Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Dead Famous: Ben Elton, November 26—December 19, 2012
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊
Ben Elton turns his dark wit to Big Brother and its spawn with his dramedy Dead Famous. The premise is as you would expect – a handful of strangers being filmed in a house 24/7 with evictions occurring on a weekly basis. The twist: somebody inside this CCTV-rigged house manages to get themselves murdered.
The novel is structured in such a way that it takes advantage of the omnipotent time stamps which pervade the genre – there are no chapters, only days and times respective to how long the competition has been running. We begin on Day 29 with the police investigating their murder, and as they watch back the tapes of House Arrest, we go back with them to experience Day 1. Both streams progress until the murder occurs and brings them into sync.
The structure is excellent and allows us to form the same opinion of the characters as the lead detective, Coleridge. At the same time, we get to know the contestants very well ahead of the killing halfway through.
Each contestant is very different, and each sends up a typical Big Brother stereotype. David, Dervla, Moon and Jazz are among the most instantly likeable, while Hamish, Gazza, Woggle and Sally take a bit of time to come into their own. Only Layla and Kelly can merge a bit until their storylines develop, and even then they both have greater plot than character significance.
Elton successfully implies sufficient motive for most of the cast to have been the killer (and, at points, all). Some motives are stronger than others, but there is no obvious candidate which keeps the reader guessing.
Of the production staff, series producer Geraldine Hegnessy is an utterly fabulous pantomime villain. Caricatured within an inch of her life as a vulgar, bullish and shameless executive who happily bullies her staff and exploits viewer and contestant alike, she brings fun and devilish delight to the story.
Her colleagues are also memorably quirky, what with Bob Fogarty’s predilection for chocolate bars, Pru’s stifled ambitioned and… Carlisle. Perhaps the less said about Carlisle the better.
Veteran detective Coleridge is an inspired character. Whether he was intended to be an audience surrogate I’m not sure, though his utter bafflement at how society has come to be what it has very well represented my own thoughts as the story progressed, even if he is frequently criticised for living in the wrong century. He is a decent, witty and thoroughly likeable chap. Hooper and Trish make up his team perfectly, with Hooper being everything Coleridge isn’t (of which they are both very glad) and overall the police unit is superbly cast.
Although I was able to solve the mystery ahead of its reveal, the solution is very clever and, most importantly, satisfying within the narrative. Elton times the ending perfectly, drawing the curtain with an appropriately concise finale where it could have been too easy to dwell of the aftermath.
While Elton scathing take on the Big Brother culture is very intelligently put across, as much through implication and subtext as in his more obvious statements, he often pushes the limits of taste and leaves an uncomfortable taste in the reader’s mouth. Dark themes and sexually crude outbursts jar with the otherwise humorous tone. They are less prevalent than in Chart Throb, while the strengths are much stronger.
It seems every character, speech and plot development have been painstakingly put together, and the result is a funny, biting and clever satire of the defining TV creation of the Noughties.