This is Ben Elton, scriptwriter, stand-up comic, novelist, all-round concerned person and lefty. Lefty? See how easy it is to distort someone, to make their sincerely held beliefs into targets for mockery and contempt? If a good comedian is someone who tends to get absolutely articulate with rage, then Elton is in the front rank. But there's something about him which inclines otherwise sober, reasonable adults to slag him off, belittle his achievements, dismiss him as a chippy lefty motormouth who has betrayed his impeccably middle-class antecedents by adopting an all-purpose sort- of-London accent, ranting about "Thatch" and swearing. Swearing! All the time! Fak-fak-fak-fak-fak! Who does he think he is?
It's frighteningly easy to buy the whole media package. Ben? Yeah; we know about Ben. Loud-mouthed roundhead. Politically Correct, holier-than- thou hypocrite. Ranting humourless dissembler, using comedy as a device to assert his dismally conformist, ethical superiority. Millionaire lefty. Can't be sound. Can't be.
And now what has happened? Ben has written a novel. He's written novels before - Gridlock, Stark, This Other Eden - but they were lefty novels, smug-git novels, novels which hurled an endless stream of invective, ranging from razor-sharp to bludgeon-blunt, at targets just too big to miss: air pollution, motor cars, the environment, corrupt politicians, greedy cynical businessmen. Lefty targets. Typical.
But this novel is different. This novel, Popcorn, is dealing with a righty target: the possibility of a link between random, insane, real-world violence and the river of vicious pornography flowing out of Hollywood. And behold: the Establishment press suddenly loves Ben. Mary Whitehouse extolled him in the Daily Mail: "The more people like Ben Elton speak out, the better it will be for everyone." The Daily Telegraph announced: "Elton condemns film violence." "Ben Elton, of all people, puts us right on screen violence", headlined the London Evening Standard, prompting the article's author, the novelist A N Wilson, to drop Elton an apologetic note. You can almost see the Viewers' and Listeners' Association clutching him warmly to their knitted bosom.
Well; we know what to think, don't we? We think: Turncoat. We think: Hypocrite. Let's turn him inside out. Work him over. Shaft the sod. Give me 2,500 words and Elton will never dare to appear in public again. Right? Right.
The Wrong. It's what I am used to finding myself in. Usually it's uncomfortable. This time it was a delight. I should have been forewarned by the fact that Popcorn is not a better novel than his previous work because the target is less right-on. It's better - infinitely better - because it's serious, morally complex, structurally rich, and bitterly funny about the relationship between art and society and the nature of personal responsibility. It's a rarity: a grown-up book, yet written with wit and clarity enough to commend it to a mass audience.
So I liked the book. But we are still talking Ben Elton here, you know, the ranting know-all who wants it all his own way. In the office at his publishers where we met, I realised the truth. The reason Elton had written an articulate, observant, sensitive book about a difficult conundrum of our times was, I decided, because he is an articulate, observant and sensitive man. So I sat there, pleased that I was wrong, liking Elton a lot, and hoping, in that hopeless journo fashion, that he would choose me as his new Best Friend.
Maybe it's because he looks tough. It's important to have a tough friend. In the photographs he looks skinny, etiolated, the school smart-arse with the knowing smirk. I used to think "Ha!" but now I blame the photographers. In person, he looks tough, and compact. All right: short. I'm short. Elton is shorter than me. I like that in a man. He has a pleasant, open face; meets your eye; listens when it's your turn to talk. In the cuttings, he's always quoted as backtracking, qualifying, scrabbling for political correctness, desperate to make sure he doesn't offend anyone (the unspoken assumption being - nudge, nudge - that this is another manifestation of some deep hypocrisy). Didn't see it, myself. Listened to the tape of the interview, very carefully. You can hear it if you like, or you can take my word: Elton speaks in sentences. In paragraphs. Maybe it was the end of a long round of Ints (which is what he calls interviews, so I'm going to call them Ints now, too), but he gives the impression of having mastered that rare skill which seems to have escaped our politicians entirely: the trick of being able to speak and think simultaneously.
The only time he did his offence-avoiding routine was when he caught himself about to calumniate journalists, in the middle of excoriating Oliver Stone - one of the models for his lizardy, knowing film-director protagonist in Popcorn. (For those of you who may have been recently dead, Stone is being sued for $20m by a Louisiana woman, Patsy Ann Byers, left a quadriplegic after being shot by a teenage druggie, Sarah Edmondson. It's said that Edmondson and her boyfriend Ben Darras were influenced by Natural Born Killers; and now the court case - and, obliquely, Elton's book - are attempting to deal with the question: how much responsibility does Stone have for Byers's condition?)
Elton says: "I thought Natural Born Killers (or NBK as we call it, to be cool, because it followed JFK) was a truly dreadful film on a number of levels, partly because it was so boring; but the real horror is that he's attempting to encapsulate the whole liberal dilemma of the artist wanting to basically make exciting, slightly pornographic images, and also wanting to be seen to be a good bloke, instead of just putting his hand up like Michael Winner does, saying 'I like a bit of blood and guts, and the odd tit if I can get it in.' The moment I almost screamed was when we cut from the unutterably reprehensible activities of his appalling heroes, to rain forests being bulldozed and burnt. I presume he's saying 'We're all murderers. We're all rapists. Rape the planet; rape the girl behind the counter; it's all the same.' This, a five-year-old could see through. Then we discover that the cop is a rapist and a murderer, too. Oh, well, of course! We're all murderers! We're all rapists! And his two killers are kind of better, because at least they've got better haircuts. And his bloody journalist ... now I hate ... [suddenly Elton remembers who he's talking to] ... I got something to ... I've got some time to ... I've ... there are some aspects of, of, of journalism that I have no time for ... but, still, it's kind of convenient that this journalist turns out to be yet another rapist/murderer ... It was so banal, it beggared belief."
Though the expression is passionate, the sentiments, while unquestionably sincere, contain nothing which could offend or provoke the most reactionary listener. So where did the idea of Ben as motormouth, Ben as firebrand, Ben as Alternative Danger To Society come from? Not from his scriptwriting career, which, from the reductio ad absurdum knockabout of The Young Ones to the mercurial cynicism of Black-adder, has remained firmly in the mainstream. Possibly from the previous three, Big Lefty Ishoo, novels. But, most probably, the Ben Prob- lem comes directly from his stand-up comedy.
This has been savagely attacked, not least by an erstwhile colleague of Elton's, Alexei Sayle, who has described watching Elton do stand-up as being "like watching a dog shaking hands". The implication is that, just as the dog can go through the motions without knowing what they mean, so Elton has somehow learnt to imitate what other people find funny without any understanding of what comedy is about. It's an accusation frequently trotted out by Elton's detractors, but which, once you meet him, is impossible to take seriously. The man clearly does understand comedy - satire in particular - and generates it almost by reflex. So what is the problem, then?
Elton's own theory is straightforward. "I'm moderately unique in that I don't get any adrenaline buzz from performing at all," he says. "It's an intellectual kick. It's the material that matters. I've never thought of myself as a performer. I'm not a funny person. I have some funny things to say. And in the last few years, a great penny dropped about stand-up.
"I suddenly realised that I was talking too fast, I was too scared, I didn't trust my material, I didn't trust my audience, I was scared, and so I would rant.
"The impression I used to give was that I was a know-all. For years I used to say 'I'm not bloody preaching! I'm not bloody moral!' and after about 10 years of saying that in interviews, I thought, well, if they all think it, I must be doing something wrong. Sure, I'm doing something right because I can fill six Hammersmith Odeons, but I'm also doing something wrong because ... I irritated some people. There's no question about that. But I assumed it was nothing to do with me. It was someone else's problem, based on political prejudice or something. And then this huge clunking great penny dropped: I'm scared on stage, which is why I keep driving home my point. I'm scared they won't get it, so I'd better say it again ... and if I shut up for one second, they'll shout 'Fuck off!' Because the shadow of the gong from the early days at the Comedy Store ... it's a very long shadow indeed."
In Popcorn, it seems that Elton may at last have escaped from under that shadow. There's not going to be a gong to signal failure. The book is less frenetic, more carefully considered than his previous novels. "That's much more what Ben is really like," says his friend the author Douglas Adams. "The trouble with the stand-up stuff - although it was brilliant, and don't forget that it was all new, every week, a whole 30-minute stand- up routine; and there aren't many people who could even write that much, let alone perform it - is that it was only presenting a very small aspect of a very complex, rather thoughtful and warm-hearted man. People just got the wrong idea. Ben is essentially an extremely nice person who gets himself into a lather about the fact that some other people aren't nice.
"In the early days he was basically Rik Mayall's writer. Rik of course was an absolute natural; he'd just go on stage and everyone would laugh. He never had to figure it out; he just did it. Ben had to work out from scratch how someone like him should do stand-up, and the result was that he used to roar along with the knob turned up to 11 when occasionally he might have tried eight or seven. Or maybe even five."
It all seems a terrible bother, and later this year Elton is going on the road to do it all again. I wonder why Elton goes through with it, if, as he insists, it's not for the buzz of applause. It's only afterwards that it occurs to me that he wouldn't be nearly so comfortably off, and the novs, as he calls them (a very English desire to diminish achievements), probably wouldn't have sold nearly so well, if he had just traded under the reputation of a diligent, productive and frequently inspired comedy scriptwriter. This isn't to impute some kind of cynical, mercenary motive. It seems more likely that he's just naturally shrewd, able to see how the world works and prepared to go along with it ... up to a point. (Unlike most of his contemporaries, he won't, for example, do commercials, despite the massive fees he could command for lending his perceived credibility.)
He seems better suited to disputing the finer points of artistic morality or the wreckage of the American dream of self-determination than out on stage, doing his one-man show; and yet he seems to regard the monologue as the supreme test, much as pianists regard the Chopin Etudes: you can't claim you can cut the mustard until you can get out there and do it. Yet the demands of stand-up comedy - not keeping the audience interested so much as keeping it laughing - translate badly into prose. As Elton says, "Until this book, even in the other novels, I suffered from the paranoid desire to amuse ... I'd think, I'm looking a bit of a wanker here, I haven't been funny for a while, I must crack a joke; that's what I do. Who am I to think I can tell a story? I always used to think that I had to sugar every pill."
It might seem curious that Elton regards the points behind his jokes as pills to be sugared. But it was once memorably said that the difference between a satirist and the Emperor Nero was that the satirist burned while Rome fiddled. The image is appropriate; Rome gave the world the notion of civic order, and it is in the civic virtues that Elton claims to find some of his greatest delight, and, in their bitter betrayal, seems to burn with rage. It was at the root of his attacks on the Thatcher government, and of his bewilderment at the deracination of contemporary America, as reflected in the films of Tarantino, Stone and his own imaginary Delamitri.
"My politics have always been about a sense of community. I find well- run municipal facilities inspiring. A bus or a train that's full and clean and on time: I sound like the git from hell, but I find these things genuinely beautiful. And - this brings it full circle - when they say Tarantino or Stone are shits for creating these basically hateful characters, I ask myself, 'Are we getting the heroes we deserve?' Because Tarantino has created characters who are outside society; who do not think their actions are relevant to anyone else; who really live in an elevated sense of self whereby they pursue their sensual desires. They kill people, they take drugs, they wander from one scene of mayhem to another, and it never really touches them. They don't get caught; they never see the consequences of their actions either to themselves or anyone else. And I wonder: if you have the individual glorified above the community year after year in politics, is it any wonder if the individual is glorified above the community in art?"
And there, perhaps, is the answer to the Problem of Ben. These are the reasonable concerns of a reasonable man: art, decency, the civic virtues. Even his notorious "political correctness" (and Elton was known as politically correct even before it was politically correct to be politically correct) appears no more than good manners. But, in the defence of these reasonable concerns - which is, after all, at the root of his comedy - Elton becomes passionate.
We don't like passion, not here. Not in Britain. Hell, we don't even like enthusiasm. We like our comedians either cosy, or detached and cool. Our satirists, at infinite remove from their sodden, goatish Attic forebears, wear suits and ties. In such a society, Elton's public persona simply doesn't fit, inspiring the three great condemnations which define the nature of being English: "How would it be if everyone did it?" "It's all right for some," and "I suppose you think you're clever."
"Don't be too soft on the little bastard," someone exhorted me when I said I was going to interview him. So what should I do? Make it up? No. I was jealous of him, sitting there looking fit and rational in his suntan and his shorts; jealous of his diligence, his fame and his prosperity. But he didn't strike me as a little bastard; more as someone who has committed the unforgivable sin of being rewarded for integrity. If he wants to scotch the mockers, all he has to do is talk quieter, talk slower, and keep on writing the books. !Reuse content