Thank you for the music, Freddie
EOIN BUTLERinterviews a tetchy Ben Elton at the 11th anniversary of his critically lambasted but commercially successful musical based on Queen's classic playlist
For rock stars of a certain age, death was once considered a good career move. Not any more. With record sales plummeting, and concert tours by so-called “heritage acts” frequently raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, life has never been more lucrative for the rock n’ roll OAP.
Freddie Mercury would be 66 if he were alive today. Quite how many stadiums Queen would have packed out in the past couple of decades, had the band’s outrageously talented frontman not died in 1991, is a matter for conjecture.
But there is no doubt that their music remains an enormous box office draw. In 2002, Ben Elton’s We Will Rock You – a musical based on 24 of Queen’s greatest hits – opened in London’s Dominion Theatre to some of the most savage reviews in West End history.
The Guardian called it “sixth form”. The Telegraph: “prolefeed at its worst”. Even the BBC, for whom Elton had penned such classic sitcoms as The Young Ones and Blackadder, dismissed his latest venture as “not just arrogant, but downright foolhardy”. Yet the musical has proven an enormous hit, seen by 15 million people in 17 countries.
Relaxing in the bowels of the Dominion Theatre, with another sold out performance booming through the walls, it is obvious those early reviews still rankle the show’s creator.
“If I sound a little defensive,” Ben Elton begins (and he does), “it’s because the notion that critics are able to set aside their own egos, their own petty resentments and preconceptions, and offer [an objective] judgment; is clearly insane.” Surely he feels vindicated by the show’s success? “There’s nothing to vindicate,” he snarls. “If half a dozen critics hated their night, they hated their night. What I object to is the idea that the night was hateful. No, it was only hateful to them.”
Personal invective against Elton aside (once a leading light of alternative comedy, he is now reviled as a sellout by many in the British press), it is hard to fault the substance of the early criticism against the show.
Elton rejected a plan by Mercury’s manager Jim Beach to base a musical on the singer’s life. (“A musical about Freddie dying of Aids,” he tells me, “was always going to be a musical about Freddie dying of Aids.”)
Instead he concocted a futuristic saga about two rock’n’roll freedom fighters, Galileo and Scaramouche, who do battle with the evil Globalsoft Corporation and its flamboyant leader, the Killer Queen. The kindest thing one could say about the plot is that there is precious little of it. Elton shuffles through a hefty chunk of Queen’s back catalogue with remarkable economy. But what a back catalogue that is. One thing the show’s detractors may have overlooked is the irresistibly broad appeal of Queen’s music. Even if you’ve never owned a Queen album in your life (and I haven’t), there’s scarcely a song in We Will Rock You that you won’t find yourself singing along to.
It is the songs that shift the tickets at the box office, the songs that flog the glow sticks in the lobby, and the songs that have audiences on their feet, night after night. (Consider, by contrast, what thin gruel Jennifer Saunders had to work with on Viva Forever: The Spice Girls musical over at the Piccadilly Theatre. Can anyone even hum the title track?) One of the more remarkable facts about Queen, I venture, is that all four members wrote number one singles for the band. Elton nods eagerly.
“I’m something of an evangelist for that statistic,” he admits. “Because one of the questions people often ask me is ‘Would Freddie have approved [of the musical]?’ As if Freddie was somehow separate to Queen! As if Freddie was the special one and the other three were sidemen!”
I had been searching for a less contentious subject of conversation. But those appear to be thin on the ground. “The insane arrogance,” he continues, “that these people would seek to take the voice of a dead man, and know it better than the men he chose to share his entire professional life with” – the surviving members of the band are producers on the show – “seems to me a conceit that is within the gift only of journalists.”
While (hopefully) unwarranted in this particular instance, Elton’s antipathy toward the media in general is certainly understandable. His press clippings from the past decade are spectacularly hostile. Once the self-righteous scourge of Thatcherism, he alienated many former fans, firstly, by writing a musical with arch-Tory Andrew Lloyd Webber and later, perhaps irrevocably, by contributing a song performed at the inauguration of George W Bush.
“It was a song about the triumph of love over the corrupting power of bigotry,” he snaps. “I was very proud for it to be performed. I think it was probably more important for it to be played at an event like that than at a meeting of Pacifists Anonymous.”
His fellow comics have been equally scathing. In a famous routine at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005, comedian Stewart Lee compared Elton unfavourably to Osama Bin Laden. The latter, Lee concluded, “has at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles.” (When I mention this, Elton claims never to have heard of Stewart Lee.)
Is Elton ever surprised by the vitriol directed at him? After all, no one is really obliged to remain exactly as they were at 25 for the rest of their life. “I think I have stayed the same,” he insists. “My politics are the same. I wasn’t what people thought was then [in the 1980s], and I’m not who they think I am now.”
I glance down at the scribbled list of questions in my hand. I had hoped to discuss Blackadder, his love of Morecambe and Wise and whether he was really offered a deal to write Police Academy 6. But right now, just about any of those questions seems liable to elicit an irritated response. Instead, we talk about Australia (where he currently lives), his passion for paddleboarding (which he likens to piloting a gondola), and the internet (of which he seems preternaturally suspicious).
One joke that survives from the original production of WeWill Rock You requires the audience not to know the difference between a URL and an email address. Another more recent addition is predicated on the notion that Twitter is a forum solely for telling people what you’ve eaten for breakfast.
Is the comedian, and bestselling author, something of a luddite? He denies it. What he does resent, he concedes, is the internet’s capacity for spreading and legitimising misinformation. “My wife is a bass player,” he explains. “But because she played saxophone on one song, the Sun called her ‘Saxy Sophie’. Now she is forever a saxophonist in the annals of the internet.”
At 51, the man who wrote The Young Ones is beginning to sound like a bit of an old curmudgeon. But I don’t dare say as much. Instead, I ask him about Simon Cowell, whom he admits to knowing slightly. “He’s exactly what you see on television. A very pleasant, gently amoral man who it’s fun to be around.”
When We Will Rock You opened in 2002, its plot traced the death of real music back in time to the popularity of the Pop Idol TV show and the manufactured band Hear’Say.
Those jokes have since been replaced by jibes at the expense of Cowell and the X Factor. But it seems to me that Elton’s show has quite a lot in common with the reality talent contests to which it claims to be an antidote.
“Oh does it?” he growls. It’s hard to tell if he is outraged, mock outraged or just plain tired.
Fresh-faced singers, familiar songs, bums on seats, fun for all the family. It’s not a hundred miles away, is it? “Our show is not without its contradictions,” he concedes. “But it’s honest. It delivers what it promises: live music, organically performed, with some good gags thrown in. That’s its triumph. That’s why its on the side of the angels.”
As we say our goodbyes, he returns to a question I never asked him. The one about whether or not he deserved to be considered a sellout. “I could probably afford never to work again if I wanted to. Probably. But I could also be 10 times richer if I’d accepted all of the opportunities that came my way.”
Might those have included an offer to write Police Academy 6? “Yes, as it happens,” he replies. And for the first time in our 30 minutes together, he actually flashes me a smile.
After the show, the press contingent are ushered into a side room for an appropriately regal audience with Queen drummer Roger Taylor. In celebration of the 10th (actually, the 11th) anniversary of We Will Rock You, the show is embarking upon a world tour that incorporates dates in the O2 Dublin this April and Belfast’s Odyssey Arena in June.
As he is ushered down the line of international press, it is clear that we will each be permitted one question only. So I decide to ask him the one question that has really been on my mind all evening. That is, whether all of this, the cast, the script, the whole production would be redundant if his old friend Freddie were still alive? Taylor is astonishingly suave and husky voiced, like an English Vito Corleone. He mulls the question for a second, and then replies.
“Perhaps,” he says. “Perhaps.” Then he saunters away.