Just finished Ben Elton’s latest novel, Meltdown.
It can be hard work being a Ben Elton fan. After all, this is a guy who started out ranting about the evils of Mrs Thatch and ended up compering the Queen’s birthday concert; the guy who wrote angry plays about the evils of capitalism and then wrote musicals for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rod Stewart; the guy who wrote The Young Ones and The Man From Auntie and progressed to Maybe Baby and Get A Grip; the guy who never shows his teeth when he smiles so everybody accuses him of being smug.
But it’s not the peer pressure that’s so much the problem. It’s two other things. Firstly, the wide variability in the quality of his work. I mean, up there (I’m indicating about head level) you have The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line (“oh, you’re so mean”), Gasping, Popcorn, High Society... and then about here (I’m indicating about waist level) you have his Queen rock panto, and his previous novel, Blind Faith, and then about there (I’m indicating ground level) you have the unmitigated stinkers like Chart Throb and Blessed. And then about here (I’m shrugging as though to indicate I’ve forgotten) you have Blast From The Past and Past Mortem.
The other problem is the amount of material he recycles. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t follow his work so closely, but it can feel a little like one is being ripped off when the same gag turns up in a stand-up show, a musical, a novel, a sitcom and a TV show... there was a period when everything Ben wrote had to include a shoehorned spiel on how large chocolate bars and fizzy drinks are getting at the cinema, or how you can’t get normal toothbrushes these days, or how a woman has waxed her bits so smooth they could be laminated.
Oh, that’s the third problem. The obsession with female genitalia.
(If there’s a fourth problem – it’s the fact that the solutions to his whodunits are so bloody obvious he might as well not bother. I remember working out who the murderer was in Dead Famous from reading the cover inlay)
To begin with the negatives, Meltdown does feature the usual Ben Elton flaws. Whole chunks of the novel are reworkings of the ‘isn’t it hard bringing up kids, you never get any sleep’ stuff which left so many of us stony-faced in his mercifully-forgotten sitcom Blessed (which was later used by Armanda Ianucci as an example of why some types of sitcom don’t work if they’re not filmed in front of a studio audience). I also could have done without the ‘humorous’ digressions into leaky nipples and stretch marks – Ben, get a grip!
But the big surprise with this novel, and the great thing about it, is that Ben has found something he cares about again and has got a bit of moral fire in his word processor, not seen since High Society (probably his best novel). I mean, The First Casualty was pretty good, while Chart Throb was pretty abysmal (and recycled the twist of Silly Cow) and Blind Faith, although including lots of good stuff about moral relativism in a world of the vacuous, was basically a rewrite of Fahrenheit 451 by someone who hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451 with leftover nuggets from We Will Rock You thrown in.
With Meltdown, though, Ben has found a strong subject – the credit crunch, and politics in general over the last few years, taking in the futile hypocrisy of Live 8 (which gets quite a kicking), the cash-for-peerages thing and the MPs-expenses thing. It’s a great idea, and (unlike with Chart Throb) he’s found a good way into the story; a group of university friends who made good while the going was good, who each made a Faustian pact with the gods of mammon and then got bitten on the arse when push came to crunch. You have the property speculator, the architect of silly phallic skyscrapers, the New Labour MP...
Oh, and that’s the other surprise – Ben has remembered how to be left-wing again! I mean, all the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic with their own voices, but (I hope) there’s a bit of the author’s voice coming through in the condemnation of ludicrously high salaries for people who work in the public sector, the virtues of state education, and in particular both the compromised morals of a Labour government that gets into bed with the financial services industry, and the sheer momentumlessness of a government that hasn’t done a great deal to be proud of since banning fox-hunting ten years ago (where the only Big Idea they have left is to ban smoking).
My one suggestion would have been that the character who is killed in a road accident should have been swerving to avoid a fox. That would have been a lovely little extra irony.