The date: Early in 2009
The place: An office building somewhere in London
"He'll be just a few more minutes, Mr. Armstrong."
Alexander nodded, still not entirely sure there wasn't a hidden camera trained on him somewhere. Or rather, he was sure there was, but the likelihood of its aim being farcical was fading. Smartly dressed men and women kept exiting the lifts and marching swiftly down the hall and while a fake office and receptionist might be easy enough, surely even Endemol wouldn't bother to hire that many extras. Regardless, the door to his left clearly said "Richard Osman" on it, so whatever was going on, an explanation was surely forthcoming.
Alexander looked down at his jacket and wished he'd thought to wear a tie.
It's just that usually, he thought, a text from Richard that said "possible job, lunch Wed my place?" meant a curry in Shepherd's Bush. And while it was slightly odd that Richard sent a car, Alexander was too busy mocking him via text for moving up in the world to pay attention to anything else. It wasn't until he was dropped off in the underground car park he even noticed something was different.
"Xander, hiya. Sorry to keep you waiting."
Alexander stood up, relieved. That was definitely Richard in the doorway, all six-foot seven of him. He entered the office and paused to look out at the view. Right. Definitely not in West London.
"Sit down, sit down, my dear chap," Richard waved his hand at the chair in front of his desk. "It's been too long, I'm so sorry. Work, you know."
Alexander just stared at him.
Richard sighed. "Right, sorry. You want to know what's up, of course." He cocked his head to one side. "Though possibly you could hazard a guess?"
"Well, let's see," Alexander said, leaning forward as he folded his hands together. "I haven't been in this office -- or this building -- before, which means either you've changed jobs or you have an additional job you've somehow neglected to tell me about all these years."
"I can see the Thames behind you," Alexander continued, "you're wearing the most conservative suit I've ever seen you in and the level of security required to get in the lift was excessive even by Endemol's standards. So you know, I do have a guess, yes."
Richard nodded approvingly. Alexander resisted the urge to throttle him and settled for rolling his eyes. Possibly he should be far more surprised to learn his old university chum was secretly helping to run the country, but if anyone had the energy for two separate careers, it was Richard.
Alexander leaned back in his chair.
"If you're about to offer me the red or blue pill, I'll take the blue, please."
Richard laughed, tossing his head back and then lifting a hand to his face to remove his glasses. He took out a handkerchief and began cleaning his glasses as he spoke.
"Dear me, no. Nothing quite that drastic. No, it's more of a recruitment campaign I thought you might be able to help us out with."
Alexander frowned. "Surely the best way to recruit people is to use actual members of the ... well, whatever we're going to call what you do."
Richard waved a hand in dismissal. "You're a posh boy from the country who went to Cambridge. Half the viewers of Have I Got News For You doubtless already think you're a spy."
"In fact," Richard continued, "that's really why I never asked you to help out earlier. Too obvious. Sorry about that."
Alexander raised his eyebrows. "Yes, Richard, that's my main concern at the moment. Why I wasn't asked to spy for Britain 20 years ago."
Richard opened his arms wide and shrugged. "OK, let me start over. As you know, in the good old days, the service just fished for entrants right out of university. A few Apostles here, a few Fellows there."
"A few Soviet double-agents," Alexander murmured.
"Well, quite so," Richard said. "Our college in particular didn't exactly cover itself with honor in the Cold War. But all the more reason that subsequent generations of Cantabrigians serving their country needed a better cover story than 'gosh, my tutor suggested I join the diplomatic service.' So sometime in the 1970s they -- well, Clive Anderson, actually -- had the brilliant idea to start looking for recruits in Footlights."
Richard paused, clearly expecting some expression of astonishment. Alexander refused to give him the satisfaction and simply lifted an eyebrow. Richard smirked and continued.
"Right, so the comedy circuit proved an excellent cover. No one noticed if Griff Rhys Jones or Tony Slattery dropped out of sight for a bit, or if Richard Vranch suddenly decided to do a gig in Mexico City. And when double acts became the rage, the cover was even easier -- just sign up one of them and let the other one establish a higher profile and do most of the talking. I mean, until House came along, large sections of the UK viewing public thought Hugh Laurie was actually as dim as his characters. Most useful."
Alexander couldn't let that pass. "So, you're saying House was what, a vacation?"
"Oh no," Richard said. "We needed him in the States. It was a calculated risk. And of course it all went on for far too long, but by then we had David Mitchell lined up --"
"In what world is David the quieter, more low-profile member of Mitchell and Webb?"
"Ah well," Richard said, looking down at his desk. "We had to make an exception there, because our sisters across the river were making a serious play for him. And we're all on the same side, of course, but we really hate losing to colleagues from The Other Place."
"Oxford or MI6?" Alexander asked.
"Both, actually," said Richard. "Oxonians like foreign travel, apparently."
Alexander rubbed his forehead. "Where do I come in again?"
"Ah, right, sorry." Richard sat up a little straighter and smiled widely. "So, recruitment. It turns out that there are loads of useful people who didn't actually go to Cambridge, much less write sketch shows in their spare time. But finding them is tricky and stress-testing them without telling them what's going on is even more difficult. And then we saw what Vicky Coren did with Only Connect and a light went off: We needed our own game show."
"Only Connect is a talent-spotting service for MI6?"
Richard frowned as he put his glasses back on.
"Well, it hasn't worked quite as well as they'd hoped," he said. "Or so I gather. They went a bit Full Metal Nerd in the construction, and so they're mostly getting crossword obsessives and retired librarians. Many of whom went to Oxford anyway. Not that they're planning to kill the show. Vicky apparently loves doing it, and they definitely want to keep her happy."
"Vicky is a ... ?"
"Second generation," Richard said, nodding. "The Corens are legends. Not to mention that if you think comedy makes a good cover, try being an international-standard poker player. Worth her weight in gold, etc., Vicky is."
"Fantastic," Alexander said. "So not only is Ben apparently in your little cabal -- yes, I could tell you were avoiding that, but no hard feelings, if I were recruiting from comedy pairs I'd pick the one who did physics over me too, but Giles is as well? He's dating my sister-in-law now. Though you undoubtedly already knew that."
Richard shrugged, trying and failing to look apologetic. "Anyway, our show will be much easier. The goal is to put them under stress and see how they react. We don't actually care if they know which national flags contain the colour green."
"Weren't you the one who told me to turn down Countdown?"
"Well, that advice came from Richard Osman, the noted TV producer," Richard said. "Not Richard Osman, the one who needs you to serve your country by fronting a teatime game show."
Alexander sighed again. "I don't have a choice, really, do I?"
"Not really, no," Richard said. "But cheer up Xander, you'll like this bit. I'm going to be your TV sidekick. You'll get to abuse me in public in front of millions -- well, at least tens of thousands, probably."
Alexander admitted that did sound fun.
"Hang on, though," he said, waving his arm around the office. "Doesn't the whole Mycroft thing you have going here kind of depend on your staying out of sight?"
Richard tapped his finger against his forehead and pointed it at Alexander. "Ah, but see, it's a double bluff. It's unusual enough for a TV producer to suddenly appear in front of the camera -- any story written about me will doubtless simply focus on that."
"God, I need a coffee," Alexander said. "And if you think we're calling this Armstrong and Osman ..."
"Oh no, no," Richard reassured him. "We've got a great name already. It's Pointless."
"Right, you already said it wasn't about the show really, but surely the show still needs a name?"
"No, I mean, oh," Richard said, narrowing his eyes at his friend. "You were being funny."
Alexander shrugged and then as he stood up, another thought grabbed him.
"Wait a minute, I have a condition."
"Xander, for the last time, I am not the Banker." Richard stood up as well and moved out from behind the desk.
"Yeah, that's not it," Alexander looked up -- way up -- at his old friend. "I've spent twenty years having you loom over me. If we're doing this, you're sitting in a chair."
"Done," said Richard, smiling.