Ben Elton: ‘I recognise Mrs Thatcher was a woman of principle’
At 62, Ben Elton is a grandee of British comedy. He was at the epicentre of “alternative” comedy in the early Eighties; a bespectacled, Thatcher-bashing and hypnotically garrulous figure. His whirlwind, bravura hosting of Channel 4’s Saturday Live in the mid-Eighties was watched by millions, and helped spur the proliferation of the stand-up circuit.
This month, the man who became synonymous with motor-mouthed political humour is doing a West End run. That’s no minor logistical achievement – married to an Australian, he has spent the pandemic at his home in North Fremantle and now cannot get back in to see his wife, owing to restrictions in the region. He wanted to do these dates at the Harold Pinter before the year’s end; they mark the 40th anniversary of his stand-up career. He made his debut in February 1981 at the Comic Strip club. He’s coming full circle.
His face still eminently recognisable, his talk quick and animated, his hair – admittedly – a lot greyer, Elton has plenty to say about his youthful exploits. He remembers the material that launched him – a terrible Ronald Reagan impersonation followed by something that heralded the sweeping away of sexist material of the sort that prevailed in working-men’s clubs and – viz Bernard Manning – on mainstream TV.
“I did a northern working-class comedian skit. I stuffed a jumper up my T-shirt, put on a glittery jacket and told lots of non-jokes about fat women. “My wife’s so fat, she’s enormous”: that kind of thing. It might sound obvious but it wasn’t at the time. I wasn’t thinking it was fashionable to be anti-sexist.”
If anyone was going to do a BBC Four comedy drama about that pivotal time, re-creating Elton’s inaugural gig would seem to be a must – the men’s dressing room that evening included Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, whom he had befriended at Manchester University. The women’s contained Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. “They said ‘come in with us’. I’d never met either of them but from that moment on they became – and remain – friends.”
It would be fascinating to time-travel between then and now, between Elton’s old sets and his new one. The upstart raised in Catford, south-east London, who became identified with an interjected catchphrase – “a little bit of politics” – now has the world of identity politics in his sights.
He says: “I think I’m less clear on how we’re all getting on as a society than I was during the days when Thatcher was re-arranging Britain.” In a watershed moment on stage, he was complimentary about “Thatch” during his new show when it toured in 2019 (“I miss Mrs Thatcher, she was a woman of principle,” he said). He looks surprised that I’m surprised. “I always recognised she was a person of genuine principle,” he explains. “I always believed she was doing what she did because she believed it from the bottom of her heart. I hate what she did but I didn’t see her as personally reprehensible.”
Those days were relatively straightforward. “I regret the fracturing of the left of centre. When I was starting in comedy we thought economic issues were the primary business of the Left. While many of the identity debates going on now are important, in the extremes of the various identity groups – race, sexuality etc – there’s an intolerance: ‘If you’re not agreeing on my issue then you’re worthless.’ The internet has allowed radicalised minorities to own the debate.”
His set is nimble around its thorny subject matter, including grappling with trans issues (“Maybe I’m a man because I choose to be a man … who knew?”). There are areas of crossover, subject-wise, with his most recent novel, his 17th, Identity Crisis, which has a pivotal trans character. So far that hasn’t caused him problems, but he expresses concern at what JK Rowling has gone through. “I don’t believe she’s transphobic or that there’s an intolerant bone in her body. People say: ‘Still, she’s rich’ … Oh f*** off, that doesn’t protect you.”
About censorship impulses in publishing, he’s duly alarmed. “If authors aren’t allowed to think themselves into other experiences, then there’s no storytelling, no narrative. That has to be stood up to.” On stage, he feels able to fend for himself. “I’ve always had a compulsion to express myself.” He smiles. “I can’t deny that I’m a mouthy, gobby bastard. When I’m on stage, it’s my stage and I’ll say what I think. Freedom of speech is extremely important. I think I will always be able to say what I want.” He sounds surprisingly certain.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he survived torrents of personal abuse years before social media platforms became a fact of life (though he avoids them like the plague). Despite, or perhaps because of, his track record as an alternative comedy firebrand, he bears the distinction of having been placed twice in TV’s Room 101. The comedian Stewart Lee sardonically vilified him as ranking lower, ethically, than Osama bin Laden. The disdain began early. He was openly derided by Sayle, and recalls being viciously pilloried in the press in 1990 when his novel Gasping was staged in the West End. His confident persona, and evident success, rankled.
“You could say I’ve been trolled for years. It was f***ing horrible and it went on and on. A lot of people have turned on me publicly, and the only thing they could say was that I was a hypocrite. But I’ve always voted as I speak. I’ve never been as remotely left-wing as some people wanted me to be, and I’ve never been even slightly right-wing, as some have accused me of being. I’m a generally reasonable left-of-centre, middle-of-the-road, ordinary whatever.”
Next year he will direct a 20th-anniversary tour of We Will Rock You, his Queen jukebox musical, which ran and ran in the West End, but received a critical mauling. “It was devastating when those reviews came in. We thought 150 people were going to be out of work, all the effort was in vain.
“For what it’s worth,” he says, his concerned frown giving way to a grin: “I thought my idea was f***ing brilliant.” He quotes the amended lines from Radio Ga Ga: “No need to think, no need to feel, when only cyberspace is real.” “It was written in 2000, and I think it was prescient. Look at streaming today. I think we predicted that people would get music direct from corporations.”
He sounds sanguine. It’s television comedy that gets him exercised when we touch on the curtailed success of the stage version of his Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow, which was going strong on Shaftesbury Avenue when Covid struck. That was a TV hit that rehabilitated his reputation after the brickbats for his 2013 health and safety sitcom The Wright Way, which some saw as permanently blotting a copybook previously gilded by his core contribution to The Young Ones and Blackadder. I’ve touched a nerve, which surges up in a final benign Eltonian aria.
“People said that it was some kind of betrayal, but I’ve always loved the traditional sitcom,” he enthuses. “I love shows like Dad’s Army. When you hear a laugh on ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’ – that’s a real laugh. Studio sitcoms are so hard to do, but they can be fantastic works of art.
“The reaction to The Wright Way was: ‘What is this horrendous artform? All we want is a dry attitude, no laughter.’ There’s such snobbery towards popular entertainment.” A pause. “I think we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” That’s telling ’em.