Chart Throb by Ben Elton

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Chart Throb by Ben Elton

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The usual satirical view of the world from Ben Elton, but sadly not at his witty best. TV talent and reality shows probably present such an easy target that the exaggeration undermines the observation... some good running gags, and the usual keen insight, but the overall effect doesn't quite make it.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552773768

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Chart Throb presents itself as the ultimate pop quest - successor to X-factor, Pop Idol and all the other search-for-a-star type programmes. But as the producer and senior panel judge, Calvin Simms repeatedly points out: it is not a talent show. It is an entertainment show. It is not about finding new talented singers, it's about making good telly. "Good telly" of course, is defined by whatever the viewers want to watch.

According to the blurb this is Elton returning to "blistering comic satire with a savagely hilarious deconstruction of the world of modern television talent shows."

Well, I'll grant them "savage" - as for the rest... not vintage Ben Elton I'm afraid.

The plot: Calvin Simms, Beryl Blenheim, and Rodney Root (slightly exaggerated but not at all disguised alter-egos of Simon Callow, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh - all of whom get genuine name checks presumably to keep the lawyers at bay) are about to commence work on the latest series of Chart Throb. 95,000 hopefuls up and down the country are 'dreaming the dream'. Simms is about to be shafted by his southern belle wife, who asks for a divorce on the day they return from the honeymoon. Not being able to allow that to happen, he comes up with a double or quits bet, which involves him promising that he can get anyone she cares to nominate to win the next series... and still keep the ratings. Meanwhile, he's being distracted by the sweet young production assistant... who in turn is beginning to really dislike the fact that she is working on the project, whilst bizarrely quite fancying the most loathsome person involved.

From there on out the plot just gets sillier. Not delightful silly, just plain silly. There is a boundary between what is daft enough to make you laugh at the very idea of it, and what is just beyond plausible no matter how far disbelief is suspended. In Chart Throb, Elton crosses it.

So is it a two-chapter, put-it-down kind of a book? Not exactly... because even at his worst, Ben Elton (a) can write well enough to keep you vaguely interested in knowing if not exactly what will happen next, precisely how it will be made to happen and (b) still has the sharp observational skills that made him such a wicked stand-up comic in the first place. Of course the whole set-up is exaggerated beyond the bounds... but you are left with a much clearer impression of how the set-up could work. Does it actually work that way? Not being a watcher of X-factor, The Osbournes, Big-Brother or any of the related genre... I don't know... I suspect it does to a large extent. I have always considered the shows highly manipulative and the book does provide an insight into another possible way in which that manipulation might be applied.

The bottom line is that these shows are 'cynical TV' at its worst. And we ('the public') lap it up. This is probably part of what Elton is trying to say. It might be a deconstruction of the world of the programmes, but the savage attack is as much on the viewers as on the makers. The producers are in it for the money. Simms' one redeeming character trait is that he is quite clear on this. He does not pretend any higher purpose. He considers the project 'entertainment' only because the evidence that people are entertained by it manifests itself in his rating figures and money he makes from the premium rate vote-phone-lines. If Elton still considers himself a 'protest comic' then in this case I think the protest is against society allowing this rubbish to continue to dominate our viewing schedules. On that, I'm right with him.

Did I enjoy it? Not really. Some of the jokes are amusing because of the degree of repetition... because that's the observed reality... but again the boundary between funny and 'yeah, point made' is overstepped; they are repeated two or three times too often. My other problem is that there is not a single likeable character in the entire book. (Except, maybe, for the Prince of Wales - which quite possibly says it all.)

Even in humour and satire, you need to be able to take sides and in this one I couldn't do that... I wanted everyone involved to get their come-uppance, but that can't happen, because for someone to lose, someone else has to win.

It did make me smile in places, and it did make me think, but on balance: one strictly for the fans, I feel.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

For a similar book you might like to look at Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel but Ben Elton isn't the only performer writing about this type of TV programme. Katie Price better known as Jordan has been testing the waters too.

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Magda said:

I have never heard of Simon Callow and Louis Walsh and only very briefly of Sharon Osbourne; as well as never having watched X factor. Would I be able to enjoy the book? I have great tolerance of idiotic plots and I enjoyed Dead Famous though, despite never having watched the Big Brother.

Lesley replied:

Not knowing the 'real life' basis for the specific characters isn't a handicap to enjoying the book, nor is never having watched the shows...although there are some in-jokes that might not be visible if you're totally unfamiliar with the formats and haven't even caught the trailers (which is about my level of knowledge of the background).

Glenn said:

I think the book was written for the 8 million people who do watch X Factor, and shows like it. The characters are really cleverly & amusingly observed, as is the tv making process. As the reviewer states a significant inspiration for a main character is Simon Callow, and not Simon Cowell, it would suggest that the subject matter isn't quite on her cultural radar!

Lesley replied:

Oh whoops..! Apologies to all concerned. I'll never look a much respected Dickensian actor in the eye ever again! Cowell. Cowell. Cowell. I will go and write 1000 lines with a blunt lead pencil on the workhouse wall - and will no doubt still be banned from watching an RSC production ever again. (Yeeugh! This 'umble pie do taste horrid.)

I fully agree with the "clever" part of the observation, and probably on the 'amusing' - perhaps I just expect Mr Elton to be hilarious rather than amusing. And if he really is writing for the 8 million who do watch and love the show...then he's switched sides somewhere along the line...and that really was under the radar.