Ben Elton mauled by critics after getting BBC sitcom The Wright Way badly wrong

 

With its laboured puns and broad slapstick, viewers assumed that The Wright Way, Ben Elton’s new BBC1 sitcom, must be an acutely-observed parody of a creaky 70s sitcom.

But the realisation dawned that there was no such ironic intent, and as television critics delivered a withering verdict on the show, the question now being asked is: What on earth has happened to Ben Elton?

The motor-mouthed stand-up, who battered down the doors of the comedy establishment in the early 80s and made “Thatcher-bashing” routines the stuff of prime-time entertainment, has long since departed.

Elton, 53, the author of 14 novels and the hit Queen musical We Will Rock You, now divides his time between Britain and Australia, where he lives with his musician wife and their three children.

The Wright Way, starring David Haig as Gerald Wright (geddit?), an exasperated local council health and safety officer, is Elton’s first studio-based comedy for BBC1 in 20 years.

Broadcast with little fanfare in the post-10 O’Clock news slot on Monday night, its double-entendres (“talk me through my proud erection…”) and routines about the length of time women spend in the bathroom produced a vitriolic reaction on Twitter.

The opening episode shed viewers whilst it was on air. Its average audience of 2.16 million, whilst the most-watched in its 10.35pm slot, was below BBC1’s average of 2.28 million for the past 12 months. Citizen Khan, another BBC1 sitcom launched in the 10.35pm slot last year, opened with an audience of 3.41 million.

Critics accused Elton of producing precisely the kind of dated sitcom that the “alternative comedy” uprising he once spearheaded, with its zero tolerance for sexist attitudes, set out to destroy.

Evening Standard comedy critic Bruce Dessau compared The Wright Way to the parody fictional sitcom When The Whistle Blows in Ricky Gervais’s Extras.

He wrote on his Beyond The Joke website: “It is easy to knock Elton because of his involvement in We Will Rock You, but that does not explain quite how bad The Wright Way is. It stinks from nose to tail.”

The Times said the series’ fatal flaw was its lead character’s inconsistency: “He is not a character at all but a succession of unusable stand-up routines from a middle-aged and politically disorientated comedian.”

Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent suggested that the show was occasionally “so groan-inducing that you want to gather a mob with torches and pitchforks.” However he conceded that the Gerald Wright character had comic potential.

Could this really be the same Elton who lit a fuse under staid studio-based comedy when the anarchic Young Ones burst on to screens in 1982?

Or the Elton whose crafted scripts for Blackadder, created with Richard Curtis and littered with quotable lines, have become a comedy masterclass for generations of aspiring writers?

Elton’s critical downfall can be traced to the Labour supporter’s collaboration with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, a staunch Conservative, on the Beautiful Game musical in 2000.

“We all felt with Ben that what motivated him primarily was popularity and power,” his Comedy Store contemporary Alexei Sayle said. “But the problem with pursuing that popularity, I think, for him, is that it can never make you happy.”

The comedian Stewart Lee compared Elton unfavourably with Osama Bin Laden, arguing that the terrorist had “at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles.”

Elton said the decision to move the family permanently to his wife Sophia Gare’s hometown of Fremantle in Australia in 2009, was not to escape this backlash but so that their children could see more of their Antipodean relatives.

A comedy series for Australia’s Channel 9 flopped and Elton immersed himself in the writing of his most personal novel, Two Brothers, the story of German “twins” who end up on opposite sides during the Second World War, drawing on his family’s Jewish heritage.

He was “very grateful” to have been given the opportunity by Danny Cohen, BBC1 Controller, to write a new series for the channel and believes The Wright Way has the makings of a classic British comedy, if viewers give it a chance.

“I chose this situation because it offers endless opportunity for logical absurdity and big physical comedy while also allowing for a bit of social satire on a subject which looms large in everyone’s lives,” Elton said.

His ambitions have not changed. “For me the sitcom is the holy grail of comedy writing, the toughest discipline but also the most rewarding,” Elton maintains.

“If you get it right you can become a real part of the culture in a way that other TV entertainment, be it drama, comedy or variety just doesn’t. Think of Only Fools And Horses or Porridge or The Office or countless others.

“Of course that’s a big ambition but you have to aim high, don’t you? You also have to get the chance and I started by saying how grateful I am to have been given this one. Being back in studio at the BBC is a joy for me; it’s where I started in 1981 with The Young Ones and it’s truly wonderful to be back.”

Ben Elton Highs & Lows:

Highs

1981 – Wins compere slot at The Comedy Store club in Soho and surfs new wave of “alternative” stand-ups. Elton’s “motor-mouth” routine, challenging sexism and racism of mainstream TV stars, silences hecklers. 7/10

1982 – First television success as co-creator of The Young Ones, anarchic BBC2 student comedy starring Comedy Store contemporaries Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, which becomes cult viewing. 8/10

1988 – As compere of Channel 4 variety show Friday Night Live, the sparkly-suited Elton delivered trademark “anti-Thatch” rants. Repeated success on BBC show The Man From Auntie, winning Royal Television Society Writers’ Award. 9/10

1989 – Blackadder historical BBC sitcom, co-written with Richard Curtis, ends on a high with Rowan Atkinson and chums going over the top in moving climax to forth series, set during WW1. 10/10

1996 – Novel Popcorn, a satire about a Hollywood director forced to account for the violence in his movies, becomes No 1 best-seller, wins Crime Writers’ Association award and turned into a successful West End play. 8/10

Lows

2000 – Sell out claims begin as Elton collaborates with Tory Andrew Lloyd-Webber for Beautiful Game musical which fails to make it to Broadway. Songs used at 2001 George W. Bush inauguration ball but without Elton’s approval. 7/10

2002 – Critics pan We Will Rock You musical based on Queen songs. “Ben Elton should be shot for this risible story,” argues one. Show becomes a huge hit. “The people who come to the show want a good night out and they get one,” Elton says. 6/10

2005 – Returns to BBC for new Friday night sitcom Blessed, starring Ardal O'Hanlon as a record producer, who is struggling to bring up two small children. No second series commissioned after lukewarm response. 5/10

2011 – A relocation to Australia produced Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth, a “radical” comedy sketch series for Channel 9. Axed after just three weeks when ratings fell from 455,000 to 200,000 viewers. 4/10

2013 – Critics condemn “laboured and creaky” late-night BBC1 sitcom The Wright Way sitcom set in council health and safety office. Opening episode attracts 2.4 million viewers. 3/10

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links