Ben Elton interview: the comedian returns to stand up after 15 years

Ben Elton is back on the live comedy circuit. Picture: Trevor Leighton
Ben Elton is back on the live comedy circuit. Picture: Trevor Leighton
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Motormouth is back with a mouthful for the modern world

Arriving to interview Ben Elton in Glasgow ahead of his return to stand-up comedy after 15 years, I hand him one of today’s newspapers. The headline shouts ‘Javid: We have a cunning plan’. The Blackadder catchphrase, part of our national lexicon, is now being used about Brexit, sparking a conflict of emotions in the man who first coined it.

Elton with his Brit Awards

Elton with his Brit Awards

Elton laughs. “Cunning plan. Well his cunning plan is to continue to 
be the arsehole he’s been for the previous 40 years along with Johnson, yeah, they are the most despicable Cabinet,” he says voice rising in indignation.

Elton’s humour was always about outrage at the state of the world and politics in particular, his tools satire, irony and ridicule, and he hasn’t changed.

“My joke about my tour is ‘last time I was touring I was smarter than my phone’ and the problem is this Cabinet are not even smarter than a Nokia. I mean literally, you could find kids in any comprehensive with more talent, empathy and political nous than currently makes up the top five in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. You could form a Cabinet on Love Island and they would do a better job than Johnson’s administration. I am in despair.”

The same week we meet, Elton’s words were also revealed to have been commandeered by Boris Johnson who referenced The Young Ones in Cabinet papers released by the courts.

Elton when he appeared at the Playhouse theatre in Edinburgh, October 1989.

Elton when he appeared at the Playhouse theatre in Edinburgh, October 1989.

“We’ve got the despicable Johnson writing schoolboy bullying snigger jokes on his Cabinet papers, ‘Cameron’s a girly swot’, while British jobs and services hang in the balance. He’s quoting The Young Ones. The phrase ‘girly swot’, I can assure you, goes back only to 1982, and I know because I wrote it.”

Despite his despair in politicians, not least because Johnson missed the joke that anarchist poet Rik was being ridiculed as obnoxious, Elton is proud that Blackadder and The Young Ones had a lasting effect on the English language and comedy.

“You know, the tropes everyone now does – ‘we’re in a stickier situation than when Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun...”

And being a girly swot myself I can’t help interrupting Elton and chucking in: “a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.”

We both snigger.

“It was funny when Johnson wrote that note, but we all just despaired. I hope it doesn’t sound boastful, but I take some pride and some small sadness when I see my lines in the mouth of someone like Boris Johnson.”

“Anyway, have we started the interview?” he says and laughs.

We certainly have, and he’s hit the ground running at the mouth, which is what you want. The godfather of modern stand-up is back and the man whose first album was entitled Motormouth has not drifted off into the slow lane. At 60, he splits his time between Australia and the UK after relocating in 2009 with Australian wife Sophie Gare, and their three now grown-up children, Bert, Lottie and Fred. He’s tanned and trim, the once floppy black hair is cropped and shot with grey, the glasses smaller, but still the voice rises with indignation and mirth as he skewers his targets.

Back in the punk era, it was Elton who put the gob into stand-up and the political satire into 80s TV. Famous for diatribes against prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government, he championed the striking miners, unions and the NHS. Hosting Channel 4’s groundbreaking Saturday Live and Friday Night Live which brought us Harry Enfield, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Lee Evans and Jo Brand, he was the poster boy of a decade of ‘alternative comedy’.

At 23, he co-wrote cult hit The Young Ones, with Manchester University pals Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson then Richard Curtis enlisted him as co-writer on Blackadder (1983-9). As well as TV comedy, most recently Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow, he’s penned West End plays (Gasping, Silly Cow, Popcorn), hit musicals (The Beautiful Game with Andrew Lloyd Webber and We Will Rock You) and 16 novels, including seven number ones. The “most fun” he’s had has been on films, writing and directing Maybe Baby (2000) and Three Summers (2017), and writing the script for this year’s Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare biopic, All Is True.

“Oh, I keep busy,” he says laconically. “Well, it has been over 38 years.”

Now he’s touring the UK with a two-hour show that comes to Scotland next month, his bid to make sense of a world he reckons has gone stark raving mad.

“I’ve always been someone with a point of view,” he says, “but I am more confused now. It’s a very different world. There were things I imagined I would die confident about. Like for instance the idea that facts and truth matter, that debate must be based on evidence and a political system based on the rule of law, debate and rational argument.”

Now, he says, the internet has democratised ignorance, made all facts equal and with a president “tweeting conspiracy theories from the toilet of the Oval Office,” we live in a world he could never have imagined.

“When superstition, ignorance and spite are of equal value to rational argument – indeed more so because as Michael Gove said we’re all sick of experts, we prefer shamans and liars who tell us what we want to hear – we are in an age more terrifying than I would ever have imagined, and I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb, at the height of the Cold War.”

For Elton we’re living in a post-truth, post-shame world with politicians willing to sacrifice a constitution which has protected liberties and the rule of law for hundreds of years.

“We have front page debate that perhaps Johnson will ignore the law,” he exclaims, then switches register from indignation to sarcasm and flickers of a smile lift the sides of his mouth… “Well, perhaps some kids on the street tonight in Glasgow will decide to ignore the law too and steal a TV from a shop. Not that people do that any more, that shows how 20th century I am... TVs what are they?” he adds.

In Elton’s post-truth world, when politics and its protagonists have reached a new low, even one-time nemesis ‘Thatch’ comes in for praise.

“What she said consistently throughout her life was exactly what she pursued. She never changed for short-term political gain, she courted enormous unpopularity to pursue her agenda, an agenda I personally loathed, but I admired her integrity then and now. And there are still politicians of integrity on all sides of the house – but I don’t think there is a single one left in government.

“I admire Mrs Thatcher as a politician of immense integrity and wish we had more like her – but I hated everything she did.”

A little bit of politics there, to use another of Elton’s catchphrases, but he’s at pains to point out that his goal is comedy, not polemic. In person he is more funny than furious, his tone and timing conferring ridicule rather than rage.

“The show will be very, very funny. Because it is all hilarious,” he says. He doesn’t expect to change the world, doesn’t think that’s his job.

“I’m just a farty comedian,” he says. “People used to call me angry in the 80s and I said I’m not angry, I’m passionate. I’m also a bit scared because I’m on stage or live on telly. I probably did speak too fast and I certainly swore a bit much, and I could have made my arguments slightly better, but I’m proud of what I did then and I’ll be proud of what I do now.

“I never felt once the trope of the angry young man and I certainly don’t feel now the trope of the grumpy old man. I’ve always been an enthusiast. We need democracy, we need debate, we need a press, we need the laws. It’s how I live, how I vote.”

But how would Elton vote were he living in Scotland, “one of his favourite places on earth”? He loves Scotland, its lochs, mountains and islands, but what of the different political landscape?

“Well I would be prepared to consider voting…” he doesn’t finish. “Well I think the Scottish have a big challenge because, forgive me and I hope I won’t alienate too many of your readers, and even if I do,” he adds sweetly, “please come and see me anyway because we can agree and disagree, but I personally think nationalism is a horribly suspicious principle.”

For Elton, a discussion of nationalism is informed by his family history. His German-born father Ludwig Ehrenberg and his family, secular Jews, fled the Nazis for the UK in 1939. While Ludwig fought in the British Army Intelligence Corps, changing his name to Lewis Elton in case of capture, other members of the family did not survive. After the war his father taught at University College, London and Elton was raised in Surrey in a secular household.

He tells me the story of a great-aunt escorting Jewish children on a train, all of them machine gunned as they disembarked, and how his family story inspired his novel, Two Brothers, a book he always wanted to write.

“My grandfather won an Iron Cross,” he says. “Twenty years later he was literally on the run for his life with his family, the very uniform he had worn chasing him. That’s what happens when nationalism gets out of hand. Nationalism is a bloody dangerous thing to play with.”

But taking nationalism and history out of the question...

“Look I’d be tempted, seeing obviously the nightmare in Westminster, of course I’d be tempted to be done with much of what’s going on, but nonetheless, for me the risk of breaking up something which has given such security and afforded so many benefits over many hundreds of years... I just know that 90 per cent of the people in Glasgow have more in common with 90 per cent of the people in Liverpool and London than they do have with ten per cent of the people in Glasgow.”

So will all of the political stuff be in the show?

“Some but people don’t want the whole thing to be oh, f***ing independence, f***ing Brexit,” he says. “I won’t have all of that in the show, sorry, I’m wittering on.” Elton’s ‘wittering’ is in fact fascinating and finds its way into his novels, his views on national identity inspiring his latest satirical book, Identity Crisis.

“The comic conceit is Scotland keeps failing in its secession referendum and finally the English are having one. Will England leave the United Kingdom, leaving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together? At the same time people are finding their communities online, an archipelago of virtual communities defining themselves by identity, sexuality, politics, diet. These are fascinating times. But I will be very funny I promise you. We’ve been serious just now but the show is hilarious.”

It includes his humorous take on the social changes that fascinate, confuse and entertain him, from Instagram to identity, to gender politics and sexuality and the difference between hip-hop and rap. He’ll also be talking about being a dad, growing old and losing touch.

“I am taking the perspective now, not as a young person forming the culture, but as an older person attempting to understand it. The title of the show really is, ‘I don’t even get what I got’.

“I always thought I got popular culture. And there was a time when I didn’t just get it, I was deeply part of it. But now I am out of touch. I come from a generation where I’m having to re-think what I know. I find the discussion of trans and sexuality exhilarating and I’m embracing a new and fascinating conversation – but it is a surprise.

“I am extremely sympathetic, but it’s so much clearer to my children than to me. It takes a minute to come up to speed. When we have Caitlyn Jenner, a Republican Party idiot being hailed as an LGBT hero, while Germaine Greer is being no platformed as a transphobic fossil.”

Another theme is the invention of new jobs to replace old – “an entire generation leaving university and starting their own brewery is not a sustainable economic model. Growing a beard and having a tattooed arm sleeve does not necessarily make you a master brewer,” he says, in the middle of a story about a recent meandering pub crawl through London with Ade Edmondson, sampling “decent bitters” found among the craft beers.

“We had a fantastic laugh. He took me to the Tate Modern – I normally hate obscure art, but actually I loved it – then we did something we haven’t done since the 80s, we did a gallon, eight pints.

“I don’t normally drink beer any more, but it was Ade, we were together, it’s what we used to do and we had a very hilarious afternoon wandering across London, having a pint in eight pubs in a row. It’s not that bad – we didn’t round it off with a Scotch – and it was a very good day,” he says.

What were they laughing about?

“I don’t know. It’s like when we were young, The Young Ones was just the same crap we were laughing at off screen.”

Humour has brought Elton new mates, such as David Mitchell, who stars in his BBC Shakespeare bardcom, Upstart Crow, along with old comedy chum from Saturday Live days, Harry Enfield.

“Working with David has been a great joy for me. He has a very special mind, and he and Victoria [Coren, 
his wife] have become good friends. Best bit of comedy I ever wrote I reckon.”

His love of Shakespeare made him the man Kenneth Branagh wanted to write the screenplay for All Is True. Branagh stipulated ‘no jokes’, but there’s humour as it captures Shakespeare, feted despite his modest origins, retiring home to Stratford and his challenging family.

“All the other playwrights and poets of his generation were crazy posh boys,” says Elton. “Kyd, Marlowe, Spencer, Johnson, all Oxbridge, except Shakespeare, and the snobbery visited on him when he was called an “upstart crow” is still visited on him now.

“People say ‘could someone who was only a grammar school boy really have understood the world that way?’ Oh yeah, well McCartney and Lennon were working class boys and they changed the world. Charlie Chaplin understood humanity better than anyone who ever graduated from any university ever and he came from the utter poverty of the workhouse.

“Britain is crippled by snobbery and we still are, and it drives me to distraction. That’s why I love Shakespeare so much, because he was hit by it.”

Elton is very pleased with his latest work, All Is True, not least because Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen signed up on the strength of his script. “They actually told me that, so I’m very proud.

“Yeah, I’m still lucky,” he says of his lot. “But it’s because I keep… it’s what Harry Enfield said: ‘your problem is they all hate you because you won’t go away. Just give us a breath for half a decade or something’.”

As far as his stand-up goes, we’ve had 15 years to get our breath so brace yourselves for a little bit of politics and a lot of laughs. Motormouth is back.

Ben Elton performs Ben Elton Live 2019 at The Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow on 1 October, Eden Court Theatre in Inverness on 2 October, The Music Hall in Aberdeen on 3 October and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 4 and 5 October, see www.benelton.net for tickets