Magazine article The Spectator

Nine Murder Suspects in the House of Big Brother

Magazine article The Spectator

Nine Murder Suspects in the House of Big Brother

Article excerpt

DEAD FAMOUS by Ben Elton Transworld, L16.99, pp. 339, ISBN 0593048040

Fresh from extending his repertoire with a musical and a movie, Ben Elton has now tried his hand at an old-fashioned whodunit. It is set in a Big Brother-style house during the transmission of a reality television series. For those Spectator readers even now not familiar with the genre, this is a television challenge that involves throwing a small number of strangers together in a location, putting cameras on their every move and asking the viewers to vote for whom they like the best. For readers who are familiar with the genre, Ben Elton has done something that they probably dreamt of several times. He has murdered one of the participants.

What Elton's novel captures nicely is the sharply defined age divide that programmes like Big Brother engender. Of the detectives investigating the crime the younger ones are fans of the fictional show, House Arrest, while their boss hates it and its production company, Peeping Tom. Big Brother, which my company produces, had legions of young followers. But older viewers didn't just avoid it, they regarded it as o-tempora-o-mores evidence of society's decline. My guess is that Elton tends towards the latter group.

There is a tension throughout this book that is quite separate from its ambitions as a thriller. A whodunit has to be believable in order to draw us into the plot. A satire, on the other hand, has to be absurd. And Elton, whose humour often depends on the ridiculous, never quite decides which side of the line he ought to be. For instance, a real death in a reality show would bring the production shuddering to a halt. Here it continues in order to underline the venality of the production company and broadcaster. Good comic satire but closer to Kind Hearts and Coronets than the likes of James and Rendell.

Elton is very acute about television and the Warhol-inspired fame for fame's sake that it offers. Many participants in reality shows are abjured as mere publicityseekers. Many of their critics, of course, are writers and performers who themselves got going on the heady fuel of adolescent ego. Elton, no doubt conscious of his own desire for fame as a stand-up comedian in the Eighties, is cleverer altogether. His detective hero, Coleridge, hates the wannabes as much as anyone. But then, it turns out, he's desperate to capture the part of Macbeth in an amateur production. …

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