An albatross named Thatch

In the 1980s, he was too political. Now, he's not political enough. In a frank interview, Ben Elton tells Nicholas Barber about the pressures of life as a 'one-person genre'
IN 1985, the 26-year-old wunderkind of British comedy was at a BBC Light Entertainment party. Having already co-written The Young Ones and written Filthy, Rich and Catflap, Ben Elton's face was becoming as well known as his words on the new Channel 4 show, Saturday Live. Now, here he was in the same room as one of his heroes, Ronnie Barker. "Why do you swear on television?" barked Barker. "It's not necessary." Elton was stunned. He had never sworn in his TV stand-up, and said so. "Oh, I thought you did," Barker replied. "Well, have you watched it?" asked Elton. "No, no, I don't ..."

Ten years on, Elton is still upset. "This from Barker...! I was terribly disappointed, because this was a man I respect as an artist more than I can say, and the fact that he hadn't even taken the trouble to look at what I was doing before he threw it in my face..." Elton returns to the question asked. "And I think that's really where the problem comes from. A lot of times people haven't actually seen the shows."

The question was about the criticism he has received: not analyses of specific performances, but passing comments in other contexts, in which "Ben Elton" is shorthand for aggressively political, prurient, possibly lunatic sermoniser. We're talking after the press launch of The Thin Blue Line, his new sitcom, and while Elton would prefer to concentrate on that than on his own public image, he admits: "If anyone wants to defend me from the man they say I am, I'm bloody grateful."

"They" are the press, and a flick through the IoS's library reveals that They have attacked him for daring to get married in an upmarket registry office while professing to vote Labour, for being "sanctimonious" and "censorious", for his "hectoring saws and cynicism" - and that was before They had seen The Thin Blue Line. But if you've watched the repeats of Saturday Live, you'll know that these barbs are stabbing at a caricature, and a sketchy, lazily drawn caricature at that.

There's no hectoring at the press conference, in an upstairs room in Soho's media hang-out, the Groucho Club. Elton is certainly animated, leaning forward eagerly, answering everyone's questions, speaking quickly in several voices, but he is also relaxed and cheerful. He is dressed casually, with a tan jacket over a black T-shirt, and his hair is cropped short. He is a recently married man, with a pre-Watershed show he is proud of ("I've always hoped to be as mainstream as possible") and no ambition other than to continue his current career. You get the impression that he is not ready to break down and flee to Bruges, although he has had a much tougher time in the press than Stephen Fry (who cameos in The Thin Blue Line) ever did.

Do the misrepresentations ever get disheartening?

"Yeahh... you can't cry about it, I'm very lucky," he says when the conference is over. "If people choose to misrepresent you, that's their prerogative, and I'm one of the lesser sins in the media to say the least. But, yeah, oh Christ, you know. If you went on a bus and you overheard some bloke saying [about you], ' 'e's a shit, 'e's a hypocrite, 'e doesn't believe what 'e says,' you'd be horrified. You'd think [high, choked voice]: 'Why are they saying that about me? I never kicked a dog, I'm a nice person.' And to read it in millions of newspapers, and to think that your mother reads it, that's very upsetting. But you know, come on, I don't wanna..."

He don't wanna complain. "I'm very lucky," he repeats throughout the interview, and: "You can't cry about it." He has had an enviable career, after all (envied, perhaps, by his detractors), and gratefully admits it. He knows also that to answer his critics is to ask for more trouble.

"I always say I won't talk about my press, because they say [East End wide-boy voice], 'Come on, Ben, you put your head above the parapet.' I write comedy. I don't think that means I should have to suffer personal abuse, but then they say, 'Well, you personally abuse people in your routines'. And I think, 'Well, yeah, fair point'." He backtracks and qualifies the statement, as he does with almost every generalisation. "But I don't personally abuse people much. Only politicians. I mean, the people who are governing our lives, Christ, you've got to have a go at them."

Maybe you do, but people will have a go at you in return. Five years after John Major came to power, there is still an albatross around Elton's neck by the name of Thatch. "I did live topical comedy, and I did it week to week, and Thatcher was the most significant and dominant personality that British politics has seen in many a long year, and hence, it was all about her. It did frustrate me that I'd do three minutes about Thatch and then 20 minutes about, I don't know, pubes on the soap, and they'd say, 'All he did was Thatch.' But, you know, I did those gags. It's... I can't complain."

For all his achievements - three series of Blackadder, three novels, two West End plays, one appearance in a Kenneth Branagh film, several jokes about pubes in the soap - it's his "little bits of politics" that loom large in the folk memory. This may frustrate or even mystify Elton, but it makes some kind of sense. Even when his material is not explicitly political, it has an implicit political bias: anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic. It's right-on.

"What's curious is that he has this reputation for extremism and intolerance and ranting," says Richard Curtis, Elton's co-writer on Blackadder. "And actually, of all the people I know who are left wing, he's the most well- informed, the most intelligent and the calmest. All he's doing onstage is going for the joke. In all the comedy that we write you push things to the extreme. No students ever did live as the people in The Young Ones lived. No master was ever as cruel to their servant as Blackadder is to Baldrick. So when Ben pushes his political material to an extreme, it's the same as what he is doing with everything else, but because it's politics he comes up against right-wing prejudice."

Today, Elton's principles are about as fashionable as a sparkly suit. In a climate of laddishness, Loaded magazine and Fantasy Football, post- alternative comedians (Frank Skinner, Lee & Herring, Reeves & Mortimer, et al) are applauded for avoiding political material, for returning to the guilt-free laughs of Morecambe & Wise and Tommy Cooper. It's doubly ironic - because The Thin Blue Line has now been savaged for not being political enough (which hasn't stopped it attracting around 11 million viewers), and because no one is as reverential towards the comedy Hall of Fame as Elton. He speaks in awed tones of the Carry On team, Cooper, Eric Morecambe and - more remarkably - Ernie Wise. Wise and Bob Monkhouse, at least, have publicly returned the compliments.

"I was a sort of one-person genre," says Elton. "There's this idea that the Eighties was completely full of comedians doing Thatch jokes. It's not true at all. There were almost none, certainly on the telly. People have said, 'Oh well, there was Alexei Sayle.' I see him as a surrealist. I certainly don't think he was doing political comment. In fact, he's on record as saying he hates that kind of thing."

To be exact, he's on record as saying he hates Elton's own comedy. "I don't comment on other people's comments," Elton replies. "People quote my press at me and I never recognise myself, so I don't do anyone else the disservice of believing their quotes."

The peculiar genius of Elton's stand-up is the same thing that tends to invite assault. We can watch Cooper or Barker or Morecambe, and have no idea what they are like in person. To watch Elton is to believe that he is laying his opinions on the line, that he is the same man in private as he is in public. (It's significant that he is most horrified by the idea that someone will think: " 'e doesn't believe what 'e says" - a censure which would be meaningless if applied to almost any other comic.) This means that to criticise his work is to "personally abuse" him.

It's unlikely that he will tone down his routines accordingly. I mention Harry Enfield's theory that some of the press's vitriol is anti-Semitic. "Yeah, it's a funny thing," says Elton. "He [Enfield] didn't mean absolute anti-Semitism in that, oh, Ben's half-Jewish [on his father's side], hence ... I think he meant that laid-back journalists don't like enthusiasm. I asked him, I said, 'I don't think people see me particularly as Jewish.' And he said, 'No, it's just this kind of ... terrier quality.' I didn't thank him for it, but we're old mates so I left it at that."

The paradox here is that Ben the enthusiastic terrier is also accused of hangdog cynicism, of writing negative, depressive comedy. Again, it is not a charge borne out by the evidence of his optimistic stand-up. "I'm so pleased that you notice that," he says, terrier-like. "Even when I do a critical joke it's because I'm enthusiastic about the world I live in and hence that means getting involved and saying what you think. Cynicism is the easiest, most boring pose on earth. To think nothing counts, everything's crap. And yet, people manage to look so cool doing it. I had this at university. The cynical ones were the cool ones. I've always had to admit that I look like a git. I'm a little bloke going, 'Let's do a show right now! Let's talk about what we care about! Oh, someone's doing a benefit for the environment! I'm there, I like trees!' And, of course, I end up looking like a total git and people sneer, but you can't change just because people are sneering. [Self-conscious comic-bravado voice.] That's how enthusiastic I am. I'm a git even when people sneer at me!"

As well as convincing us that it's OK to be a git, Elton's comedy can make concrete changes, or china ones at least. One newspaper cutting from last year claims that Pavilion service stations discarded metal teapots in favour of china ones following Elton's routine on the subject. Elton lights up. "Oh, if that's true that would be lovely, because that really does annoy me. Bloody tea pots that don't pour. You can't pick 'em up, and when you do they don't pour. It's ... Anyway, I won't do the routine for you."

! 'The Thin Blue Line' is at 8.30pm on Monday nights, BBC1.