Sitting down to watch Ben Elton’s new sitcom this week set me thinking about the 1980s, not that we’ve needed much excuse lately. Comparing Elton’s new effort The Wright Way (Tuesday BBC1) – a studio sitcom about an uptight health-and-safety officer (David Haig) – with his Thatcher-era heyday, it’s hard to make sense of what became of a man who was once the undisputed king of comedy.
When I went to the Edinburgh Fringe as a teenager in the early 1980s, Ben Elton was the hot ticket. This was pre-Blackadder and pre-Saturday Live, but he was fully formed. He had co-written The Young Ones, the most exciting sitcom ever, as far as we were concerned. He was loud, he was political, he took no prisoners. To the student revue group I was with, he was a bit of a god.
This is an awkward thing to admit now that Elton has travelled to the far reaches of uncool. He’s the anti-Mrs Thatch motormouth in the Sellafield Suit and big glasses who took the money and ran. He’s the guy who gave the world the Queen musical We Will Rock You. A few years ago comedian Stewart Lee based a routine on his anger at the way Elton had, as Lee saw it, betrayed his principles. At least Osama Bin Laden had stuck to his, was the gist of it.
Not many comics get to be compared unfavourably to Osama Bin Laden. But from being reviled as a sell-out (collaborating with Tory peer Andrew Lloyd Webber, having one of their songs used at George W Bush’s inaugural gala, and so on) the Elton journey has got one step worse and tipped into irrelevance. People used to despise him – right and left, for different reasons – now they’ve forgotten him.
Do you remember his last sitcom, on BBC1 in 2005? It was called Blessed and starred Ardal O’Hanlon and Mel Giedroyc as struggling parents with a baby. It was full of well-observed details and wordy tirades. It sank without trace.
So will The Wright Way fare much better? It’s also quite ranty. (If you think about it, Elton’s key characters are all exasperated males.) The hero is a council official infuriated by the modern world – by unhelpful shop assistants and hard-to-load dishwashers and push-button taps in public loos. It’s Grumpy Old Men in sitcom form, creaky and laboured.
This is hard to reconcile with the man who co-wrote the heartbreaking final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth and the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones. Who would believe this is the same comic whose stand-up routines sandblasted away the pebbledash of 1970s tit-gags and racism?
Because yes, people really did find breasts hilarious in the 1970s. On YouTube you can find an amazing TV routine from 1981 where Elton attacks a sitcom involving a series of jokes about a barmaid’s big breasts (“By ’eck, you don’t get many of those to the pound!”, etc) and ends with a raised fist, saying “Sexism in comedy, watch out for it. Thank you, goodbye.”
Those routines make strange viewing now. The self-righteous, fevered delivery which seemed so right on and ideologically sound in the early 80s hasn’t aged well. But Ben Elton did comedy a huge service. He helped give it a conscience. He helped drag it through a sea-change. And now look: what’s the first joke in his new sitcom? It’s about how long women spend in the bathroom.