Pass the Buck
Mike Olley writes short fiction. His work has been published in several anthologies. A designer by trade, he's also quite a good carpenter and grower of cactus plants. Originally from London, he spent a few years in Spain before a quirk of fate brought him back to live in an English seaside town. Mikeolley.com
The glare of the spotlight picks out the only person not going crazy in the TV studio audience. This man remains unfazed because he is an unsung hero, a man forgotten, uncredited, the man who took the flak and saved the British government from one of the most embarrassing fiascos of all time.
Which one? This one:
Abracadabra. Pooft!! Gone.
The banks lost all the money. They insisted it was no one's fault: it was just one of those things. Where did it all go? Nobody knew. It was magic.
'Who's got all our money?' everyone wanted to know.
The banks pretended not to hear.
The politicians too, they shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads – they had no idea either, but with the mounting pressure the government felt obliged to say something, and so the Prime Minister announced: “We will get to the bottom of this...” on live TV.
Which was a big mistake.
'That's MY catchphrase!' screamed Vince Maelstrom, kicking the screen and speed-dialling his lawyers. 'Sue the government for breach of copyright. My catchphrase, my copyright.'
Vince was the host of Pass the Buck, the TV blame-game that had captured the nation, some say held it to ransom. With his trademark smile and winning catchphrases, Vince was more popular than the government who wanted a return to proper entertainment values. So, when Pass the Buck was pulled from its popular Saturday Night slot it came as no surprise. Except to Vince. The network's official line was that the financial crisis had wiped out all the show's prize money, and without the cash no one could Pass the Buck.
'But the show only needs one buck to pass,' insisted Vince.
'Sorry Vince, no can do.' The producers stood firm. And then jumped. The office closed and no one was answering calls.
Vince was livid.
The show's cancellation left an entertainment vacuum. The Pass the Buck audience, who were avid phone voters, were desperate to vote for something and with a general election imminent the government thought it would be them. However, polls suggested that no one was interested in that sort of pencil and paper voting any more. The twenty-first-century was all about tablets, smartphones and doing things online. And Politicians had no TV charisma. Vince was full of charisma. The public wanted Vince back on their screens. This was a worry for the government.
Late into the night at Westminster, the narrow corridors of power buzzed with the sound of think tanks driving to find a solution that didn't involve U-turns. Something relatively cheap. And vaguely effective. Something that got Vince Maelstrom off their back. At the eleventh hour, they came up with:
'We'll hold an enquiry.'
The public groaned. Enquiries were boring.
However, this enquiry's unique selling point was that Vince Maelstrom was going to host it. The next day, Vince let slip in an interview that 'Firey Enquiry' was going to be a brilliant blend of politics and entertainment. Suddenly the public were interested. Some began phone voting straight away, obviously these votes didn't count but it gave the government good indication they were on to a winner.
Five minutes before going live, Vince Maelstrom overturned the catering table outside the enquiry chambers.
' “Corruption of institutions”!? What sort of stupid title is that? No one wants to watch a show called... called... see, I've forgotten it already. Whose idea was it to change the name of the show?'
'It's an enquiry.'
'I know, a Firey Enquiry: politics like you've never seen before is how I've sold it to my public. I want the name changed back immediately, also, I haven't seen a script yet. Where is it? What's my opening catchphrase?'
Everyone on set avoided eye-contact with Vince until Selwyn Fallguy, the young producer, stepped in: 'Cue music, live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!'
'Let's play Firey Enquiry!' Vince ad-libbed to camera in razzamatazz style. The 'Corruption of institutions' enquiry had officially been launched. From then on it bombed. Unfortunately Vince worked best from auto-cue - he wasn't a natural improvisor. No one had thought to employ a professional writer for the job. There were periods of silence, gags fell flat: the next fifteen minutes made for painful viewing. During the ad break, Vince cornered a frightened Fallguy who explained:
'I'm not really a producer, I work for the civil service and ultimately the government.'
'Take this show off air!' demanded Maelstrom.
'But it's live!!'
'It's dead! Pull a stunt. I'm not going back.' Vince walked off set.
The rest of the enquiry show's airtime was filled with commercials getting it into the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest TV ad-break. Fallguy was fired, Vince still hired. However, for this enquiry to be a success the government needed a specialised subject expert; an academic who could also write catchphrases. But who? Without the luxury of time, throwing money at the problem seemed to be the best way to find a quick solution.
A draft outline of the enquiry project landed on the desk of a cash-strapped University undertaking vaguely similar research into the corruption of institutions. The outline paper was read with great... Well, let's just say the outline paper was read.
'Another boring enquiry that would lead to nowhere,' was Isaac Newman, the head of department's, initial reaction. He put his feet up on the desk. 'If clients want particular results and statistics, our team can manipulate any fudged data to fit any hypothesis you could imagine.' he said, chucking the printed outline towards a nearby bin and missing.
The University was tired of doing this sort of research work and was looking for a chance to break the boring academic image it had acquired. But, as always, the big stumbling block was money. Celia Horner PhD, one of the professors who doubled as a cleaner at the Uni to boost her income, picked up the discarded paper and was about to put it properly in the bin when the document flopped open at the budget section.
'How much?' she said. 'Look at this figure!'
'I read it as a telephone number!' said Newman pulling on his specs.
'I rang it. It's out of order,' pipped in his assistant.
Newman snatched back the paper and scrutinised the money column.
'No, it's completely in order. A proposed budget of... This, ladies and gentlemen, is our unique opportunity. Instead of presenting some boring thousand page document...'
The department was all ears.
'We're going to produce a film.'
'A film?' was the incredulous response at Downing St.
'A film!?' Vince Maelstrom jumped at the chance. And nearly dropped the phone.
His agent (on the other end of the line) was more cautious. 'Hold on, Vince, these eggheads have never made a film before.'
True enough. Civil servant, Selwyn Fallguy, who'd enjoyed a brief spell in TV had been rehired, found himself attending a crisis meeting at the university. As non-creative empiricists, the university department had found it difficult to adapt their academic ideas to the media of film, writing a script was proving nigh on impossible, even after applying the Hollywood formula. Yet they persisted, in the pursuit of truth. They had a snappy title: Institute of Corruption but, after initial brainstorming sessions, it became apparent that the film wasn't entirely about corruption. However, it would be based loosely on that theme, set in an institution, perhaps... the team hadn't quite worked out any of the plot details yet, nor indeed how they were going to physically produce the film as none of them knew how to operate a camera. It was down to Fallguy to find someone who could. With time running out fast he employed the jab-the-finger-at-a-random-page-in-the-phone-book-method.
Swansong Productions, the media company hired to shoot the film didn't have any tape in their cameras. Video was so passé, everything was digital these days. However, digital cameras were also expensive. Swansong chose the cheaper upgrade path for their old video equipment by sticking on labels with the word 'digital' printed on it. When Vince Maelstrom, the movie's lead, found out he threw a diva-like strop, he was an old-school purist at heart and demanded film, not digital. Swansong didn't have stickers that said film. There was no money in the budget for such stickers. Infuriated, Vince walked away from the project. Again.
'Good riddance,' said Rick Pocker, Swansong's big shot producer, who'd seen it all before. 'Tantrum? That wasn't a tantrum. You wait till you see Tom Hanks throw a strop. Then you'll know what a tantrum is!'
Rick had been in the movie business for years: he knew what script would work and what wouldn't, just from the smell of the paper. This 'Institute of Corruption' was a complete turkey. There was no point in making it although the money was good. Very good, in fact. So, on Rick's instructions, the cameramen and sound crew went through the motions and merely pretended to video the project. The clients were academics, how would they know any different? And besides, there was no script to speak of, the university department had submitted the project as a Rolodex with a loose series of conceptual questions scrawled on the cards, hoping the creative minds at Swansong would 'make it happen'.
'Yeah, I'll make it happen,' said Rick opening the window.
The Rolodex made a satisfying donk as it landed in the skip outside five floors below the Swansong Soho offices.
'Why do the government insist on wasting so much money on these stupid University research projects based on questions that anyone in a bar could answer for free?' posited Rick as he took residence in a hotel bar in an effort to prove his point. He booked a one-way flight to the Cayman Islands. As an experienced producer, he was very used to making the money he was given go far. The Caribbean tax-haven was probably far enough.
'The number you have dialled is no longer available...'
Civil servant turned executive producer, Selwyn Fallguy was becoming increasingly frustrated with the film business. Despite several requests, producer Rick wouldn't let him, or anyone else, see daily rushes, citing the Official Secrets Act as the reason. And as security had become a key issue on the election campaign trail, the government also backed the seasoned producer's stance. Unable to get hold of Rick Pocker for a project update, Fallguy decided to turn up unannounced.
However, when he got to the Swansong offices he found them completely empty and stripped bare. Fallguy sighed, this enquiry wasn't going well, a helluva lot of public money had been spent – on what? Apart from the bruised ego of a livid Vince Maelstrom there was nothing to show for it. But did that matter in the grand scheme of things? In truth, the public's interest in the enquiry was dwindling. As was the government's. Even the press couldn't be bothered any more... but Fallguy's conscience couldn't let it go. He'd been given a task and he'd see it through. To the end, like a true professional. The enquiry wasn't working because of one thing:
'Underexposure,' was Selwyn's assessment. 'If no one knows about your project, you need to advertise.'
He would employ an ad agency. A good one. One that he could trust to get the job done. By tomorrow morning.
Therefore, rather than use the jab-the-finger-at-a-random-page-in-the-phone-book-method which, let's face it, didn't work so well last time, Fallguy utilised a tried and tested system used by many of his colleagues: nepotism.
Uncle Geoff Lind was given the call and the Blue Sky agency was contracted to market the 'Institute of Corruption' enquiry film Rolodex thingy.
Their initial thought was the project was trying to be too many things: an enquiry; a film; a Rolodex; a thingy, which was probably the most accurate description. But the 'thingy' lacked focus, so the next step the agency took was change the title: 'Institute' had grey connotations and the public were wary of 'corruption', market research showed they didn't like it. This only left the word 'of' which in isolation had no substantial meaning whatsoever.
The 'of' thingy.
Blue Sky liked this approach, it meant their creatives were free to interpret the word however they wished. Except the Blue Sky creatives hadn't had any ideas (either good or bad) since the mid-90s. They had made their current reputation by stealing intellectual property from the internet and passing it off as their own which had worked very nicely thus far. However, Googling 'of' came up with nothing. They quickly came to the horrible realisation that some actual thinking was going to have to be done.
Blue Sky went back to basics, distilling the very essence of advertising - if you said a brand name enough times people would trust it. Simple repetition: Of, Of, Of. Somehow it had no ring to it. Could of, would of, should of. No, it wasn't working as a catchphrase either. It was decided the best approach would be to ignore the word 'of' and draw an abstract logo instead. So they did. It looked shit.
With a despairing sigh, Lind ordered the pizzas; it was going to be a long night.
As a failsafe to meet the deadline, he briefed the work-experience secretary to knock up a 20 page report of infinite marketing waffle cobbled from the internet. It had to be bold and brash and full of buzzwords.
'I'm not really qualified...' she began.
'Perfect!' Lind qualified.
So she set to work while the creatives set about the pizzas. However the food only inspired cheesy ideas. This 'of' thingy needed a fresh approach. They tried pushing an envelope around the table but nothing came of it. Nothing at all.
At three o'clock in the morning, the ad agency's darkest hour, the light of inspiration shone from an unlikely source: the work-experience secretary. Yet the poorly trained typist would receive no credit or financial reward for having provided the overpaid creatives with the concept they were so desperately looking for. The creatives felt good about this approach, they were on home ground, stealing ideas again. This one came from a typo in her document: she'd typed mutational instead of multinational. This was a winner: instead of the ads being multinational, they would be mutational - the ad would start out as one thing and turn into another over time. Genius!
They knocked up some poster ads in five minutes and all went home.
The critics hated it. The public's first reaction to the hollow ad campaign was hostility – they liked normal, they didn't want mutational advertising, it was a step too far – Frankenstein advertising, they called it. The masses, rabble-roused by Vince Maelstrom and his bruised ego, took to the streets with their pitch-forks and burning torches, setting fire to billboards and bus shelters, unwittingly chanting out the dull slogan.
'Of. Of. Of!'
Fallguy was sacked, again. As a direct result of the media coverage, the subject of the enquiry was raised, again.
'What happened to it? Where'd it go?'
Then Vince, spray can in hand, began transforming every 'of' poster to read 'We will get to the bottom of this...' as the new slogan, thus helping the ads mutate. The public loved it, across the country, in pubs, clubs and playgrounds everyone was saying:
“We will get to the bottom of this...”
In the end, the campaign was a huge success, making the film a hit even though no one had seen it, because nothing had been made by the cameras running without tape. But that didn't matter. It was a hot topic, it was trendy and the critics loved it. Everyone was happy. Vince won an Oscar. The University planned a sequel. The government got re-elected.
And the banks? They just kept on fleecing us.
Oh, And Pass the Buck was recommissioned.
Cue music! Vince enters. Run graphic.
Round One – Cash for Questions.
Close-up on Vince.
Vince: Where does the buck stop?
Audience: Nobody knows.
Vince: For sure?
Audience: Mmmm, not sure.
Vince: Well then, let's find out! Hit the randomiser!
(A spotlight flicks across the wild TV audience and focuses on the only person sitting quietly.)
Vince: Selwyn Fallguy, we will get to the bottom of this!