What do TV presenters and narrators of novels have in common?[*] Both are to some extent fictional, both need to be not only convincing but liked if they are to be successful. (There are of course good novels with hateful narrators, but one of the pleasures of fiction is that it lets us like people we wouldn’t in real life.) A difference between them is that TV presenters more often than not share names and, ostensibly, ‘personalities’ with their creators. The alleged confusion this can cause in impressionable viewers is one of the themes of Mark Lawson’s new novel, Going out Live, or Are They the Same at Home? (Picador, £15.99). The narrator is a TV presenter, as, of course, is Mark Lawson. Richard Fleming is not the presenter of BBC2’s Review, however; not even in the way that Lawrence Castle, the Prime Minister in the novel, ‘is’ Tony Blair, and President Riley ‘is’ Bill Clinton (the novel’s set in 1999). In Lawson’s imaginings, the President’s priapism extends far beyond Monicagate: Riley has been accused of sexually assaulting the wife of the President of Nigeria. The royal family get to be themselves, though, and so does Billy Connolly, alone among broadcasting talent (unless you count Alistair Cooke and Clive James, who provide epigraphs). This may be because Lawson overlooked Connolly when it came to changing the names, or it may be because he forgot Connolly isn’t a member of the royal family. ‘I think you get into such an alternative Britain, once you start having a Prince Julian,’ Lawson said in a recent interview, shrouding the royals in a mystique his satire is meant to disperse from around other kinds of celebrity. Anyway, Fleming Faces is not Review. It’s on BBC1 for a start; and it’s a chat show, a platform for singers/actors/writers/politicians to plug their new albums/ films/books/policies.
So what is Richard Fleming like at home? Not much, is the answer, since he spends most of his time at work. He doesn’t talk to or sleep with his wife, is verbally abused by his stepchildren and masturbates in the bath which he’s already bled into because he can’t bear looking at his reflection even to shave. At the BBC, when he’s not on air he’s as likely as not in the toilet, not snorting cocaine as everyone thinks but throwing up. Gordon Bannach, a reporter at the Daily News, is determined to destroy Fleming’s career, which he does with a bit of help from a researcher fatale calling herself Abbi Pascoe – real name Tanya Griffiths – and Lawrence Castle’s senior spin doctor, who was at school with Fleming. He is thrown out by his wife and loses both his TV and radio shows. The only place left to go to is the Priory – sorry, Abbey – clinic, where he is treated for his addiction to fame and his bulimia. The discussions with a therapist are one of many variations on the interview theme. Meanwhile, Fleming has been receiving threatening letters, and appears to have at least a couple of stalkers. His narrative is spliced with transcripts of police interviews and interviews for a documentary with the working title ‘Dead on Live TV’, and we get the impression that he will eventually be murdered by one of his more obsessive fans. There are a number of twists, which I wouldn’t want to give away, but the final insult is that one of his stalkers hates him for purely personal reasons, while the other is using him to get to someone more famous.
I suppose we’re meant to feel sorry for Fleming, but I could be wrong because it’s hard to feel anything for him apart from faint disgust (and I’m sure he’s meant to be disgusting). Going out Live is clever, and quite funny, but it’s less a novel than a well executed exercise in Postmodern trickery. Maybe it would work better on TV; but Richard Fleming could never compete with Alan Partridge. What is so good about Partridge is not only that Knowing Me, Knowing You spoofed its targets so brilliantly – after it, radio and TV can never sound the same again; not that broadcasting has taken any notice – but that its host was so hapless, a Basil Fawlty for the 1990s. Fleming’s problem is that he’s too clever. Partridge would never have been given his own show in real life; Fleming plausibly would. His fall, from a certain technical perspective, is tragic. And botched tragedy has an unfortunate tendency to provoke Schadenfreude.
Another problem with Going out Live is that it’s a symptom and beneficiary of the phenomenon it sets out to satirise. TV is so important that plot developments in soap operas are reported in the tabloids as if they were news. Ben Elton’s latest novel, Dead Famous (Bantam, £16.99), is about a murder on the set of a game-show called House Arrest, which is exactly like Big Brother but more violent. Richard Fleming brims with intellectual arrogance, certain that what he doesn’t know – a lot – isn’t worth knowing. And Mark Lawson, a broadcaster, has written a well-publicised novel concerned with broadcasting and publicity. If you read Going out Live you’ll learn about ‘howl-round’, the deafening shriek caused by a radio presenter’s voice feeding back from his headphones into his microphone in an escalating cycle of meaningless noise.
[*] Sorry, this doesn’t have a punch line. But if it were a joke, it couldn’t be worse than the one about the BBC management and female circumcision in Mark Lawson’s novel.