some acidity. The word had unfortunate associations for him. One of the high- spots of his theatrical career, his performance of a major Shakespearean role at Colchester, had been hailed in the Eastern Daily Press with the sentence, ‘Charles Paris provides an adequate Macbeth.’

Gerald continued, unperturbed, ‘What is more, the show has a secret ingredient, that little spark of magic which will raise it from the ranks of the commonplace.’

‘What’s that?’

‘It has Aurelia Howarth, my childhood idol. And, though it would have hurt me to admit it at the time, she was not just my idol. The whole country was in love with her — and always has been. Right from those revues back in the Twenties — which, before you make any snide remarks, I was too young to see. But then with all those wonderful movies in the Thirties, and all her work during the war and. . and everything. She’s absolutely inspired casting. Who thought of her? Was it the producer?’

‘I shouldn’t think so. Mind you, he’s probably capable of buying her a drink.’

‘Anyway, as I say, I think you’re on to a winner.’

Charles Paris smiled, gratified. ‘Well, I hope you’re right. And thank you very much for coming to see me.’

‘Oh, I didn’t come to see you,’ said Gerald Venables. ‘I only came because I thought you could introduce me to Aurelia Howarth.’

At this moment the object of the solicitor’s adoration appeared at the main entrance to the bar. (Charles noticed with satisfaction that nobody else seemed to know about the short cut up the fire escape.)

In describing Aurelia Howarth, it was impossible to avoid the words ‘well preserved’. Though she was of the generation who thought it impolite to define a lady’s age with too much precision, sheer logic and a knowledge of her theatrical achievements made it impossible for the most gallant admirer to put her birth much later than 1904, which made her at least seventy-five when the pilot of The Strutters was recorded. But, with the help of skilled couturiers and a lifetime’s practice of make-up, she carried her years gracefully. Even as she entered the bar, encumbered by a huge bouquet under one arm and the odious Cocky under the other, her poise did not desert her. Though she had none of the egocentricity of the prima donna, she could never help making an entrance. Now she paused in the doorway, as if anticipating the applause of recognition. It was not a calculated gesture, just something that was instinctive to her.

She still had the slightness so familiar from early publicity photographs, and still enhanced it by wearing dresses skilfully draped about with diaphanous hangings. These, together with an aureole of pale golden hair (surely

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