My name is Ben Elton. Sorry if I offended you

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years ago, I was working on a book that was to become one of the biggest sellers of the Eighties. It was called Bachelor Boys, I was its editor and the three authors with whom I was working were Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer. We have all gone our different ways since then, but it occurred to me, watching last week's Parkinson,that none of us has had a career quite as odd, andyet perfectly of its time, as Ben Elton.

Fifteen years ago, I was working on a book that was to become one of the biggest sellers of the Eighties. It was called Bachelor Boys, I was its editor and the three authors with whom I was working were Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer. We have all gone our different ways since then, but it occurred to me, watching last week's Parkinson,that none of us has had a career quite as odd, andyet perfectly of its time, as Ben Elton.

Bachelor Boys was something of a dream project, largely thanks to Ben. Although it was a spin-off from the TV series The Young Ones, the authors had resolved, with the integrity that marked that era of alternative comedy, not to put out a quick rip-off, but to write a real book consisting entirely of new material.

Each of them contributed about the same amount to the final volume, but Ben Elton's approach was unusual. He produced a mass of widely varying material, about a third of which was brilliant and unusual, a third usable and a third, to put it kindly, considerably wide of the mark.

I was worried by the idea of simply dumping these pages and discussed the problem with Rik Mayall. "Ben won't even notice it's gone," he said. "By now he will have forgotten that he wrote it." He was right. Today, in a bottom drawer somewhere, I have an unpublished Ben Elton manuscript gathering dust.

His subsequent career has been peculiarly fascinating. Novelist, playwright, film director, librettist: it seemed that you only had to turn your back on him for a couple of minutes for Ben Elton to reinvent himself in a new guise, for ever onward and for ever upward.

To most writers - the starers out of the window, the toe-in-water merchants, the fiddlers and redrafters - this relentless fecundity is suspect. Nothing truly lasting, we like to think, can be written with such facility.

Awkwardly, a powerful refutation of this theory is to be found down the roadfrom where the Elton and Lloyd Webber musical The Beautiful Game is to be shown. In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a one-man show written by Peter Ackroyd and performed by Simon Callow, the connection between productivity on the one hand and literary genius on the other is firmly established.

Some may say that Dickens is an exception to every rule, but, as the critic and novelist Cynthia Ozick argues persuasively in her book Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character, the great are usually prolific: "There is no question that quantity - added, of course, to genius - is what separates major writers from minor ones."

So why, in spite of all those happy memories, do I experience a lurch of irritation when I see Ben sitting between Lloyd Webber and David Ginola on Parkinson? It is because, over the years, he has become a cautious writer - a brilliant man who has hobbled himself by a fretful anxiety to please. His subjects have been impeccably on message - the environment, violence, the family. Not once has he used his astonishing, clear-eyed talent to go out on a limb, to dare not to be loved.

His interviews have become an agony to watch as he desperately seeks to please, often qualifying what he has just said in the fear that he may just have caused some small offence to someone. Last week, having told a funny story about his terror of doing stand-up at the Bradford Theatre, he quickly reassured us that he had absolutely nothing against the Bradford Theatre, which was always a marvellous place.

So here comes The Beautiful Game, a glittering, money-making celebration of youth, hope and football, but set, with that deft, Eltonian nod in the direction of seriousness, in Northern Ireland. Doubtless, it will be a crowd-pleaser. I just wish that it was written by somebody else.

terblacker@aol.com

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