Ben Elton: 'My stuff was so unfashionable as to be morally wrong'
Ben Elton's back.
I’m on my way to interview Ben Elton and trying to come up with questions, but my brain is too distracted by memories: of how my teenage years were so enlivened by The Young Ones; of how I watched Blackadder so often that I knew the scripts off by heart; and of how much I used to look forward to seeing his stand-up routines on Saturday Live.
The interview is taking place in a studio in west London and the reason we are meeting is that Saturday Live, the groundbreaking comedy variety show that launched Elton’s television stand-up career and also introduced the likes of Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders, Paul Merton, Jo Brand and Julian Clary to television audiences (see page 19), is returning for a one-off special as part of Channel 4’s 40th birthday celebrations. The timing of its return feels freakishly perfect.
“The last time we did it a right-wing Tory lady was Prime Minister, we had City bankers coining it, and Cliff Richard was releasing a Christmas record,” Elton says. “Literally nothing has changed in 34 years.”
The return of Saturday Live (or rather, strictly speaking, its successor, Friday Night Live) is a chance, he feels, to settle some unfinished business. “Channel 4 has never really celebrated a show that changed British entertainment,” he tells me. “It was the most influential variety show since Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The world of modern stand-up started with Saturday Live.”
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The original Saturday Live aired from 1985 to 1987, followed by Friday Night Live in 1988, and left an awesome legacy. Some of those who made their earliest appearances on the show might have started as part of the vanguard of alternative comedy, but they are now household names.
“I have a set of friends who all became very famous, but none were famous when we became friends,” Elton says. “I met Stephen [Fry], Hugh [Laurie] and Emma [Thompson] on the same day in December 1981 when Granada was assembling a group of unknown talents to do a show. The show failed, but the friendships have lasted ever since. I’m having lunch with Hugh and Emma next weekend and I’m seeing Ade [Adrian Edmondson] tomorrow night.”
It isn’t just the acts who appeared on Saturday Live who became mainstream. Back in the 1980s Elton and his cohort were dismissed as being excessively “right on” and alternative comedy would be mocked as an alternative to comedy. “Nobody ever really knew what that phrase meant,” recalls Elton “but it did have a meaning. The one thing that was a feature of most new acts coming through in the '80s was an active movement against racist and sexist comedy. We had a new mindset and wanted to find new ways to be funny.” That was ridiculed then, but time has vindicated them.
Saturday Live helped Ben Elton make his name, but the fame came with a price. Too many people saw a sparkle-suited shouty young man banging on about politics, a revolutionary when all he ever wanted to be was an entertainer. They thought he was obsessed with Margaret Thatcher when he was actually obsessed with Morecambe and Wise; they imagined he wanted to topple the comedy old guard when in fact he had written jokes for the Two Ronnies.
It probably didn’t help that Elton, whose mother was an English teacher and father a professor of physics, adopted an exaggerated mockney accent on stage, which led some to accuse him of inauthenticity. When he later collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer and Conservative Party supporter, on the stage musicals The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies, the accusation of inauthenticity was joined by allegations that the Labour-supporting Elton was a hypocrite.
All of which helps explain why, while Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders and the rest are universally admired, Ben Elton’s public reputation is more contested.
It might have all been so different had he never appeared on Saturday Live. “If I had not been given that gig, my whole life would have been completely different,” he says. “I only ever became a comedian to get my writing around and I always thought that the minute I become a successful playwright I would stop this [stand-up], because it’s horrible. So I would have done it less and less. I was already a very successful television writer before Saturday – The Young Ones and Blackadder II had been hits.”
It’s astonishing to remember that Elton was only 23 when he co-wrote the game-changing The Young Ones and that he had already co-written Blackadder II with Richard Curtis before he appeared on Saturday Live. After Blackadder, Richard Curtis went on to write Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and a string of other films, and I had always presumed that Elton and Curtis were both now far too rich, successful and busy to imagine ever working together again. “We were a great team and I’ve talked so many times about doing something else,” reveals Elton. “Not Blackadder again. I don’t think either of us feel any appetite to do that.”
So what’s stopping them from working together again? “It’s Richard,” says Elton “I think I’ve been more needy about it. I’m always the one saying we should try. And he sort of says yes, but then doesn’t because Richard spends half of his entire life working solely for charity, so he has to focus on his movies, and I guess he doesn’t need me helping him with them, considering the success he’s had.”
Elton’s post-Saturday Live career hasn’t exactly been short of success: 16 novels, five West End plays, four stage musicals including the Queen musical We Will Rock You and the Rod Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night, three film screenplays as well as the sitcoms The Thin Blue Line and, more recently, Upstart Crow, which he has also adapted into a play currently showing in the West End.
In 2019, he returned to touring with his first stand-up show since 2005, in which he reflected on how much has changed in culture and comedy. “I think it’s a shame that there are no rules,” he says when I ask him what he thinks of modern sitcoms. “We were so lucky because we had all these very difficult strict rules – ‘you can’t swear, you can’t talk about sex’ – and that meant we had to be very creative to find ways to do just that. But if you’re basically able to say anything, then nobody’s going to bother thinking of any more interesting way of saying it.”
The irony is that, even though there is this freedom to say everything, that freedom is arguably more curtailed than it was in the 1980s.
I ask him if he agrees that these days the left are more censorious than the right. “My wife [he is married to the Australian musician Sophie Gare, with whom he has three grown-up children] came up with a good observation the other day,” he says. “She said our generation was all about breaking rules and it seems like the younger generation is all about making rules: these are things you can no longer say, these are things you should now be saying. There is a whiff of Maoism in the air, the whiff of cultural revolution. There is now a new way of thinking, and you will be required to think it. Much of these new ideas I like, but I’m slightly worried about being told I have to.”
He then adds that I shouldn’t assume any of this means he is anti-woke. Nor should I assume that he is a curmudgeon who believes everything new is rubbish. He loved The Office, but is less enamoured of what followed in its wake.
“The idea that the only legitimate way to be amusing is to be underplayed and wry and basically do a sub-Gervais is a very corrosive attitude,” he says. “Comedy that admits that its purpose is to make you laugh went badly out of fashion, and I suffered terribly for that. Some of my stuff maybe wasn’t that good, but it was castigated because it was so unfashionable as to be deeply, morally wrong.”
In other interviews that I have read, Elton is often described as being brittle and defensive, and there are flashes of that today – defending criticisms I have not made and answering questions I have not asked, for instance. “I just got a lot of s**t,” he says. “I could never do an interview without being asked, ‘So are you a sellout?’ ”
I haven’t used that word in this whole conversation, I tell him. “No, but I’m talking about what happened in the old days,” he says. “It’s only relatively recently that I have not been answering for some supposed crime which I know I didn’t commit.”
I tell him that he reminds me of Paul McCartney: a slightly needy desire to please, a preference for hummable melodic tunes and a lack of cynicism meant that he was never viewed as the cool one or accorded the respect the more abrasive John Lennon was given. He doesn’t baulk at the comparison. “That’s why people always thought Alexei Sayle was so special – because he was rude to everyone,” he says. “I always want to be nice. I am like Paul, I’ll try to be polite. Farties never get to be thought cool.”
When he first appeared on Saturday Live, Ben Elton was in his mid-20s and represented the future of comedy. He returns to the show as a 63-year-old – does he worry about trying to stay relevant? “I had my chance to make an influence,” he says.
“I take great pride that the language of The Young Ones and Blackadder is still part of the culture to this day, but nothing I write now will enter the language. No act I do will be considered cutting edge because I’ll never be young again. I’ll never be the game-changer
I was, so I’ll just carry on expressing myself as honestly as possible and trying to find as large an audience as I can.”
In recent years that audience has, much to his evident delight, started to change. “I was used to going to the stage door and seeing people who were my age, but suddenly there are the 50- and 60-year-olds, but they’ve brought their children to the show,” he says. “That was joyful to me. To realise you can still be relevant and amusing to younger people is a lovely thing to imagine.”
Joyful and, I suspect, deliciously vindicating to know that after all these years his work is enjoyed and respected, not only by the ageing members of his own generation but also by their young ones.
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This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. If you're looking for something to watch, check out our TV Guide.
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