PRIVATE BEN

Ben Elton has few rivals when it comes to turning everyday intimacies into comedy. But his latest novel is daring even for him: it's based on his own distressing experiences of fertility treatment. Now he talks to Cole Moreton about IVF, masturbation and just how honest an novelist can be
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The Independent Culture

WE'RE TALKING about wanking. I use that word because Ben Elton does, often and unashamedly, as he describes the grim but retrospectively amusing process of giving a sperm sample in an NHS hospital that only has one cubicle. The nurse hands you a little pot and a laminated instruction sheet. You wonder why it's laminated. Then you sit down and wait, with a dozen other bashful boys who are avoiding eye contact.

WE'RE TALKING about wanking. I use that word because Ben Elton does, often and unashamedly, as he describes the grim but retrospectively amusing process of giving a sperm sample in an NHS hospital that only has one cubicle. The nurse hands you a little pot and a laminated instruction sheet. You wonder why it's laminated. Then you sit down and wait, with a dozen other bashful boys who are avoiding eye contact.

Each one takes his turn, hoping the pressure won't deflate his chances. Perhaps he has watched his partner endure invasive tests and surgery, and injected her with drugs every morning in their quest for a child, but the only hope of ending all that suffering is to produce a healthy sample now, in a dingy hospital room equipped with a chair, a washbasin, and a few pornographic magazines. The eggs may have already been removed from her ovaries, ready for him. He may be about to find out that the physical problem is actually his. This is his moment of truth. And time is ticking by, as the world waits outside.

"The worst thing is that all of us sitting there know," says Elton with an instinctive pause for effect, "that the queue moves at the speed of the slowest wanker."

He's laughing and so am I. It could be part of his motormouth stand-up act, which has its share of knob gags, but there's nobody else in the room as we sit on a leather sofa and drink coffee at his manager's office in Soho. I recognise the scenario from his latest novel, Inconceivable, a romantic comedy about a couple trying to have a baby and stay together in the process. The book is full of sperm, so to speak, including the unusual and frankly disappointing experience of seeing one's issue in a sample jar for the first time.

"I've always been under the impression that my ejacu-lation is as substantial as the next man's," writes Sam, Inconceivable's leading man, in his diary. "If anything I might have even flattered myself that I was rather a major supplier. Well, let me tell you, you can forget all that once it's dribbling down the inside of a plastic pot. It looks pathetic! Like a sparrow sneezed."

It's a funny book, but the reason we're both laughing so hard, if a little nervously, on the sofa in Soho is that Ben Elton and I both know from personal experience what it's like to be in that cubicle with our pants down, trying to stiffen our resolve. Our wives have both been through years of fertility treatment; both were successful at the last throw of the dice, In-Vitro Fertilisation, or IVF. We are two blokes discussing our shared experience in quite intimate fashion ("Sophie and I talked about her coming into the cubicle with me, but it just seemed so much easier to slam the fucker and get out of there. But it wasn't easy..."), when the photographer enters the room, silently, to start setting up. She is a woman. His eyes flicker out over his small glasses, and his tone changes. I only notice it later, playing back the tape, but he becomes the professional entertainer again, with something to sell.

That something is a book. Somehow Ben Elton, the best-selling author of Popcorn and Blast From The Past, as well as the co-creator of The Young Ones and Blackadder, has managed to write a funny, positive love story about one of the most painful and damaging experiences a couple can go through. My wife, who was driven to the edge of despair by her own treatment, read a proof copy of the book on holiday and cried with laughter on the sun-bed. "How does he know?" she kept asking. "How does he know that it felt like that for me?"

It was healing for her to laugh about it all, and Ben Elton seems touched to hear that. He knows, because he was there, asking his wife, Sophie, how she felt and writing it all down as they went through three cycles of IVF. He doesn't mind talking about it, as long as we can get a few things clear. "The last thing I want with a big romantic comedy on the shelves is to say it's a book about IVF for people going through IVF. It's no more that than The Sun Also Rises is only for people who fought in the First World War."

Inconceivable could equally be said to be a book about how the BBC works (Sam is a commissioning editor), or just about love (Lucy, his wife, is drawn towards an affair with an actor). Having sorted that out, Elton wants to stress that it is fiction. "The story is not autobiographical in any sense. There's a lot of real emotion in there, they're thinking things I thought, or versions of things I noticed. But as a comedian I exaggerate the horrors of it all."

Which is fine, until it emerges that almost all of the major IVF moments in the book - the tests, the operations, the medical details and, of course, the emotions felt by Sam and Lucy - were actually experienced by Ben and Sophie. The distinction between art and life is not as clear-cut here as he would like it to be. And since we already seem to know so much about the millionaire celebrity that is Ben Elton, it is impossible to read the book without imagining him as Sam. When the character says giving his first sperm sample makes him feel exposed, as though his manhood was being tested, you can't help thinking of the bloke you know from the television - and perhaps experiencing a little frisson of excitement at having discovered how he felt at that most intimate of moments. But then he makes Sam waddle through the streets to the clinic with the pot clenched between his buttocks to keep it warm, and the comic writer has given you the slip.

BEN ELTON was in no hurry to have children. He got together with Sophie, a musician, in 1987, and, like many people, they just assumed it would happen sometime. "We got into the habit of relying on withdrawal. I thought I was terribly good at it, then I discovered that maybe I wasn't. We're what the doctors call non-specifically infertile. We could still have just been unlucky, but it went on for a very long time."

They began to try for a baby after their wedding in 1994. "Within a year we were concerned. We saw a doctor and he said the old thing: 90 per cent of couples conceive within the first year, and 90 per cent of the rest conceive in the second year. So the second year comes by, and we're in a tiny minority. One per cent. That's when it all began: the ovulation charts, the books, the temperatures, the articles and conversations. 'Do you keep your legs in the air after orgasm?' 'Perhaps we should shag on a slope?' You begin to notice primrose oil appearing by the bath. All this happens to Sam and Lucy in the book. Then there comes a point when one of you - normally the woman - says, 'I think we have to accept now that we sort of are infertile and we have to seek medical help and hope we can get through this.' That's a big moment."

And one he wasn't ready for. "I didn't particularly want to face it. I can't pretend that my need for a child was ever as complete as Sophie's. All her life she has known that she wanted to be a mother. I wanted one, of course, but basically I'm like him in that sense [he nods at the book] - it was an expression of my love for Sophie. I have always been fairly non-analytical about my own emotions. I only think about myself when I'm doing interviews, or writing. I tend to just bumble along, and that's how I dealt with IVF -- I just bumbled through."

Exploratory keyhole surgery in Australia, where the couple have a home, failed to identify the problem. Back in England, they became patients at the Hammersmith Hospital. "Hammersmith is a real machine. It's a factory. I don't mean that in a horrid way at all, it's just a big unit and women and a few sad blokes flood through it every day. We used to sit with 30 people, most looking at their own feet, because everyone knows they're in there either to give urine, blood, sperm, or have someone shove half a yard of metal up their khyber."

I ask the former scourge of Thatcherism whether he was a private patient, and Elton becomes defensive again. "Yeah. Look, I'm happy to share this with you because you're paying an interest, but they're different things, my experience and this work of fiction I'm hoping people will enjoy. But yeah, we went, and, as the character Lucy says in the book, you suddenly find yourself saying the very thing we all used to despise Thatch for, which is that this place is highly overcrowded, and if I go private a) I'm not taking one of the very few NHS places they can fund, and b) at Hammersmith all the private money goes straight back into the unit. There was no NHS place available for us anyway, and if there had been one it was logically absurd for someone as wealthy as me to be taking it with the pressure the system is under."

For the third cycle they went to the Lister, a private clinic. "There's no doubt about it, that IVF is principally a middle-class occupation. Some health authorities fund it, but they only fund it once, and other health authorities won't fund it at all. It costs three or four grand a cycle - so what do you do? I'm not going to say to my wife, 'Well, we're not having it, because Mrs Smith down the road can't have it.' You can say the same about a taxi to the theatre, or indeed a theatre ticket."

A cycle of IVF treatment involves stimulating the woman's ovulation with drugs, before extracting her eggs and introducing them to treated sperm outside the body. Fertilised embryos are then returned to the womb, and the couple must wait to see if any survive. If not, another attempt is usually only possible after a wait of several months. It was during their first cycle that Elton began to write notes that would become the novel. "I'm an artist. It struck me as a very interesting story filled with wonderful comic possibilities."

One of the first scenes he wrote takes place at a restaurant in west London, where Sam is having a business lunch. His mobile phone rings and it is Lucy, telling him she is ovulating and he must come home immediately to have sex with her. "Fuck you?" he whispers, "I'm in a meeting." Realising that everyone around the table has heard, thinking fast in desperation, he says it again, changing the emphasis to sound hard and businesslike: "Fuck you! I'm in a meeting." Then he leaves his credit card and rushes home for intercourse, only to find that it is hard to perform on demand. Or rather not hard, as it were."Frankly," writes Lucy in her diary, "I've seen harder knobs on the door of a bouncy castle."

Elton showed the first 30 pages to his wife. "She laughed a lot and said this is fun, but you're going to have to work on the woman's voice because she sounds like a bloke."

For all their shared humour, the failure of that first cycle was a huge disappointment. "We were aware that two embryos had lived, that three- celled life-forms had been created from her and my very being. During the week of waiting there was every potential that they were still alive. And in a humorous but romantic sense we did allow ourselves to personalise our hopes on that first cycle." They gave the embryos names, as Lucy and Sam do in the novel. "We didn't do that again. We tried very hard not to. It was too painful when it didn't work."

From then on, they avoided investing any more emotion in the process than was necessary. "You must resist teasing yourself and joking and imagining family holidays and wondering what sort of colour hair they might have and doing jokes about hanging on - you think of two little babies trying to hang on inside, although they're not babies, they're embryos, but you think of them as people. Before you know it you're imagining Christmas, do you know what I mean? Filling little stockings."

A second attempt also failed, in the spring of 1998. "I'm not sure I would have felt able to write this story if we had succeeded the second time. The fact that I was a failed infertile parent meant I could write as hilarious a book as I liked. Anybody who had problems with that could fuck right off. It's funny; I did feel empowered by our failure. I thought, 'We've a right to write this book. Sophie's enjoying it, she has a laugh, she suggests good little bits as well.' It's not a collaboration - I'm a writer, she's not - but if you have someone you love dearly, they're your best critic and best editor, and she's got a great sense of humour. Lots of the stuff in the book I owe to her. Not just because of the personal research she was doing on it every day physically, but also artistically. We had every right to use our story to create a work of art. Small thing though it is."

Many couples part during infertility treatment, or even after their children are born. "It's not a good thing for people who have a romantic and a sexual relationship. You start to see sex as a means to an end, and, what's more, a failed one. Every period is another great oomph of sorrow as you realise it hasn't happened this month. And you have a sense of ongoing sadness in your life. Sophie and I were at the very top end of luckiness: we had a lot of inner strength, we had a very good relationship, and it did not bring us down in the way I know it has brought some down, in terms of depression. But the possibility was there, my God. Every advert seemed to have a bouncing baby in it."

Sam and Lucy go up on Primrose Hill by moonlight, to make love on a ley line in the hope that it will boost their fertility. The Eltons didn't do that, but they tried almost everything else they could think of. "We had a spiritual awareness of our troubles, but I didn't pray. I suppose I did offer my thoughts up to the universe and say, 'If there's anything I can do, let me do it.' I just sat down and wrote a monologue."

He finished the novel last summer, along with a screenplay version. Filming, under the direction of Elton himself, finished two weeks ago. Starring Joely Richardson, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson, among others, the film, Maybe Baby, will be released next year.

Life and art became bizarrely entangled this summer. "We embarked on our third cycle in January, and virtually as the publishers told me the release date of the book we got pregnant, and our due date was the same."

He had been convinced that their third attempt at IVF would be another failure. "I've never been so surprised in all my life. Sophie had half a glass of champagne and I had a bottle. Then the twins were born nine weeks premature, right in the middle of filming. As John Lennon says, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

He would leave the film-set at lunchtimes to visit the twins in the special care unit at University College Hospital in London, where Elton himself had been born, but three weeks ago they came home to north London. "The first time I saw them without tubes in their noses was pretty special, I must say."

Given that the creative efforts of males are sometimes said to be an attempt to compensate for not being able to give birth ourselves, perhaps he now feels like the most potent man on earth? The suggestion meets with a sombre response. "I don't want to trade on my personal story, but, since you ask, I would not wish to go through what we went through. The fact that I felt minded to use it to energise my work is a very great pleasure and privilege in its way, but if I could scrap the lot and have Bert and Lottie conceived three or four years ago, before Sophie had to go through all of that ..."

He pauses, reconsidering. "We had our troubles. That's really the end of that answer. I don't feel even a smidgen of smugness. It was a hard journey but we've had a very happy ending, at the moment. Next year we may have unhappiness, who knows? We had quite a tough little time there, but we had good friends, good family, and we were incredibly fortunate because we had sufficient money to seek help in a way that many people can't. So I'm well aware of my good fortune and I do my best to assuage that, if that's the right word. If people wanna say he's got it all right now, well, maybe they'd be right."

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