Review: ‘Chart Throb’ – Ben Elton

A real chart-breaker - Elton's 'Chart Throb'.

A fan of X Factor? Then this book isn’t for you. Ben Elton rips the reality world apart in order to expose the underlying rot that is the foundation for a large proportion of the celebrity culture – and it was a riveting read.

The plot is essentially this – the world of X Factor and by proxy The Osbournes is parodied to the extreme, outlining the corruption that we could see but choose to ignore. We all know shows like this are massive manipulators – nowadays we know that reality TV is not just a fly on the wall, but a fly that looks suspiciously like a script-writer/director/manager all rolled into one to maintain a very carefully constructed image.

The biggest example of this is the odious Beryl Blenheim. The ‘rock chick from way back’ (a phrase I never want to hear again after this) had ruined her family to the point that they sought vengeance in the only way she would understand – a televised mental torture extravaganza. The Priscilla-Shaiana reveal was one of the cleverest bits of the entire novel, and one that I really didn’t see coming – Elton weaves the characters together in Beryl’s final scene within the novel so as to maintain the illusion of two separate identities until the last moment possible, and our realisation is linked to Beryl’s through this.

Calvin Simms, of the wittily named CALonic TV (a suggestion of purging television content there?) was as confusing as his real-life alter ego, the brilliant and arrogant Simon Cowell (SyCo TV – so purging the SyCo’s of the world now?). Personally, I love how cocky and self-assured Simon Cowell is, and Elton had clearly and successfully emulated the TV guru to present in Calvin a character who is an absolute pig-headed social genius who has created an empire based on the simple truth that the audience is never an independent judge, they’re an extension of what the director wants to happen. This is why HRH’s success is so underplayed – Calvin was never in any danger of losing when he could control popularity with the change of a costume and a disastrous song. This is why it shouldn’t be shocking that he effectively wins Emma, and yet it is, because Elton truly leads you to believe that the veil of superficiality has been lifted from his relationship issues. But no: Calvin Simm’s is all about control and conquests, something he does very effectively, from getting a shot of Rodney coming out of a car alone to getting his fired employee to sleep with him. It’s interesting that Dakota is the only one who Calvin can’t control, which prompts his relationship with Emma – she is able to be manipulated, cajoled, persuaded into love and makes no demands that can’t be met. Easy target.

Rodney is the true tragedy of the story – so desperate for fame, he embodies the neediness of the contestants to be loved, to make it in a harsh world that is only interested in headlines. His story arc is interesting in this respect – his move from the third and lesser judge to tabloid gold and then to spurned lover show that popularity comes at a price. Fame is only for the strong, and the weak are pushed to the bottom of the pile and reserved for the slow news day, or the day they are utterly humiliated on live TV – shame.

The plot itself isn’t too complex. The live shows are dealt with quickly and efficiently, showing the banality of the entire process. The biggest portion of the book is devoted to setting up the conditions to manipulate the live shows which are supposedly ‘anyone’s game’. Despite the judges lack of involvement, they are carrying an pre-determined image for each contestant – from making the clingers cry to making the mingers go mad and the blingers turn brassy, the production process is a better show of scriptwriting than most popular dramas.

The best line, in my view, is the last one, summing up our entire culture in one outrageous statistic: ‘At the current rate of expansion it is reckoned by the year 2050 everybody in the world will be either a pop star or the subject of their own reality TV show.’