You are here

Book review: <i>Chart Throb</i> by Ben Elton

If this was about Big Brother, rather than UK Idol, and marginally less sucky, it would be called Dead Famous, the author's previous literary nadir.


A credible reproduction of the UK/Australian/American Idol "front end", i.e. cod-neon writing against a lot of blue CG shenanigans.

The plot

You know the plot of American Idol, inasmuch as it can be said to have one? Imagine that, except with parallel-universe judges and more behind-the-scenes action concerning the contestants, who range from boy bands and possible psychopaths up to HRH the Prince of Wales. Yes, really.

The good

The Prince of Wales is funny, or at least the IDEA of the number one in line for the British throne, "shaking his funky stuff down to the ground," is funny. The book opens fairly aggressively with an introduction to the trio of judges who form the book's core of characters (the contestants play second fiddle, or more often eighth xylophone). Calvin, the Simon Cowell character and power behind the show, is fairly solid, and his relationship with his "fellow" judges, other subordinates, and the public who pay his seven-figure salary one text message at a time rings true. Beryl, a sort of transvestite Ozzy Ozbourne, manages to be far less attractive than the mental picture I just created, and is the source of most of the book's humour, involving her insane LA family, their reality TV show, and the respective vanity-surgery adventures it engenders. And PS bodily functions. Oh man.

The bad

UK Idol? Really? And after his last books showed such improvement, too. In Chart Throb Elton is shooting fish in a barrel of Vaseline, and he still misses most of them. Rather than tear into the whole reality TV industry, he instead tries to expose the lies behind the façade, as though the real problem with shows like this is that the public doesn't understand exactly how they manipulate the truth, rather than that they are the evolutionary equivalent of standing on a beach a billion years ago and crushing the most dextrous salamanders with rocks. His book exposing Big Brother sucked ass, sure, but at least there he scored a few points from the generational gap exposed by such programs, and the disparity between "old" Britain and the new Ameri-centric cultural sacrifice of real knowledge to soupy self-belief at all costs. (As he said in his recent stage show: "What's so fucking great about 'really wanting it'? HITLER 'really wanted it'.") In the recent film The Queen, Her Maj comes to this realisation, re the modern Brit psyche, too late to save her public image after Diana's death. In Chart Throb, the most fun Elton wrings out of having the Prince of Wales do TV karaoke for teenagers is to run occasional bits of anachronistic hep-jive through the royal lips.

Argh it's so feeble. All the characters are either hideously unpleasant (the judges) or burp-thin avatars for whatever weak point Elton wants to make, which is usually: It's not really a talent contest! It's about turning emotional torment into entertainment! Again, rather than disembowel the whole moronic edifice and have some fun with the carcass, he instead somehow manages to actually adopt the worst bits of the show in his story - the contrivedness, the consciously retarded pacing, the total lack of balls, the patronising tone, and the lazy, LAZY scripting. Even the prose is lazy. There's barely any descriptive writing and there's restating so unsubtle it sounds like the author trying to remind himself what he's writing about. The tone of each character's dialogue is almost the same - the contestants, especially, barely separate at all - and the romance between Calvin and his researcher (who is meant to be sympathetic despite the fairly obvious handicap of being deeply unsympathetic) is so lame I'm not even going to talk about it. The ending, even for an author who finds them challenging, is head-shakingly silly despite containing the book's only visceral moment. Maybe it's my unsophisticated tastes, but lately I keep bumping up against the equation whereby any author selling more than x copies after x number of titles gets a pass, or rather his editor gets a pass to go on an EFFING VACATION when the latest manuscript arrives.

It's most annoying because, though Elton is not a sophisticated writer, he is capable of humour and humanity, and this contains precious little of either, despite the tacky tacky tacky tacky tacky sticker on the cover declaring BELLY LAUGHS GUARANTEED! Yes there's really a contest. I could actually send away and get my money back, having not belly laughed and merely chortled once or twice, but this would put me perilously close to the level of whoever thought up that sticker so I will do no such thing. The whole thing is written in the mode of somebody who is a bit too fond of something they know deep down is utter shite yet can't tear themselves away from, and if you're going to indulge an impulse like that for four hundred pages of somebody else's time it better be pretty damn good, and this isn't. All it has to say for itself is:

A- American Idol is fake!

B- The author watches it anyway!

If this was

About Big Brother, rather than UK Idol, and marginally less sucky, it would be called Dead Famous, the author's previous literary nadir.

What I learnt

That they don't REALLY drag fifty thousand saps past those three chicken chokers on the judges bench. Because it would take too long. So they cheat. That will help me be a more discerning viewer next time I never, ever watch the fucking stupid show.

In short

Title: Chart Throb
Author: Ben Elton
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 059305749X
Year published: 2006
Pages: 384
Genre(s): humour, crime fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 
Review Type: 


I agree with everything said. I have only 50 or so pages to go and the book is so damn unpleasant and leaves a bad taste in my mouth at every page corner that I don't think I can get to the end. But it's so bad I feel I must. Then I can have closure. I never want to think about any of those characters in the book EVER AGAIN. Rotten. And I do so like Ben Elton but I think this just goes way over the top in terms of ugliness. Laura

I thought it was an easy read and very amusing book. It's no Ian Flemming plot , but typical of the dry witty humour of Ben Elton . It so doesn't deserve six paragraphs of bad review.