Read an Excerpt
We hear that MediaOchre Productions are celebrating a lucrative commission from Channel 16 to make a documentary on the romance industry. MediaOchre are keeping the details under wraps, but rumours are rife that an intriguing combination of presenters has been lined up. Stella Holt, still enjoying her meteoric rise from WAG to chat show host, says that she is 'thrilled' to have been invited to front the programme, but remains coy about the identity of her co-presenter.
One name being whispered is that of the economist, Simon Valentine, whose hard-hitting documentary on banking systems and their impact on the very poorest both here and in developing countries has led to a boom in micro-financing projects that is reputed to be revolutionising opportunities for millions around the world. Valentine, a reluctant celebrity, shot to fame with his crisp analysis of the global recession on the news, and has since become the unlikely pin-up of thinking women throughout the country. MediaOchre are refusing to confirm or deny the rumour. Roland Richards, its flamboyant executive producer, is uncharacteristically taciturn on the subject and is sticking to 'no comment' for now.
'No,' said Simon Valentine. 'No, no, no, no, no. No.'
Clara's cheeks were aching with the effort of keeping a cheery smile in place. Simon couldn't see it on the phone, of course, but she had read somewhere that people responded more positively if you smiled when you were talking.
Not that it seemed to be having an effect on Simon Valentine.
'I know it's hard to make a decision without having all the facts,' she said, desperately channelling her inner Julie Andrews. The Sound of Music was Clara's favourite film of all time. Julie had coped with a Captain and seven children, so surely Clara shouldn't be daunted by one disobliging economist?
'I'd be happy to meet you and answer any questions you might have about the programme,' she offered brightly.
'I don't have any questions.' Clara could practically hear him grinding his teeth. 'I have no intention of appearing on your programme.'
Clara had a nasty feeling that her positive smile was beginning to look more like a manic grin. 'I understand you might want to take a little time to think about it.'
'Look, Ms whatever you're called '
'Sterne, but please call me Clara.'
Simon Valentine ignored the invitation. 'I don't know how to make myself clearer,' he said, his voice as tightly controlled as the image that stared out from Clara's computer screen.
She had been Googling him, hoping to find some chink in his implacable armour, some glimpse of humour or a shared interest that she could use to build a connection with him, but details of his private life were frustratingly sparse. He had a PhD in Development Economicswhatever they werefrom Harvard, and was currently a senior financial analyst with Stanhope Harding, but what use was that to her? You couldn't get chatty about interest rates or the strength of the poundor, at least, you couldn't if you knew as little about economics as Clara did. She had been hoping to discover that he was married, or played the drums in his spare time, or had a daughter who loved ballet or something. Something she could relate to.
As it was, she had established his age to be thirty-six and the story of how he had quietly used his unexpected celebrity to revolutionize the funding of small projects around the world. So great had been the uproar in response to the programme he had written and presented that the big financial institutions had been forced to rethink their lending policies, or so Clara had understood it. She had read lots of stories from small collectives in sub-Saharan Africa, from farmers in South America and struggling businesses in South East Asia, as well as in the more deprived parts of the UK, all of whom had credited Simon Valentine with changing their lives.
It was all very impressive, but Simon himself remained an elusive figure. As far as Clara could see, he had been born a fully fledged, suit-wearing economist who had no interest in celebrity for its own sake.
There were no snaps of him staggering out of a club at four in the morning, no furtive shots of him shopping with a girlfriend. The ideal, of course, would have been some cheesy shots of Simon Valentine showing his 'lovely home' in the gossip mags, but Clara wasn't unreasonable. She had known that was a long shot, but she had thought she might at least find a picture of him at some reception, glass in hand.
But no. All she had was this corporate head and shoulders shot. He had the whole steely-jawed, gimlet-eyed thing going on, which Clara could sort of see the appeal of, although it didn't do much for her. His tie was straight and rigidly knotted, his jacket stiff, his shoulders squared. The guy had some serious control issues, in Clara's opinion.
Come to think of it, he had a definite Captain von Trapp quality to him, although he wasn't nearly as attractive as Christopher Plummer. Obviously. Still, Clara could imagine him summoning his children with a whistle.
Hmm. The thought gave her a definite frisson. Perhaps a rousing rendition of Edelweiss would do the trick?
'Are you listening to me?' Simon Valentine demanded.
Hastily, Clara jerked her mind back from Salzburg. 'Of course.'
'Good, then I say this for one last time. I have no intention of appearing on your programme.' Simon spoke very distinctly and with exaggerated patience, as if addressing a naughty child. 'I don't need time to think about it now, just as I didn't need time when you emailed me the first time, or when you rang me for the fourth. My answer was no then, just as it's no now, and as it is always going to be. N. O. No. It's a very simple word. Do you understand what it means?'
Of course she understood. She might not be an academic like the rest of her family, but she had mastered the English language. It was Simon Valentine who didn't understand how important this was.
'If I could just expl' she began desperately, but Simon, it appeared, had had enough explanations.
'Please do not try and call me again, or I will get very angry.'
And he cut the connection without waiting for her reply. Clara slumped, making a face at the phone as she switched it off and tossed it onto the desk in defeat. Now what? 'Well? What did he say?'
She spun her chair round to see the director of Romance: Fact or Fiction? hovering in the doorway. 'I'm sorry, Ted,' she said. 'He's just not going to do it.'
'He's got to say yes!' Ted wrung his hands, the way he had been wringing them ever since Clara had first come up against a flat refusal from Simon Valentine. 'Roland's already promised Stella that Simon Valentine is on board!'
'Ted, I know. Why else do you think I've been harassing him?' But Clara was careful not to snap. Ted was one of her closest friends, and she knew how anxious he was about the new flat he and his partner had just bought.
More wringing of hands. 'What are we going to do?'
'I don't know.' With a sigh, Clara swung back to contemplate her computer screen. Simon Valentine gazed austerely back at her, the inflexible set of his lips taunting her with the impossibility of ever getting him to change his mind.
Puffing out a frustrated breath, Clara stuck her tongue out at him. Maturity was everything.
'Why can't Stella front the programme with someone else? Someone more approachable and more likely to take part? The Prime Minister, for instance, orI know!the Secretary General of the United Nations. Now there's someone who'd make a great presenter. I could give the UN a ring now I'm sure it would be easier than getting Simon Valentine to agree.'
Her mouth turned down despondently. 'Honestly, Ted, I've tried and tried to talk to him, but he just isn't interested. You'd think he'd at least consider it after doing that programme on micro-financing, but he won't even let me explain.'
'Did you tell him Stella was super-keen to work with him?'
'I tried, but he doesn't know who she is.'
'You're kidding?' Ted gaped at her. 'I don't see how he could have missed her!'
'I don't get the impression Simon Valentine watches much daytime television,' said Clara, 'and I'm guessing the Financial Times doesn't devote much space to footballers' wives and girlfriends. This isn't a guy who's going to have a clue about celebrities.'
Ted grimaced. 'Better not tell Stella he's never heard of her or the fat really will be in the fire!'
'I can't think why she's so obsessed with Simon Valentine anyway,' grumbled Clara. 'He's so not her type. She should be going out with someone who's happy to be photographed all loved-up in Hello!, not a repressed economist. It's mad!'
Ted perched on the edge of her desk. 'Roland reckons she wants a relationship with Simon to give her gravitas,' he confided. 'Apparently she's desperate to shake off her WAG image and be taken seriously. Or maybe she just fancies him.'
'I just don't get it.' Clara studied Simon's photo critically. Even allowing for the vague Christopher Plummer resemblance, it was hard to see what all the fuss was about. Talk about buttoned-up!
'Did you hear that audience figures for the news have rocketed since he's been doing those analyses of the economic situation?' she said, mystified. 'Women all over the country have been switching on specially in the hope of seeing him, and now they're all tweeting each other about how sexy they think he is.' She shook her head at the photograph.
'They're calling him the Dow-Jones Darling now,' said Ted, and Clara snorted.
'More like the Nikkei Nightmare!'
'You ought to watch the news. You can't understand Simon Valentine's appeal until you've seen him in action.'
'I do watch the news,' Clara protested. She wasn't entirely superficial! She caught Ted's eye. 'Sometimes, anyway,' she amended.
'I made a point of watching the other night before I called him the first time so that I could tell him how brilliant he wasnot that I ever got the chance to suck up,' she remembered glumly. 'I can see that he knows what he's talking about, but the whole he's-so-gorgeous thing has passed me by. He didn't smile once!'
'He's talking about the global recession,' Ted pointed out. 'Not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff. You can hardly expect him to be cracking jokes. What do you want him to say? Have you heard the one about the rising unemployment figures?'
'I'm just saying he doesn't look as if he'd be much fun.'
'Simon Valentine appeals to women's intellect,' said Ted authoritatively, and Clara rolled her eyes.
'Like you'd know!'
Ted ignored that. 'He's obviously fiercely intelligent, but he explains what's happening in the financial markets so clearly that you can actually understand it, and that makes you feel clever too. He only got invited to comment that first time because someone else wasn't available but he's a natural on camera.'
'I know. It's odd, isn't it? It's not as if he's incredibly good-looking or anything.'
'It's not about that,' said Ted with all the authority of a film director. 'It's about a complete lack of vanity. He clearly doesn't care what he looks like, and he's talking about a subject he's utterly comfortable with, so he's relaxed, and the camera loves that. I can see exactly why the BBC snapped up that documentary. There's a passion about the way he talks about economics it is kind of sexy.'
'If you say so,' said Clara, unconvinced.
'It was Simon who sold the proposal when Roland pitched it to Channel 16. The suits loved the idea of putting him with Stella.'
Clara could just about get that. Stella Holt was a popular daytime television chat show host, famous for her giggle and revealing dresses. Who better to contrast with her than Simon Valentine, the coolly intelligent financial analyst who had somehow managed to make the global recession a sexy subject? The commissioning editors at Channel 16 had lapped it up, just as Roland Richards had said they would.
You didn't need to be Simon Valentine to know that the economic outlook was bleak for small television production companies like MediaOchre. They were incredibly lucky to have a programme commissioned at all, as Roland kept reminding them. If it wasn't for that, the whole company would be folding.
As it was, they had the moneyan extraordinarily generous budget under the circumstances. They had Ted as an award-winning producer, and a camera and sound crew lined up. They had the locations chosen and deals set up with airlines and hotels. They had Stella Holt to add the celebrity glamour that would pull in the viewers.
All they needed was Simon Valentine.
As Roland also kept reminding Clara.
'You're the production assistant,' he told her. 'I don't care what you do, but get him on board or this whole thing is going to fall apart, and it won't just be you that's out of a job. We'll all be out on the streets!'
So no pressure then.
Remembering, Clara put her head in her hands. 'There must be some way of persuading Simon to take part. He won't talk on the phone or respond to emails I need to talk to him face to face. But how?'
'Can't you get contrive to bump into him at a party?' Ted suggested.
Clara lifted her head to jab a finger at the screen. 'Does he look like a party animal to you? He doesn't do anything but work, as far as I can see. They even do those interviews in his office, so I can't even throw myself at him in the lift at the BBC.'
'He must go home some time. Hang around outside his office and then follow him.'