Author, performer, and director Ben Elton is a funny man with flashes of brilliance. One of the creative minds behind Black Adder, he also had a hand in writing Mr. Bean and many other popular comedy staples in his native England. Elton also wrote the not-brilliant but likeable (especially if you, say, have a crush on Hugh Laurie) movie Maybe Baby, based on his own novel Inconceivable.
So with all that, I expected something along the continuum of brilliant to amusing and likeable with Chart Throb. I didn't get it.
The book is a satire of Pop or American Idol that's too on-the-nose to have much bite. A romance and a vaguely sinister – and ultimately ludicrous – mystery are thrown in to the account of a full season of the fictional Chart Throb TV series, from choosing the contestants long before the show hits the air to picking a winner in front of a live audience.
Just when you start to think, oh, so Chart Throb producer and judge Calvin Simms is the Simon Cowell figure, the character mentions his likeness to Cowell. Just when you start to think, oh, so fellow judge Beryl's other show, The Blenheims, is a satire of The Osbournes, the character mentions that comparison. The former dissolute rocker, pseudo-earth mom transsexual character is even very much a combination of Ozzy and Sharon. Judge Rodney Root ("the other bloke") is the show's dead weight and butt of jokes. I'll leave it to you to decide what real-life TV personalities he might resemble.
Some of the book is narrated from the viewpoint of show researcher Emma, the only likable character who might have made us care about the goings on, except she's too peripheral and too clueless and too undefined to carry the weight of even this frothy read.
The point of the satire seems to be that these competitive reality shows are obviously highly engineered. The problem is, that point is so obvious that it's hard to be terribly interested in such an easy target, presented in such an easy fashion.
Chart Top is bloated with a variety of other subplots and contestants, who all fall into Calvin's categories of "Mingers, Clingers, and Blingers," and good lord do the characters ever repeat that phrase as if it were hilarious, every single time.
The contestants represent all the range of ego, delusion, anorexia, pathos, and questionable talent that you'd expect from the average reality show. The Prince of Wales is one of them, a pawn in a bet between Calvin and his soon-to-be-ex-wife to see if he can truly manipulate the audience into choosing his preferred winner.
The Prince is presumably a caricature of the current holder of that title, but while I'm no Brit, and no royal watcher, the portrait didn't resonate at all. Chart Throb's royal is a goofy, eager-to-please idealist devoid of any wit and intelligence who calls himself "muggins." If that's how Charles appears in the UK press, I'd join those wanting to vote to overthrow the monarchy.
Bloated and ultimately meaningless, Chart Throb is on par with the kind of entertainment it's attempting to skewer, and I mean that as something of a recommendation. Even at over 400 pages, it's a light read, irritating but not completely unenjoyable, completely obvious in its intentions and execution, with just enough and humour to keep me reading to the end. It wouldn't make it into my top 10 summer reads of the season, but it was worth an audition.