Profile: Ben Elton: Older, wiser quieter?

Writer and comic BEN ELTON talks with James Rampton

Ben Elton must once have felt like he was walking round with a big target on his back. People would just have to see him coming to start firing pot-shots at him.

John Osborne called him "an irredeemably pleased-with-himself, foot-in- the-door comic." Alexei Sayle said Elton's stand-up act was "like watching a dog shaking hands". Elton himself thought that people perceived him as "a smug git in a shiny suit".

Elton, now 37, sighs as he tries to explain why he has aroused such hostility during the last decade. "I've obviously had to think about it a bit and probably some of it is my fault," he concedes. "The compere on Saturday Live has cast a very long shadow indeed. I did two minutes on Thatch and two hours on my knob, and all people would ever talk about was Thatch. Maybe that says something about Thatch being rather more significant and impressive ... If you're very young and have a great deal of early success, it's going to cause people to raise their eyebrows, and that's very healthy. You shouldn't have an easy ride. But that rather frantic, rather over-energised, rather scared live comedian that I was in the mid-1980s wound a lot of journos up, and it's taken a very long time to get away from it."

We have now. Hold the arts page: Elton is suddenly popular. Critics who panned his police-station sitcom, The Thin Blue Line, when it first came out are now somewhat sheepishly confessing to enjoying it, and reviewers have showered praise on his latest novel, Popcorn, about the link between screen and real-life violence. Even the unlikely figure of Mrs Whitehouse sang its praises in the Daily Mail.

No one is more pleased about this critical volte-face than Elton. "I can't tell you how nice it is not to be slagged off," he beams. "Although you can say, `I had a popular success', it's still bloody upsetting to be publicly insulted, particularly in a personal way."

Meeting him face to face, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. Apart from a lurid green jacket that even John Barnes would think twice about wearing, everything about Elton is likeable. Speaking in great torrents of passion - a favourite word - his lust for life flows over you. He is courteous (he went out of his way to thank the waiter who brought us coffee) and warm (he greeted the actor Rudolph Walker with a long-lost-buddy-type bear-hug when they met coming out of our interview). Leaning forward intently, he considers each answer with agonising care; you don't get the impression of interview- autopilot that some stars give off.

He is also nobody's fool - and this has contributed to his image problem. We don't like our comics to get serious on us. How many other comedians would smuggle into the conversation the following eulogy to civic life? "I do enjoy a well-run municipal facility. I find a clean, well-run bus very invigorating. I find it strange that people sneer at the idea that someone might prefer to be on a well-run bus than in a car on their own."

"A lot of it is to do with Ben's apparent self-confidence, bordering on arrogance," reckons Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC's head of comedy and Elton's co-producer on The Thin Blue Line. "He argues his corner quite strongly, and quite often says serious things. People are suspicious of that. They think, `a lecture's being slipped in here'."

Elton is always worth listening to - especially on the subject of comedy. Not only is he one of very few stand-ups capable of filling the London Palladium (he plays there on 24 November), he is also the author of two of the (equally scarce) classic 1980s sitcoms - The Young Ones (written with Lise Meyer and Rik Mayall) and Blackadder (written with Richard Curtis). For all its initial slatings, The Thin Blue Line also has "classic" written all over it. "At his best," Perkins enthuses, "Ben does the combined functions of half a dozen writers on an American sitcom. He writes very vivid characters and dialogue, and then he's able to `punch it up', too."

A keen student of comedy, Elton bows down at the altar of such shows as Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers. He animatedly contends that "the work of Eddie Braben in the classic Morecambe and Wise years is as interesting in its use of time and nothingness as the work of Beckett. I get quite two-fisted about it."

Drawing on his knowledge of comic history, he maintains that "if you try and second-guess the audience or become fashionable and try to recreate something else - `Oh, Ab Fab's great, I'd better write something about drunk women' - you'll disappear up your own arsehole very quickly. You'll try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.

"One mistake a lot of people make," he splurges on, fully living up to the tag of motormouth, "is thinking that in order to be original you have to have an original form - ie, you can't do a sitcom in a police-station because it's so old-fashioned. But you need structure and form. Without rules, you can't break them. The best anarchists tend to come out of disciplinarian societies."

So all along, the radical was just a traditionalist in a shiny suit.

The second series of `The Thin Blue Line' begins on BBC1 on Thursday. Ben Elton's nationwide stand-up tour continues until December.

BEN ELTON'S TOP THREE SITCOM CREATIONS

1. Blackadder. A masterful performanceby Rowan Atkinson. "Rowan knows how to pause," Elton reflects. "He said after seeing me do stand- up in 1987 that I had enough material in one show to last him a lifetime."

2. Rik in The Young Ones. Rik (Rik Mayall) was the sad, opinionated trendy- lefty student with a penchant for Cliff Richard. "Rik is really original," Elton muses. "Original, yet fantastically familiar."

3. Fowler in The Thin Blue Line. "Fowler (Rowan Atkinson) is what we'd like police to be: honest, honourable, traditional," Elton opines. "It makes him into a completely comic stick-in-the-mud."

EYE TEST 1959: Born in Catford, south east London

1960s: Developed love of sitcom. Wrote ten plays.

Am-dram in Godalming, Surrey

1970s: Read Drama at Manchester University, where he met Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson and wrote 20 more plays. Became a stand-up. Developed his rapid-fire style at the Comedy Store

1980s: Co-wrote The Young Ones (Bafta Best Comedy Award, 1984), Filthy, Rich and Catflap, and Blackadder (Best Light Entertainment Performance, 1989). Hosted Saturday Live and Friday Night Live.

1990s: Novels (Stark, Gridlock, This Other Eden, Popcorn), plays (Gasping, Silly Cow), and sitcom (The Thin Blue Line). Appeared in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (as Verges.) Phew

1994: Married saxophonist Sophie Gare

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