Ben Elton catches up with change again by Madelaine Empson
Ben Elton is one of the British writers we can thank for such comedy gold as The Young Ones and Blackadder. The stand-up comedian, playwright, director, author, and (reluctant) actor exploded onto the comedy scene in the 1980s, where he became an integral part of the alternative comedy movement. He has since racked up a long list of achievements and awards, including hosting Channel 4’s groundbreaking Saturday Live, winning three BAFTAs, writing the Olivier Award-winning musical We Will Rock You, and even publishing 16 novels, six of which became number-one bestsellers.
I have had the pleasure of talking to Elton not once but twice now. The first time was for a close-up early last year, just a few months before he was set to tour his new stand-up show around New Zealand. We all know what happened in May 2020 though. Elton is now officially back in the country and can finally bring us the show, albeit sprinkled with a few insights gleaned during the pandemic. The second section of this interview covers the past year of his life and what the tour, coming to the Michael Fowler Centre on the 21st of May, looks like now.
You started co-writing your first television success at just 20 years old. What led you to The Young Ones?
I was very, very lucky. Rik [Mayall] called me to go to a pub in London in February 1981. He and Lise [Mayer] outlined this idea, and I went home that very night and pretty much wrote the whole pilot. That’s a well-known story so I’m not blowing my own trumpet. The commission came on the strength of that, so I was commissioned at 21. I was massively fortunate, I couldn’t believe it. Six months out of university I had a BBC commission. It’s funny, when you get your first job you think, ‘I’m rich!’ It was £1000 between the three of us, so mine was £330. We didn’t get that for a year, and the series didn’t hit the screens for another 18 months. I remember I went to my local butcher, and instead of buying sausages I bought steak. He said, ‘you’re a poor student, why are you buying steak?’ and I told him I’d been commissioned to write a TV series. And for the next year, ‘oh, there’s Mr Telly then, when’s your show coming out!’ Of course it looked like I was a total bullsh*tter. I didn’t go to that butcher again. I learned that day, never spend the cheque until you’ve got it and never tell anyone about a show until it’s on the screen!
How did you develop the distinctive comedic style that made The Young Ones such a hit?
It was private humour largely between me and Rik and Ade [Adrian Edmondson]. Rik and Ade were a double act at The University of Manchester. Rik took a lot of interest in my work. He was so funny and so interesting and him and Ade together were comedy dynamite – real punk comedy anarchy. They were improvisational and I was very much considered the writer. I was writing play after play after play, all comedies.
When Rik and Ade left university, they tried to keep their double act going even though they were working in factories and doing what they could to make a living. By the time I graduated two years later they found themselves in London doing their act on the nascent alternative comedy scene. Rik said ‘come on down, we need you.’ When the BBC approached Rik, he turned to me and said ‘I’ve got a lot of ideas, but you’re obviously a writer. You’re the guy that can make something…’ It was all our university comedy, just that we got the chance to share it with the nation.
You came on board with Richard Curtis to write BBC One’s Blackadder from its second season onwards. Why do you think the show was such a roaring success?
Richard and I were a very good writing team – it would be stupid to pretend we didn’t come up with something good together. It was one of the best assembled casts ever – Rowan [Atkinson] and Hugh [Laurie] and Stephen [Fry] and Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson and of course the extraordinary Miranda Richardson coming in for Blackadder II as the Queen. It was a great combination of talent. Trying to analyse why it became particularly successful is a fruitless, thankless task. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask the question, but the answer can only be that you can never ever understand an act of improvisation, and writing a comic script or indeed creating any piece of art – be you an actor or an abstract, surrealist sculptor – is always an improvisation.
Your stage and screen work landed you smack bang in the middle of the alternative comedy movement. What was it like?
The phrase alternative comedy was coined in 1979 by some left-wing comedians called the Alternative Cabaret led by Andy de la Tour and Tony Allen, and I think Alexei [Sayle] was a part of it. The idea was to follow instincts that our generation was already feeling strongly; we were reacting against an overreliance on sexist and homophobic and racist material. We felt there were more interesting and more honest subjects for comedy. I think I was particularly vociferous about it, because my comedy tended to be content-driven. With me becoming a polemical comedian on stage, I was doing routines about that, about the endemic sexism that meant you couldn’t advertise tampons on the telly, or that contraception was inherently sexist because it always put in a massive physical intrusion for women and the best they could come up with for men was ‘put a bag on the end’. I was doing routines that were much more specific.
What about your routines now? Tell me about your latest stand-up show.
Things have changed so the act is all new. I’m almost now coming from behind in terms of radical ideas. I was just now talking to you about a time 38, 40 years ago when I guess I was at the cutting edge. I was 21. It’s the kids that change the world and there was a time when I was one. Now at 60, I hope I’m illuminating in talking about subjects from the position of someone who’s always attempted to be on the side of inclusion, and remains so, but who’s catching up, and catching up with my kids’ generation. There’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s almost a woke dad gag. That sounds pretty unfunny… it’s only a small aspect of the show, I’m on stage for two hours and nobody stops laughing so I must be getting it right!
Hi, me again! How are you?
Hey Maddi, I’m very well and very pleased to be talking to you again. Hopefully this time we’ll make it to the stage!
Yes! We last spoke in February 2020 before COVID hit the fan. How did it feel to cancel the NZ tour?
I think everybody has their great sadnesses associated with COVID. One of the tropes that I’ve noticed is that everybody, including myself, feels the need to qualify any talk of what went wrong for them by saying ‘I know how lucky I am…’ And I do know how lucky I am! We had a wonderfully easy lockdown in Western Australia. The price paid is closed borders, which is quite hard for me with family and friends, my mother who’s in Britain. She’s 91 and I now haven’t seen her for over a year, I have to face that perhaps I won’t see her. That’s my personal thing, but since last February, the great sadness was seeing my wonderful colleagues suddenly, dramatically, and horrifyingly out of work. The young people I felt the most strongly for. They’d got their first jobs, their dreams were just beginning, and suddenly, this brutal pause. I hope very much that older people like me, the beneficiaries of this extraordinary world social experiment to protect ourselves, realise how much we owe the young. And when it comes time to accept that we should maybe let them in on the housing ladder and the pensions et cetera, we remember that! [Chuckles.]
Has your experience of the pandemic found its way into your show?
Of course. Goodness gracious, I had a tour ready to go. I was joking – I think to you – last time that the 90 dates I did in the UK were just a preparation for my New Zealand tour. Warmup gigs, nothing more! I was all ready and of course COVID hit and the world changed. I’d already made this whole routine about how I don’t get the world anymore. I, who used to know what I thought and used to be looked to as somebody who had firm opinions and firm views. Suddenly I don’t understand what’s going on. Now the world has changed again, it’s changed irrevocably. In saying that, people haven’t changed. And my routine has always been more about the inner self than the outer self. But rest assured, it will be as funny as I can make it.
What are you most looking forward to about performing a whopping 17 shows in New Zealand this May?
I love New Zealand, I’ve known it for many years. It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and I’m looking forward to getting out a bit on my days off, getting into the countryside. I like a walk, I like a run. A run in Wellington the windy city. I’m not normally scared in planes, I understand the aerodynamics, I do get why they stay in the air. But flying into Wellington I forgot all my physics and commended myself to Mother Nature…