Ben Elton: ‘How am I going to say something when you can’t say anything?’
With his first tour in 15 years starting tonight in Dublin, the trailblazing comedian has some scores to settle
Ben Elton: ‘You may not like it, but I don’t think there’s anybody like me.’ Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes – but my inner 13-year-old would never forgive me if I spurned a chat with Ben Elton. The Young Ones, Blackadder and Saturday Live weren’t just a laugh for me; I constructed friendships, my sense of humour, and – let’s face it – my identity around them. Elton was the figurehead of the most exciting moment (give or take a 60s satire boom) in British comedy history, a sparkly-suited, mulleted firebrand blazing a trail for comedy’s punk generation – the so-called “alternative comedians” – to follow.
And then he wasn’t. Nowadays you can’t talk about Elton without references to selling out, and to Stewart Lee’s notorious routine comparing him with Osama bin Laden, who “at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles”. More on that later: Elton has plenty to say on the subject. But then, he’s got plenty to say on every subject. At 60 and a self-described “dad man”, the artist formerly known as Motormouth (the title of his 1987 album) is as voluble as ever in the run-up to his first standup tour in 15 years.
When I started as a comedian, standup was very, very rough. That was proper scary. If I hadn’t had my cornflakes by 8am on the day I was compering at the Comedy Store, there was no way I was going to eat
He never meant to stay away so long. But his three kids were growing up, he was living mainly in Fremantle, Australia, his wife Sophie’s home town. He had his writing to occupy him: 16 novels now, not to mention three series of Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow (plus a stage version, opening in the West End early next year). Which partly explains why he is “as scared as I get” to return to standup. “Which is not proper scared,” he clarifies. “When I started as a comedian, 38 years ago, standup was very, very rough. That was proper scary. If I hadn’t had my cornflakes by 8am on the day I was compering at the Comedy Store, there was no way I was going to eat.”
The fear now doesn’t come from any self-doubt about his comedy abilities – or at least, not officially. Elton in conversation is a fascinating mix of self-regard and thin skin. First he tells me he’s “always a bit down” on his standup achievements, and that Sophie had to coax him to return to the stage. Then he’s bullish, claiming that “what I do as a standup is completely unique. You may not like it, but I don’t think there’s anybody like me.”
“What I do is I talk about ideas,” he says. “I don’t do gags. I don’t do trivial observations any more because I’ve run out of them. And I assume everybody’s covered everything by now.” What he does is ruminate on the state of the world. Back in the day, that meant tirades about “Thatch” and sexism. Alternative comedy may be thought of as a lefty phenomenon, but “mainly it was a surrealist thing”, he says. “There were only a few of us who stood up for a political point of view.”
But now, says Elton, he finds himself in a world where he is far less sure of what he thinks. Rightwing demagoguery, post-truth, post-shame: “In the last third of my life, I am seeing changes that make things that terrified me in the first two-thirds seem like comfortable certainties by comparison.” In such a climate, his 80s bête noire no longer seems so bad. “In light of Trump and Johnson,” he says, “I realise there was at least some political morality to Thatcher, even Reagan.” And as for gender, social media, identity politics – well, Elton has just written a novel, Identity Crisis, about all that, and will be addressing it on stage, too.
Which could go wrong. The outcomes are mixed at best when middle-aged male standups address modern mores (see Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais). “When I tell people I’m going on tour,” says Elton, “almost everybody says, ‘Ooh, you’re brave.’ It’s so weird! We live in a world where people have somehow convinced themselves that, because there’s a few trolls on Twitter, ‘you can’t say anything, can you?’” He puts on a wheedling voice. “‘How am I going to say something when you can’t say anything?’” He’s fascinated by this – but unlike many of his peers, Elton sees no problem with how language and manners have evolved. “I’ve always been very pro-PC,” he says. “Some people think I invented it. I did it the same day I killed Benny Hill. It was a very busy day for me.”
Of course, he’ll be careful what he says on stage. He tells me one joke he’s written concerning trans women – a clever wordplay, generous in spirit, but open to misinterpretation – that, after careful consideration, he’s opted not to use in the show. “These are complicated times. And I do not believe any person of goodwill – male or female, trans or cis – would pretend otherwise.” But he’s got no intention of avoiding the subjects. The threat of a backlash is, he thinks, exaggerated. “There are only a handful of people on any side of a debate who are trolls. Most people, I am certain, wherever they stand, want the best for everyone.” And, in any case, he’s been here before. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a risk – but what are you gonna do? They’re not going to kill me. The Daily Mirror said I should be shot for writing We Will Rock You. So I’m an old hand at this.”
Ah, yes. Conversation has come around – as come around it must – to the “sellout” accusation. The idea that Elton – by writing musicals with Tory supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber, by MC-ing the Queen’s golden jubilee concert, by allowing his song to score the inauguration of George W Bush – has betrayed the principles for which he once stood. “Which is quite simply,” he says – blue touch-paper lit – “the most utterly unreasonable and wounding and extremely unhelpful narrative that has ever bedevilled a minor, middle-ground celebrity.”
I never know when people don’t like me, and I never expect them not to. So I’ve always been surprised when I irritate people
“I’m finally beginning to say something,” says Elton, visibly upset. “I haven’t said anything for 30 years. But it’s been wearying. It just keeps coming around, every interview – ‘So do you feel you’ve sold out?’ Tell me what – apart from that Stewart Lee, whoever he is, thinks I have – might make you ask that?”
It’s a pretty extraordinary outburst, this – replete with references to the impact on his family of the vitriol heaped on him for 2013 sitcom The Wright Way – that Elton tries to rein in, but can’t. (“I’ve done what I never do, which is prove to be over-sensitive …”) I offer him a get-out, by emphasising the positive – which is that, to engender such a sharp sense of betrayal, his work was clearly hugely important to people in the first place. And isn’t it fascinating that we can invest so much in, and expect so much of, a comedian?
But he’s not biting. For Elton, the accusations make no sense because he never identified as anti-establishment in the first place. “How can you be anti-establishment when you’re on Channel 4? When you’ve written sitcoms for the BBC? This is so silly. Y’know, some people pretend they’re communists. I never suffered from any delusion that that was a good thing to be. I have always been a middle-class, middle-of-the-road farty.”
More than that – and greatly to my surprise – he denies any iconoclastic dimension to alternative comedy. “There was no revolutionary intent,” he says, of the movement that radicalised a generation, called out racist and sexist humour, and commissioned a nose-pierced punk (Ade Edmondson’s Vyvyan) to tear the title sequence of twee sitcom The Good Life to shreds. “No one ever tried to break any boundaries or bust the rules. No one ever said, ‘Let’s change comedy.’ And, if anyone had, they would have been very arrogant and doomed to failure. Everybody was just trying to do their best work.”
“How arrogant would you have to be,” he goes on, “a fucking, middle-class drama student setting out to take down Benny Hill and Bernard Manning? No,” says Elton, “I just set out to express myself.” And that’s all he’s ever done, he says, in a way that’s true to his centre-left principles. “I’m a Clement Attlee man,” he says – and the criticism he’s received (as has his friend Emma Thompson, who “gets a lot of this, too”) is a classic example of the left “eating itself, because everybody loves to see the left with feet of clay. Which leaves the right rubbing its hands with glee. So I think undermining my voice with the one accusation that is genuinely unfair … I mean, smartarse, not funny, loudmouth – all of that is fine. But the idea that there’s a hypocritical element to who I am is self-evidently without basis. And the accuser should be ashamed of themselves. That’s what I feel.”
Phew. You can see why, in that context, the prospect of a few trolls quibbling with his take on 21st-century identity politics might seem small beer to Elton. I end up feeling sorry for the man – traduced way out of proportion to his supposed crimes, despite clearly being a conscientious and thoughtful entertainer, who (notwithstanding his denials) at least bothered to stand for something in the first place.
I’m glad he’s returning to the fold. “Look, I’m quite naive,” he says. “I never know when people don’t like me, and I never expect them not to. So I’ve always been surprised when I irritate people.”
“But I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. At school, at university, I’ve always been the Mickey Rooney character that everybody resents – ‘Let’s put on a show.’ Of course I don’t want people misunderstanding me or hating me. But I want to keep being that person. I’m excited to be back, and to still be the one saying, ‘Let’s do the show right here.’” – Guardian
Ben Elton’s tour begins at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on Friday, September 27th