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  • Paul Rutherford

NOT-SO LIGHT RELIEF


40 Books in 2018 / #14

Ben Elton

DEAD FAMOUS

384pp Black Swan 2002

Even if you know nothing about Ben Elton, it’s obvious that he’s spent a long time writing stand-up and sitcom for television: Elton knows how to pitch a story in a single sentence:

‘One house, ten contestants, thirty cameras, forty microphones, one murder ... and no evidence.’

UK Big Brother debuted in 2000, and viewing figures increased for Series 2 the following year. Presumably Elton thought he’d tap into the ‘reality TV’ syndrome before the bubble burst. Perhaps he hoped Dead Famous would be the needle? On the upside, by using the form of a reality program called ‘House Arrest’, Elton shows how to structure and parse a complicated story, draw characters (if sometimes two-dimensional), serve red-herrings the size of whales, and craft good jokes. On the downside, in 2018 Big Brother is currently on Series 20.

DAY 29 Dead Famous has a striking start: Elton plays with time. Using BB voice-over conformity, the opening 'Day 29' chapter heading tells us, without any detail, that the participants have been in the house for four weeks. A lot of water has already passed under the bridge. Having someone explain who and why the characters in a setting can be extremely tedious. Elton uses five devices to fill the gaps and alter the pace: * Conversations between the investigating police team: a fifty-something DCI who knows nothing about the genre (lucky man) and his juniors who are reality-addicts; * Watching video recordings of the previous 28 days;

* The thoughts of the participants, including those already ‘evicted’ dealing with immediate anonymity; * Press materials from the TV production company, trying to shape the narrative of the program; * The ensuing press coverage of what has happened, or at least what they have been told has happened. By starting at Day 29, and bouncing between the 'real time' investigation and the previous four weeks, Elton manages to deliver two mysteries: who is the killer, and who is the victim?

MORAL MEDIA

Through the two story streams, the main characters in Dead Famous represent the law and the media.

DCI Coleridge, suitably named to match his yearning for an earlier time. He continuously drinks tea from a china mug (’despite the fact that it required washing up’) and uses words like 'behove'. By comparison, television producer Geraldine Hennessey is everything Coleridge (and, by inference, Elton) is not. Her vocabulary is limited and punctuated by a four-letter word. One that doesn't begin with f. In one paragraph Hennessey’s ‘eyes flashed, her nostrils flared and she bared her colossal overbite… She was a celebrity in her own right. A famously bold, provocative, and controversial broadcaster.’ Her vocabulary and values are everything - and everybody - that Elton thought (still thinks?) wrong with popular ‘entertainment'.

The production team knows that much of their audience perception it shaped by the news coverage. ( Today, it's social media). This feeds the coverage of the coverage: TV studio conversations analysing the press coverage of the activities in the TV house. The central premise is that the audience, the nation - later in the book, most of the civilised world - knows what’s happening in the house, while the 10 participants do not. And then Elton reveals that even that isn't true; one of the characters has an outside track.

At another level, we are the victims, or at least any of the audience who watch reality TV. Within the structure of the novel, Elton also pulls the curtain back further than just how the murder happened. He's also showing how reality TV is better called unreality TV. As one of the ‘House Arrest’ production team says,“it's built in the edit”. Putting thirty cameras on ten people, 24/7, will generate two types a footage: Hundreds of hours of nothing, and a few moments of action / conflict / emotion / humour. Then you (the producer and the editor) can slice and dice to create the ‘reality’ you are selling.

The penny drops for the DCI when he says (of one participant):

“Incredible. That girl... is bright enough, and yet she actually believes all that bullshit about 'House Arrest' being a genuine experiment in social engineering. It's a TV programme, for God's sake! How could she not realise that the single and only point of the bloody exercise is to attract advertisers.”

Put simply, Dead Famous is a C21st spin on a classic locked-room mystery: How could a murder be possible in an entirely sealed environment, with every inch covered by television cameras and microphones? Through a different lens, it’s Elton’s fictional take on Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a 1985 study with a core premise: that a particular medium (TV) can only sustain a particular level of ideas. As DCI Coleridge concludes:

“Fame is the holy grail of a secular age. The cruel and demanding daily that has replaced God. The one thing, the only thing... that matters anymore. The great obsession, the all-encompassing national focus, which occupied 90% of every newspaper and 100% of every magazine. “Not faith, but fame.”

(855 words. Thanks for reading.)

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