Elton goes forth but jokes fall flat down under

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The Independent Online

When Ben Elton relocated to Australia in 2009, he hoped to rekindle the critical success that had deserted him in Britain.

Now the London-born scriptwriter and stand-up has discovered that he cannot escape bad reviews even on the other side of the world. His new sketch show, the heavily hyped but critically condemned Ben Elton: Live From Planet Earth, has been scrapped by its antipodean broadcaster after just three episodes.

Once celebrated as a king of alternative comedy, Elton's reputation began dwindling in the late 1990s amid accusations that he had "sold out" and took himself too seriously. Yet Channel Nine were confident that the man behind Blackadder and The Young Ones could produce another hit. They boasted that his show, featuring a mixture of sketches and character monologues, would "remind Australians why they like to watch no-holds-barred live television". As part of the publicity drive, a series of adverts ceaselessly assaulted viewers with images of the British comedian's bespectacled face.

Come the show's big debut, however, audience figures were not as good as expected. The start of the first episode attracted a mere 805,000 viewers, and by its final 15 minutes only 296,000 remained. Over on rival Channel Ten, meanwhile, police drama NCIS was pulling in 1.1 million.

Critics pulverised Elton's offering, deeming it "smut" and "dated", while viewers took to social networks to express their own disliking for it in more explicit terms. Broadcast executives gave Elton one week to turn the ratings around. But after coverage of the Christchurch earthquake pushed its slot back an hour, the average audience fell to 189,000 and they decided they had seen enough, half-way through its scheduled six episodes.

One of the sketches that attracted the heaviest denigration was "Girl Flat", which imagined what it would be like if Lily Allen, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse shared an apartment. Beneath a clip of it on YouTube, a comment read: "I'm currently too blinded by rage to find a more eloquent way of saying that this is the single worst attempt at comedy I have ever seen."

Professional commentators largely agreed. "I am stunned there wasn't a press release out at 9.30am announcing its axing," said media analyst Steve Allen after its first airing. "He isn't funny. We have seen it all before."

Elton did not take the criticism lightly, calling into a breakfast TV show to respond and comparing the scathing reception his show had received to the rise of Adolf Hitler. "If numbers are what matter and first-time knee-jerk reactions are what matters, then Hitler stands vindicated," he said. "I do think this idea that something has to be judged instantly sort of gladiatorial thumb up or thumb down is astonishing. You couldn't do that to a good album, you couldn't do that to a good film. And you can't do that to comedy."

The comedian went on to say he was sorry that the first programme had involved a "preponderance of rudeness", but insisted that none of the jokes were politically or sexually offensive. "I hope all my gags are clever, whether they are in the trouser department or in the cerebral department and sometimes those things can be the same thing," he said.

A spokesperson for Channel Nine said: "We are all very proud of the show but unfortunately it has not found the audience we had hoped for."