Ben Elton recently turned 60. For a man who made his name storming the barricades of British television with an anarchic student sitcom called The Young Ones, that can’t help but give cause for reflection.
‘Life is a concertina, isn’t it?’ he muses. ‘When you’re young, every day feels like a year, and when you’re old, every year feels like a day. The concertina is stretched at arms length in the early years, but by the time you get to my age, it’s squeezed pretty close, and time flies.’
As if to illustrate the point, Elton's new 53-date stand-up tour is his first for 15 years. ‘When I last toured, my kids were toddlers and I was doing nappy jokes,’ he says. ‘Now they’ve all left home – I’m an empty nest comedian. As far as my kids are concerned, it’s literally a lifetime.’
Is he nervous about stepping back into the ring after such a long lay-off?
‘I can’t think of a time I’ve felt more challenged since I started as a comedian in 1981, when I had it all to prove,’ he admits. ‘I sort of feel I’ve got it all to prove again. And it’s nerve-wracking enough to be thinking: can I still do this? Is anybody interested? But added to that is the fact the world has changed so radically. All the old certainties that we thought were solid – the primacy of the welfare state, the idea that we all cared about each other – have slowly but surely been dismantled.’
In the PR blurb for the tour, we’re promised that Elton will ‘try to make sense’ of this perplexing new world. Good luck with that…
‘Well, exactly,’ he says. ‘I’m going to have to admit that I used to sort of get things, but now I don’t even get what I used to get. I’m getting more confused retrospectively. I don’t want your readers thinking, oh Ben’s trying to sort out Trump, or Brexit. I’m just another confused farty individual trying to get through life. But we live in interesting times, to say the least, and there’s a certain expectation on me to have a view.’
Naturally: back in the 80s, when Elton was in the vanguard of a new generation of comics who were left-wing and right-on, ‘a little bit of politics’ was practically his catchphrase – albeit one he was never entirely comfortable with.
‘I’ve always said, I’m not a political comedian, I’m a comedian who does a bit of politics. I know it’s a cliché, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and the first impression people had of me was the bloke on [Channel 4 alternative comedy showcase] Saturday Live – young, serious, doing topical material in divided times. Of course I was going to talk about Thatch, and of course I was shouting and ranting, because I was nervous.
‘And 35 years on, that’s still what people remember. So in some ways I regret it. Even now, after 16 novels, if I publish a new book some reviewer will say, “Loud-mouthed leftie comedian writes novel”, rather than “Novelist occasionally does a bit of stand-up”. I’m deeply grateful that I got that wonderful opportunity, and I’m proud of the material I did. But it’s defined me in a way that I don’t think is quite who I am.’
Over the years, he’s grown used to critics blowing hot and cold: while the reputations of The Young Ones (co-written with Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer) and Blackadder (he replaced Rowan Atkinson as Richard Curtis’ co-writer after the misfiring first series) have only grown over time, it’s fair to say his theatre work – including the Queen musical We Will Rock You and the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies – has been less feted. The negative reaction to his 2013 sitcom The Wright Way, meanwhile, led him to question whether he might have had his time as a TV scriptwriter – until the success of his brilliant Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow proved otherwise.
‘I wouldn’t say it was a comeback, because I never stop,’ he explains. ‘I’ll keep writing, even if only three people buy my novels. I have an on-going desire to create. But the Holy Grail of the British comedy writer, certainly of my generation, is to have a sitcom on the BBC. The British studio sitcom is something I have loved all my life. I was brought up in the 70s, on Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads… Even the sort of naff ones were fun, and inclusive. They gave us a feeling of community, and I loved them.
‘When The Wright Stuff was castigated, I thought: oh well, you win some, you lose some. And in that respect, in the world of television, I thought I’d had my dash, yeah. And I was bloody grateful for it – the BBC doesn’t owe me a living. Nobody owes me a living.
‘But I do find cultural snobbery deeply irritating,’ he adds. ‘I find the whole concept of the guilty pleasure pathetic. If it’s a pleasure, there’s nothing guilty about it. I can remember when Kylie was considered a guilty pleasure. I can remember when ABBA were considered a guilty pleasure! If you want to know what critics will be lauding in 25 years’ time, look at what’s popular now.
‘I’ve always sought a larger audience, and We Will Rock You is something I’m deeply proud of. It was the right show for Queen. It’s uplifting, it makes you feel good, people get up at the end and wave their arms, and there’s a big place in life for that.
‘I’m not some kind of rabid populist that thinks just because lots of people like it, it must be good. That way, Hitler stands vindicated. But I also feel very, very angry about the opposite idea, which is that if lots of people like something, it must be suspect. That, I’m afraid to say, is a curse and a cancer of British arts, and has been for as long as we can remember.’
Of everything he’s done, perhaps the most enduring moment of Elton's career remains those final, devastating minutes of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which our valiant heroes go over the top and charge headlong into the smoke and fire of no man’s land.
‘It’s extraordinary,’ he says. ‘Not many people get to be part of something that has entered the culture in that way. But it was a team effort: Richard and I wrote it, the cast were sublime, and it was [producer] John Lloyd and [director] Richard Bowden’s idea to fade to the poppies. That was their thing.
‘At the risk of sounding horribly cheesy, both my grandparents were Word War I veterans, on either side. My father’s father won an Iron Cross on the German side, and was then chased from Germany [along with Elton's father Lewis] for being a Jew. That’s the irony of history. But we wrote that with deep respect, and obviously the reason it resonates is because we still have the collective knowledge of the horror, and the extraordinary sacrifice, of that war. And the fact that people remember it the way they do is a tribute to the spirit of that generation.’
As well as writing those 16 novels – typically addressing such hot button topics of the day as pollution (Stark), screen violence (Popcorn) and, in the case of the recent Identity Crisis, ID politics and social media outrage – Elton has spent the last quarter of a century shuttling between homes in Sussex and Fremantle, Western Australia.
‘I’ve been married to an Australian for 25 years, so I live a half-and-half life,’ he explains. ‘I went on tour there in 1986 with Rik Mayall and, because the unions were strong then, they insisted on two Australians for every ‘Pom’ on the bill. So they booked an all-girl band as a support act, which was obviously an exciting prospect, and I ended up marrying the bass player. So that’s how my life took this strange turn. As George Michael said, “Turn a different corner and we never would have met...”
‘It’s been fabulous,’ he adds, of life with Sophie Gare and their children, 20-year-old twins Lottie and Bert and 18-year-old Fred. ‘But also inconvenient. Politically, I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to fall in love with an Australian these days because, I can’t deny it, it’s involved a lot of flying.’
As for his then-touring partner – a friend since their days studying drama at Manchester University together – he still hasn’t got over losing Rik five years ago.
‘Rik’s was the first truly significant death in my life,’ he says. ‘I miss him most days. I’ve got the old tour posters all around my house. His death was a great bereavement for all of us – those who knew him, and those who didn’t. And I was fortunate enough to know him. Rik and I shared a lot of our early adulthood together. Those years, they were so vibrant and, as I say, they seemed so long.’
But they couldn’t last forever. Because, if the old song taught us anything, it’s that no-one gets to be the young ones very long.
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 5 September, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend