First Ladies by Kay Burley

A while back, The Guardian‘s Media Monkey blog published a couple of sex scenes from an upcoming novel from Sky newsreader Kay “The entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack” Burley, and they were as hilariously awful as you’d imagine – not to mention uncannily similar to a Garth Marenghi novel. Everyone had a good laugh and then moved on… until a copy turned up on my birthday, plastered with “BUY ONE GET ONE FREE” stickers and offers of free designer shoes. Naturally, I had to read it, otherwise all those trees would have died in vain.

It’s not exactly a difficult book – it’s 400 pages, but written in a fairly big font, with most chapters only a handful pages long and few words longer than “minister”. It’s also not exactly a good book, for reasons we’ll come onto shortly. This post is heavily inspired by Five Chinese Crackers’s brilliant takedown of Richard Littlejohn’s “To Hell in a Handcart”, but where Littlejohn’s effort was almost outrageously awful, Kay “Do you think if you’d had a better sex life, your husband wouldn’t have become a serial killer?” Burley’s book is a more insidious, low-level kind of rubbish, flecked with streaks of mediocrity cribbed from a thousand other books.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s a quick rundown of what makes First Ladies rubbish. (In case you really care, SPOILER WARNING)

1. There are about a dozen people in the whole country

Every story needs a bit of coincidence. Without a few connections between characters and events, there’s no plot, just “things happening”. However, there’s a limit to how far you can stretch these connections. Take it too far and you risk killing your audience’s suspension of disbelief. Here’s a list of characters. Let’s play “spot the connection”!

The main male character, who all the women are fighting over, is Julian Jenson, Prime Minister. He’s a wealthy aristocrat who admires Margaret Thatcher and is obsessed with spin and image. Haven’t a clue who he’s based on. Neil Kinnock?

He’s married to Valerie, who at the beginning of the story is a depressed alcoholic. Valerie met Julian on the very first day of university when she opened her car door and knocked him off his bike, and despite the fact literally all they say to each other is “Hello, my name is…”, and despite the fact that we’re told Valerie has no interest in boys and is completely unaware of the fact that Julian is eyeing her up, we’re still told that the chemistry between the two is immediate and completely obvious to Valerie’s parents.

Valerie’s brother is Monty. Monty just happens to be the best player on England’s Ashes winning cricket team. He’s almost ludicrously nice, and when forced to go to a club filled with young women around spends every moment wishing he was playing backgammon with his fiancée. Then he gets hit by a car, breaks his legs and his fiancée runs off with his best friend. Tragedy.

Valerie’s mum meanwhile used to teach Gayle Honeyford, who is now married to Ben Watson, the Prime Minister’s vicious attack dog/spin doctor. Ben comes across as a pound shop version of Malcolm Tucker – all teeth, anger and swearing, but with a cartoonish edge. Where Malcolm would get his way with adept Machiavellian manoeuvring, veiled threats, Catch-22s and creative swearing, Ben just calls up the nearest newspaper editor and shouts “IF YOU PUBLISH I’LL SEND YOUR WIFE A PICTURE OF YOU AND THAT PROSTITUTE. YOU FUCK.” Ben used to work at a newspaper, and one time got drunk and punched…

Sally Simpson, “ballsy and brusque” editor of Celeb magazine. Simpson first met the Prime Minister when she was having a piss in the men’s urinals, and Julian found this so powerfully erotic that he immediately swept her into his arms. Julian’s plan is to divorce Valerie and marry Sally eventually, and their utterly foolproof plan is to run constant pieces in Celeb about Valerie wearing ugly dresses. Sally is supposed to be a Devil Wears Pradaesque boss-from-hell, but she comes across as pretty tame. She’s a bit dismissive of her staff, true, but most of the time she’s either floating around in post-coital bliss or crying because Valerie is still married to the PM. BALLSY AND BRUSQUE. Sally’s rival for Julian’s affections is…

Isla McGovern, the green eyed reporter who got her start in the North East (not to be confused with Kay Burley, née McGurran, the green eyed reporter who got her start in the North East). She works for a show not unlike GMTV clumsily called Have a Nice Day TV. She’s just so damn pretty that all the female producers hate her and give her worst jobs – which means sitting around 10 Downing Street all night waiting for the Prime Minister to barge out of the house and start flirting with her for no good reason.

Tenuously connected to all this is Jimmy Phillips, a flamboyantly gay antiques expert from a tacky daytime Cash in the Attic ripoff who, to bring things full circle, is supposedly best friends with Valerie (even though we barely see them together). He once almost had sex with Ben (then a journalist) during a photoshoot, until the photographer barged in. This therefore somehow this resulted in photos being taken, even though we’re explicitly told the camera didn’t have its lens on at the time, but hey ho. Ben later hires a bunch of gangsters to beat Jimmy up because of his gambling debts, which results in Jimmy being fired and forced to present Have a Nice Day TV, where Isla interviews Valerie about Jimmy’s attack. No, nothing ever comes of this story line.

No exaggeration, everything that happens in this book happens because of the endless coincidences. Indeed, the book only ends at all when, deus ex machina, the never-before-mentioned Gayle appears, divulges the affairs, then disappears.

2. Burley thinks her audience are idiots

First Ladies is, fairly obviously, a book about politics. It comes with a recommendation from Peter Mandelson, who says

Kay Burley uses her unrivalled knowledge of  the worlds of politics, media and celebrity to racy effect.

Clearly this is a book that you’re not going to read unless you’re at least a little interested in politics. So let’s have a quick look at the very first paragraph of the book:

“Tell me, have you met the Prime Minister before?”

It was a question that Valerie Jenson , the Prime Minister’s wife, had asked her guests a thousand times. She was hosting a Christmas lunch at Chequers, the Buckinghamshire weekend home gifted to the nation by the Lee family at the end of the First World War. Since then it had been a place to relax for the serving leader and now an absolute must-have invite for all of London’s 21st century media glitterati.

Do you see what she did there? To be fair, it was very subtle, so you may have missed it, but if you look closely you’ll see that, with all the grace and ease of a Wikipedia enema, she’s levered into the very first paragraph of her book a potted history of Chequers. Is the Lee family important to the book? No. Does it add flavour to the scene? No. Does it serve any purpose other than ruining the flow of the very first page of the book? No.

This isn’t just an isolated case. One theme that runs throughout the book is commenting on political events by fictionalising them. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – though having a MP have sex with a call girl up against a duck house in a freshly-cleaned moat may be a little unsubtle – but every single time Burley immediately ruins the reference by meticulously explaining exactly what the joke is about, either because she really wants to show how much she knows about politics, or because she’s worried her audience won’t get it.

For instance, when the Prime Minister is planning his general election campaign, his spin doctor Ben warns him:

“Just don’t leave your lapel mic on.”

See, a little unsubtle, but not terrible. Until…

Valerie smiled wryly at Ben’s Bigot-gate reference

IT’S A REFERENCE TO BIGOT-GATE. DID YOU GET THAT? IT WAS VERY CAREFULLY HIDDEN SO I’D BETTER SPELL IT OUT JUST IN CASE. This isn’t some obscure piece of 1950s political history, this is the most widely played and intensely analysed event of the last general election. I think you can assume your readers are familiar with it!

Or another example, when the BBC try to get the PM to go on Comic Relief.

“Let me state clearly for the record that I will not be donning a red nose or allowing Catherine Tate to make a complete idiot of me at Downing Street.”

Yeah, I remember that sketch. Wasn’t it the one where Tony Blair sat at his desk saying “Am I bovvered though?

“For further clarification, I will not be sitting at my desk and saying “Am I bovvered though” like Tony Blair did.”

That’s the one. Thanks Kay.

Given this tin ear for comedy, I wonder what else she can render completely dull through overexplanation…

“We have managed to secure a brilliant Two Ronnies show that absolutely deserves another airing. In fact, you may remember it. It’s the one where Ronnie Barker goes into the shop and asks for fork handles. Ronnie Corbett is behind the counter and mistakes his request for four candles.”

Congratulations, Kay, you’ve even managed to make the Four Candles sketch not funny. Well done, that takes real talent.

Other tediously drawn out bits of exposition I’ve not listed here include a paragraph long diversion on Michael Foot’s “well, all right”, two explanations of “Crisis? What crisis?”, two explanations of Margaret Thatcher’s “Where there is discord may we bring harmony speech”, a longwinded reference to Gordon Brown’s “dithering” on calling the general election, a note that saying “there are four of us in this marriage” was a reference to Diana saying “there are three of us in this marriage”, and a clarification that the phrase “Here’s Johnny” is indeed from The Shining. Any of these jokes could have worked, had they not been smothered at birth by Kay Burley’s blanket of detail.

3. All her characters are also idiots

The great site TV Tropes, collectors of recurring themes and characters across media, have something they call an “Idiot Plot“:

a Plot that hangs together only because the main characters behave like idiots. A single intelligent move or question by any of the characters, and all problems would be resolved.

[…]

Even worse than that is “second-order idiot plot”, in which the plot can only function if every character involved, including side characters, suddenly loses about 50 IQ points.

By that yardstick, First Ladies is such a perfect example of a second-order idiot plot that in years to come academics will dissect in much the same way that epidemiologists dissect diseased bodies, trying to figure out just what went wrong.

Everything that happens in this book happens because someone is an idiot. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

a) Bored at 4:30 am, the Prime Minister sees Isla standing with a cameraman outside Downing Street. He decides to go out there and very obviously flirt with her. Then to cover this up, he announces a snap election and sprints back inside. This didn’t matter anyway since the editor of Have a Nice Day TV had sex with someone at a party conference, so Ben can simply ask him not to run the footage. Oh well.

b) In the middle of an election campaign, Valerie goes outside Number 10 to speak to the gathered journalists. Sally forces everyone in her office to watch, since this will surely be where Valerie bursts into tears, admits Julian doesn’t love her, then has a breakdown live on TV. Instead, it turns out to be a bland PR stunt where Valerie talks about how lovely her husband is. This shocks Sally so much that she screams in front of her entire newsroom.

c) The PM needs a way to get noticed, and he and Ben are completely stumped. Then Valerie suddenly remembers that today is the last day of a particularly tight-run Ashes, her brother is the best player on the England cricket team and apparently there are a bunch of celebrities at this Ashes thing? Perhaps the Prime Minister should go! This is treated as the most ingeniously “so crazy it just might work!” idea in the history of human thought.

d) Monty gets by a car in a very difficult-to-visualise accident (he’s getting into the back of a car, the car drives away, the door hits him and he ends up under the back axle. Try to work that out in your head). The Prime Minister’s wife’s brother, the star player of the Ashes-winning England cricket team, has been hospitalised on the night before his wedding. Naturally, his fiancée decides this is the perfect time to reveal exclusively to the papers that she’s breaking up with Monty and marrying his best friend Charlie instead. FLAWLESS PR VICTORY.

e) Jimmy loses all his money gambling, and calls Ben for a loan. Instead, Ben – master of manipulation, obsessed with image – hires two gangsters to beat Jimmy up. Brilliant. None of this actually has anything to do with the plot – the book ends before this storyline actually has any payoff – but it’s still very stupid.

f) Sally has a stalker, who was found in her garden years ago with weapons and unspecified but apparently horrific “paraphernalia”. While reading a magazine at the hairdressers she comes across an interview with him, following his release, in which he vows to get her back (apparently people who stalk magazine editors are celebrities in Burley World). Unsurprisingly, this upsets her, and she runs to Julian. Julian is shocked – shocked! – that Sally is upset that someone who tried to kill her is free and searching for her. In fact, he’s so shocked and disgusted at this that he falls completely out of love with her.

g) By the way, Julian had already had the stalker sectioned under the Mental Health Act after he broke into the Prime Minister’s party with a gun, but he had decided not to tell Sally any of this. There’s no reason for this, as far as I can tell, except that there would have been no reason for Julian to fall out of love with Sally otherwise.

h) Either Kay Burley or her editor thought people in Lancashire eat “balm cakes”. THEY’RE BARM CAKES. BARM.

4. Nothing happens, at least on-page

You might think that, from everything discussed above, that First Ladies is at least an action packed book. The problem is that all the action happens offscreen.

The Prime Minister flying in to rescue hostages in Afghanistan? Offscreen.

The Ashes final, where the PM mingled with celebrities against the backdrop of a tense nail-biting cricket final? Offscreen.

General election day? Offscreen.

Valerie’s suicide attempt? Offscreen.

The attack on Jimmy? Offscreen.

The whole business with the stalker? Largely offscreen – we see the PM leave a party because of a security alert, but we’re never told ’til the end what it was.

Monty blackmailing Charlie? Offscreen.

Isla meeting Valerie for the first – and indeed only – time? Offscreen.

Jimmy getting his revenge on Ben? Not only is it offscreen, but it doesn’t happen until after the book ends.

Onscreen, on the other hand, we get a pointless scene where an elephant attacks the Prime Minister in South Africa (they’re in South Africa so Isla can make a joke about “enjoying some time in the bush” – a joke so awful that it actually loops around and becomes quite brilliant). We get Ben going to a Bangkok strip club and being turned on by one of the dancers before leaving. We get a pointless scene where Jimmy tries to fire his director, then doesn’t. We get a pointless scene where Isla is forced to do a piece about an obscure political party. We get Julian sacking a racist MP with shares in a blood diamond mine, who has nothing to do with the rest of the story. We get the whole storyline with Monty being hit by a car, which doesn’t do anything for the plot other than prevent Isla getting with the PM quite so soon. And of course we get a fair bit of sex – though quite a lot of that happens offscreen too.

The big climax of the book, if you’ll pardon the expression, is when Isla and Sally meet at Chequers – the party from the from the beginning of the book – get completely pissed, and then Valerie, also drunk, wanders over, while Ben and Julian look on in horror. If you’ve ever seen or read any decent comic works – Fawlty Towers, Peep Show, Gilbert and Sullivan – then you know that surely this is the big farcical conclusion. Every lie is unravelled, every dirty secret revealed, the whole thing comes crashing down in flames and Government has collapsed by the following morning. Except that’s not what happens.

Sally drunkenly shouts “[Julian] is divorcing you and marrying me!” before going on about all the sex they had in South Africa. Isla shouts “No, he had sex with me in South Africa!” Then… they get kicked out of the party and the story shudders on for another 50 pages until eventually Valerie learns that yes, Julian actually was having affairs, and then she announces his resignation under the guise of making up with him on TV. The end.

Now, that ending is actually not all that bad. It’s pretty clever, it’s sharp – it’s what you’d expect from a book like this. But the 423 pages before it… yikes.

I could mention some of the book’s other failings – Isla’s mentor, described as “mildly flirtatious” never flirts with her or anyone else even once; none of the characters are sympathetic, and therefore are impossible to care about; the “first ladies” aren’t really competing at all since they’re all more or less oblivious to the others’ existence – but since this post is already very, very long, this seems like a good place to end it. In summary… meh.

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  1. #1 by lazerguidedmelody on Monday, 20th June 2011 - 22:03 UTC

    Ha, fantastic. I mean, I do feel about seventeen times more stupid having read your review, which doesn’t bode well for my attemps at tackling the novel. And you’ve dashed my hopes that Ms Burley is the new Thomas Pynchon. And I was planning to spend a week in August on that private beach in the Caribbean reading the thing, so that’s another vacation ruined.

    But a great review.

  2. #2 by Lukeablancas on Tuesday, 28th June 2011 - 13:12 UTC

    “For further clarification, I will not be sitting at my desk and saying “Am I bovvered though” like Tony Blair did.”

    Brilliant. Nice mention of TV Tropes too. Also, if you haven’t come across it, this blog: http://writebadlywell.blogspot.com/ is always a good laugh

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