Actually Ben Elton isn’t very big – at least not physically. Nor has he ever been a mega-star in the firmament of the British entertainment industry.
Even in the heydays of his stand-up TV shows or the enormous popularity of Black Adder, Elton never achieved the Supernova status of a Barrymore, or a Cilla, or a Morecambe and Wise. Perhaps it was because his humour tended to assume a more middle-class broadsheet audience; or perhaps because he was always interested in ideas, as much as in character, in insights as well as in gags. He wanted to change the world, not just send it up. Still,big, little, or merely medium-sized, Elton has been watching us rather closely for the best part of 20 years.
In that time, he has been a keen observer of British life and a trenchant exposer of our foibles, inanities and many of our more repellent doctrines. As a long-time supporter of the Labour Party he inveighed against Thatcherism-Snatcherism, though you didn’t need to be a Labour Party supporter to do that, and you certainly didn’t need to be middle class. Still, since the demise of Big Blue he’s turned his attentions to other themes and written a string of novels including Blast from the Past, which focused on the anti-war movement, and Popcorn, which brilliantly confronted a Tarantinesque film director with a pair of real life natural born killers. Elton also collaborated with Lloyd-Webber to write a rock musical about football. Well, no one is perfect, and the very idea betrays, in my view, a philistinism, which is in no way mitigated by the fact that someone else has written an opera about the beautiful game. No artistic genre is immune to footballitis. The fact that I haven’t seen the musical and have no intention of paying good money – even someone else’s good money – to open myself up to the possibility of discovering that I am a prejudiced elitist is beside the point. A chap has to have standards.
And it is standards that the hero of Elton’s new novel Dead Famous very definitely has. Chief Inspector Coleridge is called on to investigate the brutal murder of one of the contestants of a Reality TV series called House Arrest. Who did it? And how did they manage it under the unrelenting gaze of 30 TV cameras? And will they strike again? Coleridge, as the pedigree of his name suggests, has about as much empathy with the 20 dumb-thing attitudes and antics of the fame-hungry housemates as that curmudgeonly old opera-lover Morse would have had with Westlife. Like Morse, Coleridge is a very good detective forced to work in a culture that is clearly going to the dogs – flea-bitten, mangy, rabid dogs at that. Mangy, rabid dogs that look in the mirror and think they’re a barkless, African Basenji hound who’s about to win the Best of Show Rosette at Crufts.
Coleridge’s principle side-kicks, like Morse’s, are from a different cultural planet … Trisha, a lesbian, who hasn’t outed herself yet and Hooper a technophile who can know the difference between an AMD Athalon II processor and an Intel Pentium IV processor. And unfortunately might well want to tell you about it. What Elton rather deftly constructs is a blend of Big Brother and Murder on the Orient Express – complete with a masterly Poirot-style denouement in which all the players gather in one space to hear how ‘the little grey cells’ have identified the murderer. The whodunnit may be Elton’s vehicle, but his intent is not to play cat and mousetrap with his readers but to do some grievous bodily harm, or at least intellectual harm, to Reality TV, to those who take part, and to anyone who watches it for longer than it takes to change channel.
So Elton levels his wit at the yearning for fame, at the sheer self-centred, self-regarding, self-inflated, self-justifying inanity of most of the contestants.
Much of this is probably pretty accurate and therefore pretty distasteful and liberally peppered with sexual innuendo and four letter words, and all the brash, taboo-bashing, substance-abusing bravura of a lost generation. So Moon, one of the house-mates, who is a trapeze artist and occasional lap-dancer waxes lyrical:
“… I’ve had a boob job, right? I was dead unhappy with my self-image before, and my new tits have really empowered me as a person in my own right, right? Which at the end of the day is what it ’s all about, isn’t it? Quite frankly, at the end of the day, I feel that these are the boobs I was supposed to have.”
And if you think that’s bad, and I hope you do, you ain’t read anything yet.
What saves the novel from turning the reader into a voyeur no less prurient than the TV audiences of Reality TV itself is the neat way that Elton exposes the malicious manipulativeness of the producers: the way they can edit to favour one participant or harm another, the way they seek to enflame sexual tension, the way they trade on the possibility of live sex on TV as an audience-winner. Sharp too, is Elton’s ability to plot the corrosive effect of the ‘experiment’ on the participants in which the lust to win begins to dictate their responses to one another and to situations that are forced upon them – I really do not want to do this, but if I don’t the nation will think I’m a bore, a prude, a snob … Elton also exposes the arrant hypocrisy of the eviction scenes in which all evictees are forced by the inevitably bubbly and buxom presenter to feign delight, continued self-belief whilst coming to terms with:
a. not winning half a million quid and b. being rejected by half the population of the UK.
Elton is a good enough writer not to make Coleridge the only critic and uses the housemates themselves to expose each others’ pretentiousness or crass-ness or hypocrisy. All of which could still make for a rather one-dimensional read if it were not for Elton’s apparent sympathy for his characters. He may put them down but he never quite writes them off, never quite dismisses their yearnings for fame, their squalid pasts, their way-to-go, good geezeritude as the last word on them as people. And this saves them from becoming clichés, created in the image of those inmates of Big Brother, who we somehow got to know, even if we were a member of a closed, monastic order on the Isle of Iona. Who has not heard of Nasty Nick?
As Coleridge’s investigation proceeds Elton makes it clear that you don’t have to be a “bigoted reactionary old idiot” to hate Reality TV – although it probably helps. You might simply be sane. So, for example, taking up the theme that Saving Private Ryan explored so movingly, he uses Coleridge as a mouthpiece to compare the stress of the current generation with that of the war generation that showed that “Freedom is not free,” as the Washington Korean War Memorial footage puts it.
“Stress! Stress!” Coleridge said, in what for him was almost a shout. “Not much more than two generations ago the entire population of this country stood in the shadow of imminent brutal occupation by a crowd of murdering Nazis! A generation before that we lost a million boys in the trenches. A million innocent lads. Now we have therapists studying the ‘trauma’ of getting thrown off a television game show.”
But such critique is not left uncontested: “Yes, but Sir,” Trisha said, “in the war and stuff people had something to stand up for, something to believe in. These days there isn’t anything for us to believe in very much. Does that make our anxieties and pain any less relevant?”
The truth Elton exposes is that this generation’s overall lack of any purpose or sense of community duty is palpable. Certainly, there are pockets of intense environmentalism and anti-consumerism among the young, but overall why do they think they are here? And there is no greater stress than a sense of meaninglessness. Equally, Elton knows that to stand at a War Memorial and pretend that the pressures on us are of the same order as waiting to go over the top to face scything machine gun fire is patently absurd. We are emptier. And those with eyes to see know it.
And this is perhaps why Elton casts Coleridge as a lay preacher, as a Christian of genuine faith. Inanity cannot credibly get frothed up about inanity but someone with a defined set of values can hold up a mirror to the times. And so Coleridge does. Rather steadfastly. Not that he wears his Christianity on his sleeve or quotes chapter and verse. Nor is he portrayed without character defect or moral struggle. He does detect the sin in himself, for example, realising that one of the young female inmates disturbs his sexual equilibrium. As a result, he has to force himself to look at footage that the investigation requires him to see but which nevertheless he knows is generating a reaction that is not of the purest. But all this is rather lightly done and Elton has certainly not created a Father Brown for the 21st Century, nor, more importantly, has Elton yet grown into a writer of any great emotional subtlety or depth. He is still more interested in making his points than showing us people. And perhaps therein lies a weakness. It will perhaps only be when Elton manages to create characters that we really care about that the sharpness of his insights will receive more than mental assent. To do that Elton may have to do what Nick Hornby managed to do in How to be Good – lay aside the role of court jester and take up the cup of tragedian with a sense of humour. After all, if, as Ben Elton does, you want to change the world, you must not only win the argument, you must win the heart.
Dead Famous - Ben Elton Bantam, 2001 £10.99
Check out Mark’s review of Ben Elton’s Blast from the Past.