Ben Elton: Michael Gove is wrong about Blackadder

The We Will Rock You creator discusses the First World War, global warming and the mystery of the missing Freddie Mercury statue...

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What did you make of Michael Gove’s remark that Blackadder Goes Forth depicted the First World War as “a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”?

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Self-evidently it was a catastrophe – as we speak there are 888,246 poppies outside the Tower of London, with each one representing a dead British citizen – and afterwards the worst aspects of western civilisation got the
upper hand. The rats crawled out from under the debris.

Famously Michael Gove has claimed that it was a war that had to be fought and that Blackadder denigrates it, which is an absolute nonsense. Blackadder is deeply respectful of the human spirit, to the heroism and the brotherly love of the British solider. But it is also legitimately satirising a complete collapse of original thinking. The First World War was 20th-century technology meeting 19th-century thinking.

Do you think it’s right that Blackadder is in the classroom then?

Yes, as a bit of fun. I think it’s perfectly legitimate as a bit of fun while teaching the First World War, as one of an assortment of extracurricular teaching aids. Blackadder Goes Forth was well researched and was written respectfully. It was a very, very silly thing for Gove to say and he was utterly wrong about Blackadder.

I do agree with him that the causes of the First World War were rooted in German militarism, but he strangely seemed absolutely certain the war needed to be fought, that the 20th century would have been worse without it. How much worse could it possibly have been than Stalin, Hitler, Mao, the Great Depression and the perversion of capitalism? I would go back in time to prevent it.

In your book, Time and Time Again, it seems that no matter what the time period is, it’s the elites who meddle and the lower classes who suffer. Is that still true?

I do believe that Britain is appallingly socially divisive. I grew up in the 1970s when it looked like everything was getting more egalitarian, but I think that has gone backwards since then. I wouldn’t have expected that the grip of Oxbridge would be greater now than it has ever been, not just in the City, politics and law any more, it’s bloody pop music and theatre as well.

Not to argue with any of the individuals because they are all splendid people, but I find it deeply depressing that we are getting this terrible division.

You studied drama at Manchester University, but in the book there’s a secret society based in Cambridge. Did you do any research on the colleges?

Not really. Obviously some of my closest friends went to Cambridge. When I first met Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thomson, all on the same day in 1981, I was on tour. I went for a walk around Cambridge with Stephen and of course it was utterly beautiful. I loved it and was a bit seduced at the time. Now, I think they are splendid institutions but I don’t think it’s healthy for Britain that the power is being placed more and more around those two universities.

Global warming is a theme in the book. Is it an important issue to you?

Anyone who isn’t deeply concerned about global warming is an ostrich. Newton said for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There cannot not be consequences for unleashing billions of years’ worth of energy in decades. We have got to take this seriously, all of us. The rich people are going to be in this tsunami, too.

Although as I say in the book, it’s interesting how many super-yachts there are. That is weird, don’t you think? There must now be 10,000 billionaires, and they are all on boats. I think it’s funny but I don’t think it’s a joke. They think, well, my ship will keep me and my family alive for two generations, I’ve got a nuclear reactor and food for 100 years. When the riots were going on in London I bet there were quite a few people anchored in Tenerife. “I’ll just weigh anchor, sail away for a while and go back to London once the police have dealt with it.”

Did you get to keep the Freddie Mercury statue that stood outside the theatre for We Will Rock You, the musical you wrote with Queen?

I wouldn’t want it. I admire and revere Freddie’s memory but I never knew him. It’s in Roger Taylor’s garden, which I believe Brian May is not happy with. Freddie was their brother, they were a collective, so Roger or Brian should have it. And Roger nicked it, literally. He hired a truck and just took it. Phil McIntyre [whose company co-produced the show] was up getting it off the roof and Roger said, “Drive it to my place.” I think Brian was away. So, Roger stole Freddie from Brian.

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You can buy Ben Elton’s new book Time and Time Again from the Radio Times bookshop for a reduced price of £15.99 (usually 18.99), including postage and packaging. Call RT Bookshop on 01326 555752 or visit radiotimes.com/yourrtbooks.