The late review

Going Out Live

Mark Lawson <em>Picador, 261pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0330488600

Richard Fleming, a TV and radio talk-show host, is being harassed simultaneously by stalkers, jealous professional rivals, Machiavellian BBC bosses and cynical muck-raking journalists. He is also haunted by the spectre of Tony Andrews, a big 1960s TV star. Andrews did "skydiving and talking-dog items", which in those days went out after the news, not during it. He got his own discussion programme and was promptly sacked "when he asked a Catholic priest - live on air - if he wanked. Now, of course, they'd give you an award." Richard, annoyed at losing a studio argument with a reactionary (and fictitious) Archbishop of Canterbury, asks the puritan prelate if he likes sex. The Archbish simply says he has never preached against marital sex, scoring further points. Far from receiving an award, Richard gets hauled over the coals by management. And he keeps seeing Tony Andrews on Shepherd's Bush Green, near Television Centre, lugging carrier bags of booze. "You had to look twice to recognise, under the two-week stubble and ruddied cheeks, the face that did those pop-eyed double-takes on cutaways."

This is something of a masochistic fantasy from Mark Lawson, the TV and radio arts presenter. People in his line of work tend to be deeply conscious of the fate of Tony Bilbow, who was summarily fired from BBC2's Film Night in 1974 for a rude review of the allegorical thriller Juggernaut. Bilbow still pops up from time to time, playing himself in spoof documentaries, and he seems to be doing all right, considering; but one can't help wondering if the more drastically fallen figure of Tony Andrews was named after him. As Richard recounts his own tribulations - not least that it is 1999 and he fluffs the word "millennium" every time it crops up - Lawson inserts mock scripts of interviews from a documentary about him. The comments by producers, researchers, the BBC's head of security and others suggest that something went horribly wrong at the recording of Richard's final TV show, but the reader has to wait until the end to find out what. One interviewee, a professor specialising in the work of a writer who was a guest on the show, happens to remark: "The I-narrator of a novel cannot, for obvious reasons, die. Unless - perhaps - he commits suicide after writing the account." Or then again, that could be a red herring.

It's all very clever. Admittedly, Lawson aims his satire at a series of familiar open goals - the insecurity and backbiting among media celebs, tabloid dirty tricks, the Byzantine politics of the BBC - but the execution is thorough. Richard has to have his hands shaved before going on TV because focus groups reveal that female viewers in a crucial age group don't like hairy hands. The scenes in the radio studio during Richard's live current affairs magazine slot are satisfyingly farcical. And there is an illuminating description of the precise semantic origami performed by tabloid hacks in order to commit blatant libel without being sued.

Lawson's interest in language gives the dialogue a curious, tape-recorded feel; it embodies little quirks found often in real speech, but not so much in novels. The portrayal of a reporter who overuses the word "I" (here called Clem Sadley, though perhaps modelled on Fergal Keane) is heavy-handed but still quite funny, as is the moment when Richard nonplusses a young researcher by using a subjunctive. Elsewhere, however, Richard, a self-confessed "language queen", snootily gives examples of the dangling participle and gets them all wrong. One is a noun, the other a set of adjectives, and there's not a participle in sight. It is hard to tell if this mistake is the character's or the author's, but on the whole it seems a bit too minor to be deliberate.

Instead of making Richard sympathetic, Lawson astutely offers us an alternative form of involvement, whereby we guiltily enjoy the character's embarrassment as his world goes to pieces. This cold-eyed treatment is true to the social setting. There are those who find the media world's shallow self-obsession so annoying that the mere depiction of it, along with the author's insider credentials, will put them off. For the rest, this novel offers a bracingly grim kind of fun.

Hugo Barnacle is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair