INTERVIEW / Noises off: Ben Elton is back on the road that led him to fame, touring the country with a new stand-up show. Success as a playwright, novelist and comic has not cooled him down, as Barrie Hall discovered

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'I AM in complete control of my destiny. I am the factory owner and I am the factory. I am the machine which produces my product . . .' Ben Elton is explaining how he's managed to stay on top of the comedy wave for the past 12 years. With The Young Ones, Blackadder, two novels and a West End play behind him, he's back on the road.

'The new show is better than last time,' he says. 'I don't feel so scared of the audience now, so I give my ideas more time to develop onstage.' But how will he fill the time now that Mrs Thatcher is no longer with us? 'I'm sad to say that a change in leadership has not led to this government being any less of a subject for bitter jokes,' he barks, going on to explain that he doesn't see himself as a political comedian. 'I can do two hours of jokes about my fridge, farting, limp dicks and pubic hairs,' he says, selecting from his CV, 'and then I do one gag about Thatch and all the journos say, 'oh, you're so political]'.'

Elton is used to being portrayed as a whingeing leftie sell-out. 'I'm just an ordinary guy with a farty little body,' he protests. 'I'm original because I deal in ideas. I'm not a very good performer but I do think I am a good writer. My only professional instinct is to write comedy and my reason for doing it is to communicate,' he continues.

Success, he says, has not changed how he lives. 'Fame is almost exclusively an invention of the popular press. I travel on the Tube. I go into pubs and, sure, people sometimes recognise me. Occasionally they might say 'hello', but I've never had any trouble. Journalists have said to me 'I expect people want to punch you in the face'. Like hell do they]' he shouts. 'People don't come up and hit you just because they don't like your comedy.'

I feel a monologue coming on.

'It's only Piers bloody Morgan (of the Sun) who really cares where Madonna is,' he says. 'I remember poor old Benny Hill . . . they got a photo of him going shopping and carrying his own shopping in a carrier bag and they were saying 'he's a millionaire and he's carrying his own shopping home'. Well, what do they expect him to do? Get a man in a bow-tie and a tailcoat to go shopping for him? Fame is a complete . . . Most of the time I lead a fairly anonymous life.'

End of monologue. He rattles off his words with the energy that has fuelled his work from the moment he first took to the stage. As a student at Manchester University he wrote 12 plays, taking four to the Edinburgh Festival. 'I was then, as now, a farty: an enthusiast scribbling away - a bit of a git.' (Rick Mayall, two years his senior, was among the student playwrights when he headed the drama group.)

He has never written anything other than comedy. Or rather, as he likes to call it, 'serious comedy: comedy with content'.

Elton will soon be seen in Kenneth Branagh's new film of Much Ado About Nothing, playing a comic role opposite Hollywood star Michael Keaton. 'I never used to take anything like that on before because I didn't think I could do it,' he says, 'but recently I've learnt that it can be great fun to do something you're not in control of.'

Many people are surprised to discover that the figurehead of Eighties alternative comedy comes from a well-off, middle-class background. Some have tried to make mileage out of what they see as his Nigel Kennedy-like adoption of a working- class identity. 'My mother doesn't speak the way I speak,' he admits. 'She was brought up in a very different environment.' His mother worked as a teacher and his father was a university professor. 'I don't see why they should get any of the disadvantages of my fame by being talked about.' And he chooses to leave it at that.

Apart from this, he answers questions openly and, he avers, honestly. But he is wary of being quoted out of context and being made to appear a wally (an altogether different proposition from being a 'farty'). 'I could waste utterly and pitifully two hours of my life speaking to Lynn Barber, attempting to honestly answer her questions, and then read an article in which apparently I was trying to manipulate her and she knew what I was trying to do to her with my lying answers.'

It's as easy, he maintains, to misunderstand what he's trying to say in his comedy. With this in mind, he points out: 'You must make it clear that when I go onstage I am making people laugh and I do not ask them how they vote before I do it.'

Ben Elton plays the York Barbican on Friday, Doncaster Dome on Saturday, Lincoln Ritz on Sunday. The tour continues to 29 May

(Photograph omitted)