Book review: ‘Chart Throb’ by Ben Elton

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“They sit at home screaming at the TV, saying how could you keep that talentless ****  in the show! Don’t they understand that is exactly why we keep him in? The more frustrated and angry the viewers are, the bigger the show gets.”

Do you dream of becoming a global pop star, performing in front of arenas of adoring fans? Do you really, truly want it? And are you ready to own that song?

Ben Elton’s razor-sharp observation on the inner workings of reality TV ‘talent’ shows lands uncomfortably close to the bone. First published by Transworld, part of Random House, in 2006, Elton’s tongue-in-cheek novel Chart Throb came right at the height of X Factor’s popularity; an era that saw Leona Lewis topping the single charts and mainstream audiences not yet tiring of the formula.

Fast-forward more than a decade – to when I stumbled across this book in a charity shop and had my interest piqued by the premise – and we are living in a very different time, with X Factor pulling in just a fraction of the audience that it achieved at its incredible peak. But reality TV still continues to have huge influence and mainstream appeal, with Love Island just becoming ITV2′s most watched show ever after its launch this summer.

It’s clear that, as a society, there is still a deep-rooted desire to become a star, and for ‘normal’ people to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. And it is this desire that is exploited so shamelessly in Chart Throb, which offers a behind-the-scenes peek behind the curtain of the production and editing process and what it makes to create a hit show – the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.

Centring around Calvin Simms – the Simon Cowell-esque creator and lead judge of Chart Throb – Elton’s novel follows Calvin’s strategy of manipulation (of the audience and contestants alike) as he looks to ensure that the Prince of Wales himself becomes the latest ‘Chart Throb’. In an era where the power and influence of political figures and the monarchy is in sharp decline amidst a sea of celebrity personalities and reality stars, Calvin’s goal is to readdress the balance, but his motives are far from noble, as he looks to establish the heir to the throne as the new ‘king of pop’ in order to win  a bet with some major stakes on the line.

Against this bigger picture, we follow fellow judges Beryl Blenheim and Rodney Root – thinly-masked characterisations of Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh respectively – as they look to maximise every possible second of screen-time and emerge as the true stars of the show.

But it is the brutal depiction of the Chart Throb selection and editing process that provides the biggest laughs and cringe-worthy moments, making readers re-evaluate their relationship with ‘reality’ programming.

Dividing prospective contestants into “Blingers, Clingers and Mingers,” the Chart Throb production team have a laser-like vision for the stories and characters that will form the series – and are all too comfortable manipulating individuals, relationships, and even disabilities in order to entertain.

Sprinkled with the observational wit that is the bedrock of so many of Elton’s novels, Chart Throb is a fun peak behind the curtain that still serves up laughs all these years later. At times overly repetitive – the intentional use of stock phrases such as “You owned that song,” “That song was too big for you” and “This is your moment” by the judges really does grate after a time – Chart Throb is  far from perfect, but it’s still recommended reading for anyone that still hasn’t quite managed to kick the reality TV habit, exposing the genre for what it really is.