We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk

Mark Steel

I'm sorry, but there's nothing funny about Ben Elton

'Any image of the bloke makes me curl into a ball and scream, like when a spider runs across a room'

Generally, I find it's not possible to maintain the levels of vitriol that propelled me through my teenage years. Except in two cases. There must have been millions who reacted to the 6 o'clock news last Friday in the way I did. There was the "bom bom" at the end of the signature tune, followed by a serious looking presenter under a big picture of Thatcher. I sat bolt upright and yelled "Dead!" Then as the story unfolded, "nuur, just ill and silenced, it's not fair."

The only other person who can make me shudder instinctively as they did 15 years ago is Ben Elton. Any image of the bloke makes me curl into a ball and go "weeeuuugh", the way you do when a big spider runs across the room. I'm not sure I can explain why he has that effect, any more than I can explain why the spider does. But now he's written a musical, based around the hits of Queen, that's been financed by the great Robert De Niro. And the two of them were on yesterday's news, sat together as part of the same team. This is devastating, like seeing your best friend going out with a junkie, or Muhammad Ali joining S Club 7.

Maybe Elton's creepiness flows from his overwhelming levels of insincerity. From Saturday Night Live onwards, Elton has never appeared as if he was saying something because he felt it, but because he thought he ought to feel it. In mid-rant he'd yell "I tell you what they say about Norman Tebbit down my way," as if he lived in a pit village. But Elton's father is a wealthy and prominent history professor. So what they might well have said about Norman Tebbit round his way was "Good morning Mr Tebbit, are you going to the Rotary Club this evening?"

It wasn't his background that was grating, it was the pretence. Similarly, he did a typically convoluted piece one night about page-three girls, then added a footnote "mind you, we mustn't blame the girls – they're only doing it because otherwise they'd be starving to death." Yes indeed. If you want to be taken on by The Sun, don't bother with a modelling agency, get yourself in a Red Cross queue for rice in a village in Mozambique.

Perhaps another key to Elton's yuckiness is he appears to be one of those people who never finds anything funny. Sure, he'd smile, maybe even titter, the way a company director or a headmaster does after delivering a borrowed joke before adding "but seriously...". But he's so wrapped up in his own pomposity, he's the type who should be the target of jokes, not delivering them.

So on that form, we could expect this musical to contain lyrics such as "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike. Because bicycles are efficient and basically environmentally friendly, ladies and gentlemen, which is why we should be able to ride them where we like." Or "mind you, fat-bottomed girls have only got fat bottoms because otherwise they'd be starving to death – my name's Ben Elton, goodnight."

But the radicalism was only ever a left-wing branch of the showbiz insincerity perfected by creatures such as Noel Edmonds and Anthea Turner. Which is why, without missing a stride, Elton teamed up with one of the all-time joke Tory figures, Andrew Lloyd Webber, to write a musical about Northern Ireland.

I said at the time that, although I was never a fan, at least the bloke had possessed a modicum of principles and talent, so whatever led him to toss that away and work with Ben Elton, I can't imagine.

Elton justified this partnership with his usual honesty, claiming that Lloyd-Webber had progressive views on gays and so on. Why didn't he just say he had to do it, otherwise he'd be starving to death.

George Bush must also have progressive views on gays, because Elton was happy to present the musical for him at a private function, completing the journey from insincere radical comic to soulless writer prepared to grovel before the US president. From a left-wing Bob Monkhouse to a right-wing Jeffrey Archer.

Queen, incidentally, were happy to break the boycott of apartheid by playing Sun City. Their justification, like most performers and sportsmen who did the same, was a mumbled "we don't know much about politics – we've been assured this will help break down barriers" etc. They'd be worth so much more respect if they'd been honest and said "Apartheid? I'm getting a farmhouse and a speedboat out of this, why should I give a toss about a poxy township or two?"

So they should get on well with Ben Elton. But Robert, please think what you're doing. If you make any more public appearances with him, at the very least, when he's been drivelling on for 40 minutes, say "Hey Elton – are you messin' wid me? Huh? Huh? You bring me here and this is the show? I loan you my money and the best you can give me is fat bottomed, brain-dead girls? You want to break free, you're too right you want to break free, I tell you – I've had people whacked for less than that, you dumb jerk."