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.’

 

‘X Factor’ Auditions – Birmingham LG Arena

As part of the bid to cram as many people into the LG as possible, I was selected to receive tickets from the Applause Store to watch the ‘X Factor’ auditions. After a loud, long and incredibly lively day, Birmingham’s talent has been chosen, and it’s trash put out to be collected.

I’ve only really watched the Joe McElderry series of ‘X Factor’, as I’m not a massive reality-TV fan. After today, I had another reason to be uneasy about the show – the absolute ridiculous acts selected to appear in front of Simon and co. For instance, two girls (apparently 17 and 18, but if they were a day over 14 I’d be thoroughly shocked) came on giving the judges and the audience attitude which prompted booing and chants of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ before they had even performed, and when the music began…let’s just reiterate that silence really can be golden. Now, I was all for pitying these girls until the attitude came out to play, and they told the audience to shut up, stormed off the stage when the judges mistakenly believed they were sisters, and literally screeched down the microphone to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (clearly a product of the ‘Glee’ phenomenon). After their appalling behaviour and mouthing off to anyone who spoke to them, I ended up joining the crowd in demanding these girls clear off before they humiliated themselves any further. I mean, what parent in their right mind could be so blinded by love as to allow their child to humiliate themselves like that? And which producer decided to make these girls a Birmingham mockery? Let’s be clear – these girls needed taking down seventeen and eighteen pegs, but the abuse they’ll face in September when this comes out has the potential to be too extreme. Even the comedian, who entertained us during filming breaks, stepped in afterwards to say booing is banned, and he definitely seemed less chipper after this debacle. Simon Cowell lightened the situation by saying ‘I’m thinking it all the time, but keep the booing inside your head’.

It’s not all harsh when this happens – the most adorable sixty-year-old man came on and had no idea what any of the words were to S Club 7’s ‘Reach’, but he got us all singing along and having a wonderful time, and didn’t seem disheartened by his four rejections. But then, the previous bad contestant, a forty-one year-old housewife, was so tone deaf I felt the need to put my fingers in my ears for my own safety, and yet they let her do two songs whilst the sassy seventeen-year-old was told she was too generic and not given the chance to prove otherwise.

Other notable acts included a stroppy Elton John wannabe, who prompted the quote of the show from Simon after ‘Elton’ childishly insulting the judges and demanding they sing on stage and see how they like it, with Mr Cowell saying that, after thirty-five years, he’d earned the right to judge. For a man that rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, you have to give credit where credit’s due. Some acts that didn’t get through were shockers, especially the token tear-jerker who was attempting to save her family from recessional bankruptcy with her talent: despite her abilities, she wasn’t given the chance to follow her dream through (although when saying her son was called Ashley, Simon coughed and said ‘moving on!’ to make light of Cheryl’s troubles). Simon was forced to eat his words by an irritatingly ecstatic Louis when one girl went from old-fashioned crooner who could ‘never be a recording artist’, to contemporary in her rendition of ‘Valerie’ which prompted Simon to say she’d definitely record (and that his previous doubts would be left on the editing room floor).

The judges themselves were rather a limited presence. Head judge Simon Cowell was very vocal and rather funny in his demeanour, although he could be very cutting if pushed or begged to give second chances. Cheryl was rather vocal, although it tended to come when she was trying to comfort someone for not having a good voice by telling them they had a fabulous presence. Louis and guest-judge Natalie Imbruglia were noticeably quiet – understandable in the latter but normally unheard of in the former (although it was a very welcome change). Cheryl looked stunning as per, and Simon even graced us with a t-shirt change in the hurried break. Dermot O’Leary’s role on stage was limited to warming us up before the judges entered, as his role was interviewing backstage (I look forward to seeing how he coped with Abbey and Lisa, the gruesome twosome), but was endearing and funny in his time with us.

The day at the ‘X Factor’ was, as I’ve said, incredibly long, but it is an experience I’d definitely want to repeat, although after seeing what they let through those doors, maybe I’ll stay on the safe side of the stage.