Chart Throb, by Ben Elton

When it comes to targeting television shows, you just can't miss
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The Independent Culture

This is Ben Elton's 11th novel and, this time, he has picked on marathon TV talent shows, specifically The X Factor, which his "Chart Throb" has apparently usurped. The formula is the same: three judges, interminable auditions, phone-ins, vote-offs, acres of red-top coverage. One judge, Calvin Simms, is known for being nasty, and bosses the operation. Another, Rodney Root, a has-been boy-band songwriter, is patronised by Simms.

In a mildly sensational twist, Beryl Blenheim, another judge, is a former heavy-metal star from Swindon who has had a sex-change, and whose family reality-TV show has eclipsed The Osbournes.

I have never tried shooting fish in a barrel, so I cannot vouch for its alleged ease. Presumably, if you use a double-bore, which is essentially Elton's satirical method, it must do the trick.

Television talent shows are fair game. They are unsubtle, manipulative and filled with guile and bile. So is Chart Throb, which tries very hard to be funny, but only offers a succession of naff caricatures and careless sitcom.

Elton's big idea is that the Prince of Wales is inveigled into entering the competition, which will be fixed so that he wins it. If so, Simms would win a wager with his gargoyle wife, since she will only call off her divorce action if he gets HRH to top the popular vote.

This device obliges us to read page after page of codology at the Prince's expense. Will he be shown talking to plants? Fending off the allegations of former servants? Eating Duchy Original biscuits? Yes, yes and yes. This truly is Elton at his wits' end.

Yet he has not entirely lost his touch. Chart Throb has two things going for it: structure and pace. He controls the novel, which whips quickly through short chapters, with such skill that we are spun the stories of at least 10 contestants, as well as those of the judges and their morally crippled sidekicks.

He moves us along at an amazing lick, revving from audition to audition, and show to show, pausing only - and unnecessarily - to hector us about the crassness of the format, and the banality of its process. This saving pace is what will keep Elton fans on board.

He can hit the mark: I did laugh at the parodies of judges' feedback ("You really owned that song"). But he's wasting paper ridiculing what is already utterly ridiculous.

Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' is published by Cinnamon

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