Ben Elton: Is the former stand-up comedian the new Orwell?
Formerly the 'smug git in a shiny suit', Ben Elton has moved on from stand-up to a glittering career comprising musicals, sitcoms and best-selling novels. But he's still not satisfied
Sunday 11 November 2007
Should I do it?" Ben Elton is asking me. "They're doing a one-off Saturday Live, and they don't want me to compere it, but they'd like me to do an act. What do you think?" What do I think? It might have been decades ago, but that was how Ben Elton first made his name, doing stand-up for and compering BBC's Saturday Live, which later morphed into Friday Night Live. He was the self-confessed "smug git in a shiny suit", with endless gags about "Thatch" and an accent that tried a little too hard to be working class, south London.
"Depends who else is on," I say.
"They don't know that yet, but they'd give me a good spot," he says. "They'd treat me with due respect for what I did for the show in the past and all that."
Ben Elton is no longer wearing a shiny suit, at least not today – he's in a pair of black slacks and a leather jacket which is on the long side of dodgy – and while he's happy to sprinkle expletives about like confetti, his accent is a lot less south London. Indeed, it's acquired something of an international air, a weird North American-Australian drawl – which is maybe not so surprising given that he's married to an Australian and spends huge amounts of time on each of those continents, mainly producing and directing his musicals, when not jetting to produce and cast and direct elsewhere.
Home with Sophie and three kids, at least for the three months or so a year that he spends writing his novels, is in rural East Sussex – not a million miles from Surrey, where he was brought up by his very middle-class, university professor parents. While Ben Elton might once have been, or at least tried to project the image of being a lippy, chippy comedian – a man of the people, if you like – he has always been a middle-of-the-road populist, happy enough to go with the flow, if not lead it. His TV writing credits alone include such seminal shows as The Young Ones and Blackadder. There has been a movie, Maybe Baby, a number of plays, including Silly Cow which starred Dawn French, and not least by any stretch of the pocket, there are the musicals: first there was The Beautiful Game, a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, followed by the worldwide smash hit We Will Rock You, for which Elton wove a narrative around the songs of Queen, and then Tonight's The Night – the same sort of thing, but with music from Rod Stewart.
Dazzled by those occupational bright lights, anyone could be forgiven for confusing Ben Elton with that other Elton – they're both extremely rich, globally successful and slightly short. However, the boy done well from Surrey, not Middlesex, has long had another trick up his sleeve, about which he's also hugely passionate. As he says, "Everything I do I care deeply about and do my very best with." This particular trick is writing best-selling novels.
All of his novels have been in the top 10 list of bestsellers, and most make it to the number one slot. The latest, Blind Faith, will no doubt be as popular as the previous 10, not least because Ben Elton the brand has serious pulling power, and because Ben Elton the novelist studiously sticks to trendy, Zeitgeisty topics.
To mention a few, there was Gridlock, which tackled gas-guzzlers; Popcorn, which looked at Hollywood violence; High Society about celebs and cocaine; while Past Mortem was inspired by Friends Reunited and Chart Throb by The X-Factor. Blind Faith, as if you couldn't have guessed, finds Ben Elton looking at religious intolerance, and the end of privacy, in a post-apocalyptic world.
It is set 56 years ATF, or "After the Flood", and its hero, Trafford Sewell, is struggling to conform while being bombarded with a wall of supremely banal religious fawning, in a society which thinks only perverts do things in private. Screens are everywhere, and whether eating, sleeping or having sex, people are compelled to record every detail of their futile lives in vast virtual chatrooms.
"It isn't about either Islam or Christianity – it's about faith," says Elton. "The idea just dropped into my head, as always. I was having a walk and I just started to think about the obsession with respect for faith, as if the mere fact that you can call something a faith sets it apart in terms of credibility from other ideas and acts of intellect." This combined, he says, with something he's been thinking about for years, which is the end of privacy and the rise of nominal celebrity, where people can use the recording and exposing of their lives, especially physically and emotionally, as a career.
"Everyone's thinking about it," he says, with typical forthrightness. "It's what Jennifer's [Saunders] new sitcom is about." When I ask Elton why he always appears to sway with the Zeitgeist, he says, "Because that's where I live."
He does suggest that maybe he is more likely to be inspired by themes and ideas than characters – which, if you read his books, soon becomes pretty obvious. In Blind Faith, Trafford's swift conversion from functionary to revolutionary is all about narrative convenience rather than personal development.
Yet Elton is very keen to stress that Blind Faith, and all his other novels for that matter, are not simply polemics or extended gags. "I think Blind Faith is a cracking story about something," he says. "The worry that the moment you write about something you are in danger of writing a polemic mustn't stop you, otherwise every book will only be about having an affair in Hampstead."
Though he claims he just writes what he can and what he feels like, a conversation with Elton never strays far from a big issue of the moment, concepts of popularity and his place in the firmament.
"What I think is original about Blind Faith is that I'm not looking at American fundamentalist preachers or mad Mullahs," he says, "I'm looking at people who boast about or feel there's some inherent value in talking about their star signs." He quickly adds, "It's interesting, it's certainly in the zeitgeist. I mean, the guy – what's his name? – Richard Dawkins just did a Channel 4 series, and I thought bloody hell that's exactly what I'm doing, because he wasn't talking about Christianity, he was talking about just lazy thinking."
When Elton pitched the idea for Blind Faith to his publishers, he said it was a kind of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Crucible – about "a future society where Crucible style pressures are applied with a kind of Nineteen Eighty-Four style omniscience". There is no doubting Elton's debt to Orwell particularly – Trafford's disobedience is even fuelled by a grand, clandestine love affair. However, he maintains that he hasn't reread Nineteen Eighty-Four since he was studying drama at Manchester University almost 30 years ago, and that anyway, there's virtually nothing that anyone writes about the future that isn't influenced by Orwell.
"Orwell, I think, is truly one of the greatest writers in the English language, and I know damn well that I'm not." Elton says that Orwell was an artist with a mission to inform, while he himself definitely doesn't seek to do that. Blind Faith, like his others books, he wants to stress, is simply "an entertainment".
"I hope you found it entertaining," he adds. Well... not entirely. For someone who first made a name for himself by writing and performing edgy, politicised comedy, perhaps unsurprisingly this novel is too in your face, too ambitious and ultimately too obvious to be very funny, or actually very original. However, it will still sell shed-loads.
Elton is peculiarly touchy about populism. On the one hand he is very proud of his success, in all his mediums, while on the other he feels both compelled to justify the popularity of his "art", and to point out that actually his work does have real, if not literary then artistic merit. "I once had a very heated discussion with Vivienne Westwood," he tells me, "who contended that if something is popular then it can no longer be art. We certainly didn't find a lot of common ground."
As for musical theatre, he says, "I love it. Unlike most people, or should I say commentators, I don't think it's naff. I don't quite understand why in this country there's this feeling that it's something you can diss. It takes a while for the artistic establishment to catch up with popular taste."
At least the establishment establishment has caught up with Ben Elton. He's best-mates with Andrew Lloyd Webber ("the greatest artist working in popular theatre"), and wouldn't now dream of jostling for a few quick laughs at the expense of either a Tory or Labour politician. "I don't like this attitude that all politicians are bastards. It's corrosive to our national life. I've met some decent politicians on both sides."
Yet for all of this success, and the impressive circles he moves in, Ben Elton remains rather insecure. He claims he never reads reviews of his work, because what's done is done. He says he doesn't Google himself either. "You'd go mad. You'd be unhappy for the rest of your life. Even the good stuff will kind of not be about you, or the you who you think you are. Anyway you won't find the good stuff." How, I wonder, does he know this? At any rate, he claims that "No one I know is irritated by me", and that he feels he's lived according to his principles.
He's clearly chuffed to be asked to appear on that new, one-off Saturday Live, and whatever I might have said to the contrary he'll do it, I bet you, because he's the sort of person who needs to be continually in demand and out there, pushing the zeitgeist envelope. If I were looking for a couple of words – all right, a mean gag – to sum up Ben Elton and his latest project, in fact his oeuvre so far, it would have to be "Blind Ambition". Interesting bloke for a coffee and chat, but professionally, I'm with Vivienne Westwood. He's too damn popular. *
Blind Faith By Ben Elton (Bantam £17.99)
'...Trafford wanted privacy, or even just a bit of peace. Every day he wanted to shout, 'Here's an idea: why don't we all just shut up for five minutes?' But it was a serious crime to have no faith. It had not always been a crime... Trafford knew this because the change in the law had come about in his own lifetime. The statutory obligation to have faith was the very first of the Wembley Laws...'
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