Ben Elton’s 2006 novel Chart Throb is certainly not a new release, but is a novel that I’ve been wanting to read for some time. I greatly enjoyed reading Elton’s Inconcievable, and liked the movie he wrote based on that book, Maybe Baby. Considering my own cynical view of reality TV in general, and talent-style shows in particular, I had quite anticipated Elton’s take on ‘The Ultimate Pop Quest’.
The novel follows the producer/writer/judge Calvin Simms as he ruthlessly manipulates his fellow judges, the hopeful contestants, and the British public, throughout the process of creating his X-Factor-style entertainment show, Chart Throb. He and his fellow judges, transexual rock-superstar and reality-show matriarch Beryl Blenheim, and Rodney “nice guy” someone-or-other, sit in judgement over the countless clinger, blinger and minger hopefuls who “have a dream” and “want it so much”.
There are some great ‘everybody knows’ moments in this novel. Everybody knows that if the three judges really auditioned all 95,000 applicants for the show, it would take years rather than the 4 weeks they show on TV. Everybody knows that the singing is less important than the story and the entertainment value of the performers. Everybody knows that the producers make more money from telephone voting than they do from any kind of recording careers that may come out of the show. But everybody knows that admitting any of these things takes away from the fun of the experience for both performers and audience. So, seeing these facts presented through the cynical self-promoting bastardry of Calvin Simms is both darkly amusing and queasily unsettling.
In saying all of that, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I thought I would. That’s really no fault of Elton’s, mind you. The characters are all suitably tacky and self-aggrandising. The plot is all-too-believable. The desperation and shattered dreams of the contestants are sympathetically presented. Really, there’s nothing that I can complain about.
Except that the novel really is a cynical look at the behind-the-scenes roller-coaster ride of a TV reality show. There isn’t a single likeable primary character in this book. And, despite hoping-against-hope that somehow the underdog wins, the truth comes out, or the bastards get their just desserts, everybody knows that the only thing real about reality TV is that nice guys really do finish last.