Back on the road after three-and-a- half years, Ben Elton shows no sign of slowing down his rate of output. Mark Fisher talks to him about politics, oriﬁces and damp patches.
Interviewing Ben Elton is easy. A simple. half- articulated question is all it takes to send him off on a garrulous procession of subclauses and qualifications. all delivered in his distinctive motormouth style. a kind of turbo-charged Cockney with a dash of transatlantic thrown in for spice. Coming up with a solid two hours of all-new material is no mean feat. but if there was one comedian to do it. then Elton would be your man. He‘s done just that for this his first live outing for three-and-a-half years and. on the strength of the opening two nights. he reckons he‘s got it right. ‘I‘m really very. very delighted indeed.‘ he says. two nights into an extensive British tour. ‘It‘s always a nerve-wracking time. It‘s always difficult to look at a written page and find out how it‘s going to work when you actually perform it. I‘ve never heard of a comic preparing a new two-hour show without a single word of the old gear. and I‘m very proud.‘
Elton‘s delight is genuine. but he‘s also aware there‘s a PR job to be done. and a decade or more of being in the public eye has made him especially aware of the image he should be be giving out. When. for example. I suggest. by way of a compliment. that his output over the past twelve years has been on the unfeasible side of prolific. his reaction is akin to a class swot being accused by the school bully of doing too much homework. ‘It‘s not actually true. Mark.‘ he protests. ‘l co-wrote the Young Ones and I co-wrote Blackadder and there was a brief little foray into Filthy. Rich and Cat/lap and Happy Families. but all that happened over an entire decadef
Indeed it did. but so did his weekly appearances on Friday Night Live and Saturday Live. his completion of two substantial novels. Stark and Gridlock. two stage plays. Gasping and Silly C (m‘. two years‘ worth of columns for the Daily Mirror. 30 episodes of the arts programme South of Watford. his own TV show Man front Auntie. not to mention at least two major tours and countless live gigs. Most people would be proud of that kind of output in three decades. never mind one.
‘Yes it‘s true.‘ concedes Elton against the sheer weight of evidence. ‘I do write a lot. but as I always stress. I don‘t put in anything like as many hours as somebody who‘s got a real job. Ijust think artists are much indulged. If somebody manages limply to produce a short poem or something. people say you must have tortured your soul. It‘s ajob and I love to
do it — or I‘d hate myself ifl didn‘t do it — but I don‘t work any time I don‘t feel like working. I have more holidays I should imagine than you do. I‘m not this workaholic figure.‘
The other image he is keen to get straight is that of Elton the ranting politico. It‘s not that he‘s making any attempt to ditch his beliefs. more that he doesn‘t want to bear the weight of being anything other than an entertainer. In truth. the bulk of his act has always been the ‘nob and plop“ jokes. rather than the opinionated tub-thumping for which he is often remembered. The point is that in the 80s there was such an absence of real criticisim of the govemment from the press or the opposition parties. that anyone who dared pass comment — and for some reason they were nearly all comedians - stood out from the crowd.
‘I certainly wouldn‘t wish to claim a position as a voice of dissent.‘ says Elton. ‘But I think what you‘re really saying is that there is no dissent and if somebody cracked a joke. that‘s about as far as it would get. The media has given such unequivocal support to Thatcher in the 80s and it‘s only just changing now. without incidentally. an apology. When I see an editorial in The Sun or the [)ain Mail slamming Major without a mention that they colluded with the population of Britain to vote for the fucker only eleven months ago. I do feel that the hypocrisy is almost unbearable. But I‘m a comedian who I hope deals in interesting and valid areas. not entire prejudice. I think you‘re merely talking about the paucity of debate. I do want to stress that I don‘t claim to be a political comedian. I‘m a social comedian. as I hope any comedian ought to be.‘
His new set makes no major departures in style. but Elton is confident that his technique has continued to improve and that. of the eight or nine hours of stand- up material he has ever produced. this latest batch is
‘I just think artists are much indulged. If somebody manages limply to produce a short poem or something, people say you must have tortured your soul.’
some of his best. ‘I must say when I was writing it I was wondering if there were any orifices that I had left unplugged!‘ he laughs. ‘It turned out that there weren‘t. I haven‘t changed radically. I think I‘m a little better at it. I‘m not so scared of the audience. I don't shout and swear at them quite so much. It‘s not all drawn from my own experience. it‘s drawn from my own opinion and my own observation. Obviously. the material is a gross exaggeration. An old routine like Captain Paranoia — I‘m not that bad. I didn‘t actually go on tour in order not to have to check the plugs in my house. but there‘s an element of truth in that. And what I say about sex is a conglomeration of all the conversations. all the things I know. IfI do a routine about fanny farts and damp patches, it‘s about all my experiences and the various girlfriends I‘ve had and all my friends. I look. I observe and then I create a reality. I give you the sex example because I think it‘s important to publicise that it‘s not all directly personal facts, because it‘s a bit rotten on my girlfriend.‘
Australian film-sets. best-selling novels and pro-
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: SOLOMON’S GLORY O PITCHFORK DISNEY O SCOTTISH BALLET
celebrity social circle not withstanding. Elton is happy to say that fame has made it no harder for him. to observe our human foibles. ‘I'm not going to he l doing a lot of routines about flying Club Class.‘ he assures me. ‘I live a perfectly ordinary life as everybody does. Poor old Benny Hill. they had
photos of him carrying his shopping bag and they
said. oh isn‘t it incredible. he‘s a multi-millionaire
and look he‘s got plastic bags of shopping and he‘s walking up the street. Well what the fuck do they expect him to do‘.’ Who would get a butler and make out a shopping list‘.’ Of course he goes shopping? People don‘t have servants and even if they did I
think they‘d still want to do some of their own shopping sometimes. I do have a moderately normal life. And to my surprise. when I came to write this
load of material. I discovered there were hundreds of things I wanted to talk about. be it private and domestic, or about human weakness. You look at
things in yourself and around you and it‘s pretty endless.‘
Ben Elton. Pavilion. Glasgow. ll’ed 24—Fri 26 Mar; Edinburgh Playhouse. Sun 28 Mai:
The List ll -—-25 March I‘M} 45