Reading Ben Elton’s prose immediately after Salman Rushdie’s rich symphony of language and Colm Toibin’s unfussy elegance, provides quite a distinction. (And that is the last time that Ben Elton’s prose and distinction will ever be used in the same sentence.) It’s like being hit over the head with brightly coloured bricks, an effect enhanced by the big squarish typeface that shouts at you for 460 pages. But then Elton’s at his best when writing novels that aren’t really novels but cartoonish satires of things he can get really angry about: global warming, drug hypocrisy … and reality TV. A few years ago he wrote Dead Famous, a brilliantly vicious assault on Big Brother. Chart Throb skewers The X Factor and Pop Idol in the same invigorating way.
Chart Throb is the account of the production and execution of a series of a ‘fictional’ TV talent show. The parallels with The X Factor are not only glaringly obvious but deliberate, and in a clever move to avoid tricky libel actions, Elton has his judges Calvin Simms (control freak media mogul), Beryl Blenheim (‘rock chick from way back’ and Botoxed star of docusoap The Blenheims) and Rodney Root (washed-up former boy band svengali) make occasional references to Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, just to show that they’re not them. He also has their speech patterns and public perceptions down pat, so that it’s impossible to read the characters’ dialogue other than in the voices of their real-life counterparts.
And so Elton gets to work. Just as Dead Famous showed how much he really, really hated Big Brother, so Chart Throb displays his contempt for The X Factor in every line. It’s a deliciously caustic performance, set in a world where “we’ve turned the whole country into one vast medieval village so that we can all stand in the market square and laugh at the idiots,” where “anything not beautiful or fashionable was deemed worthless,” and where celebrities are arrested with “a level of media frenzy that, twenty years before, would have been reserved for a visit from the President.”
But what really gets the vinegar flowing in Elton’s veins is the level of deceit involved in the production of the Chart Throb TV show. “Every week,” says Calvin, “one or other of us gravely informs some wide-eyed innocent that they could sell a lot of records, and the public never seems to mind that almost none of them actually do.” We read this and begin thinking of all those Pop Factor Idol Academy Stars winners who sank without trace (from ten series in the UK, just two resulting winners are still going strong). Simms explains why:
People think I’m so clever because the winners of the show will be signed to my record company. Big deal! I get to make Joe Nobody’s one and only fucking record. Fuck that! I make more money out of five minutes of telephone voting than I will out the entire recording career of this year’s finalists. He, she or they are worth more to me before they win than they ever will be after.
Which makes us wonder if the other charges Elton brings against his show can also be true for the real life versions. That the vast majority of the thousands of auditionees in the halls in the opening weeks are never actually seen by the three star judges – “do the maths,” Elton says – and a complex intercutting of footage is used to give the impression that Simms, Blenheim and Root travel the country, when they just do one day’s filming for all the open heats. Furthermore, that the finalists – chosen on their qualities as Clingers, Blingers and Mingers, and almost never as Singers – are chosen well in advance of them ever opening their mouths. Does Elton have inside information, or is he merely speculating? Either way, it justifies explosions of anger against trivialisation like this:
‘You have all this power, all this influence, all this talent, and what do you do with it? You make the most vapid and forgettable entertainment show in history.’
‘Is there anything wrong with entertainment being vapid and forgettable?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, it’s great telly, I admit it. But it’s corrosive, isn’t it? It undermines standards. I mean it used to be possible to be hugely entertaining without being crap as well, look at The Beatles.’
‘That was genius. If you judge people by that sort of standard nobody would make anything.’
‘Yes, but there were lots of great bands around in the sixties, too many to count. It was almost as if the Beatles were leading by example, as if their example raised everybody’s game. Now you’re the biggest thing. You are the example.’
Or, as Simms states later, “We don’t deal in ideas or substance. We deal in personalities and disposable emotions. In fact, along the way we’ve actually made ideas and substance look boring and stupid.”
It’s this rage that drives the book. The brutal truth is that the other things which are supposed to drive novels aren’t all that hot here. The characters are either ciphers for real people (indeed so convincing are they that I half wonder if the re-arrangements for this year’s X Factor were announced to distance the show slightly from the Chart Throb formula) or 2D puppets for Elton’s ‘serious’ points, which tend to be as manipulative as the show. It’s only through build-up of goodwill that this comes across not as hypocrisy, but as fighting fire with fire. And the central plot pivots are too ludicrous for words. It also goes on too long, particularly in the auditions and finals sections (and so is, again, entirely faithful to the shows it satirises). But its enjoyable vim and vigour keeps it a thoroughly entertaining read, and if it’s destined to become meaningless and superfluous when the shows themselves fizzle out, then it’s a sacrifice surely worth making.