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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 18th October 2004

Gridlock by Ben Elton


Macdonald, £9.99

There's no doubt that Ben Elton is funny. The Young Ones, Blackadder, Saturday Night Live and The Man From Auntie were among the best comedy shows of the past decade. Lately, however, he has been spreading his talent a little thin. Gasping, his stage debut, was followed by the mediocre Silly Cow, and fast on the heels of Stark, his first novel, comes Gridlock, another environmental comedy-thriller. He ought to slow down a bit. At 32 he's already a very rich man. As Bud Fox says to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Just how many yachts can you water-ski behind?

Of course, Elton would never spend his money on anything as unsound as a yacht. A tycoon he may be but a capitalist he isn't. As any reader of the tabloids will know, he's one of the Labour Party's stable of tame celebrities, a show-biz socialist who is seen in public with Neil Kinnock and regularly attends their £1,000-a-plate dinners. But politics is no passing fad for Elton, as it was for Tracy Ulman and George Michael. Behind his funny-man facade, Elton harbours a messianic zeal. He's a card-carrying fanatic, a rabid ideologue. He's the Ayatolla of alternative comedy.

Gridlock is about that den of capitalist conspiracy, that teeming cesspit of iniquity, that well-known centre of the military-industrial complex, the...er...car industry. Yes, that's right. Elton has got a bee in his bonnet about motor cars. He doesn't like their macho image, he doesn't like their snooty names, and he doesn't like the carbon monoxide they spew out into the atmosphere. Above all, he doesn't like traffic jams. Faced with a traffic jam, Elton starts frothing at the mouth with righteous indignation. In Elton's exaggerated, hyped-up view, traffic jams are responsible for the death of innocent babies. In one scene, for instance, a heart destined for Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital gets held up in a traffic jam and the patient dies.

The hero of Gridlock is Dr Geoffrey Peason, a young scientist, who is foolish enough to invent a car which is cheap, efficient and "environmentally harmless". Naturally, when Sam Turk of Global Motors finds out about it Geoffrey's days are numbered. A typical automobile executive, he steals the invention, blackmails the oil industry and tries to have him killed. Elton gets even more mileage out of this by making Geoffrey physically handicapped. It is only because the villains commit the cardinal sin of underestimating the disabled that Geoffrey and his gang of wheelchair spastics are able to prevail. "People with disabilities are very used to being looked through, over, and around," drones Elton. "They no longer find it surprising when it is presumed that they have little or no potential..."

This is all very tiresome and patronising. If I was a spastic, I'd be extremely irritated by all these brilliant creatures in wheelchairs. The implication is that discrimination against handicapped people is wrong because, beneath it all, they're extremely bright and sensitive. But they can't all be Stephen Hawking. Surely, you shouldn't discriminate against them even if they vote conservative, eat whale meat and drive turbo-charged Reliant Robbins.

Elton's sermonizing isn't confined to the handicapped. There isn't a subject under the sun he doesn't feel strongly about. He's like some Student Union bore, constantly getting up on his soapbox. Through Elton we learn that even the most innocent activities are imbued with political significance. At one point, he even rails against the general public for not taking any notice of burglar alarms. "Everyone always ignores alarm bells, which is a shame, because if they didn't ... drone, drone, drone."

Of course, none of this would matter if Gridlock was funny. Unfortunately, it isn't. At one point, Elton complains about the low standard of humour in British politics. Politicians, we're told, are "not subject to the rigorous critical standards of humour by which the rest of us are judged". Yet, judged by such standards, Gridlock is unlikely to pass muster. A large percentage of the jokes are re-cycled, and not just from Elton's own material. The pompous Tory MP, Digby Parkhurst, bares a remarkable similarity to one of Harry Enfield's characters and the black traffic warden---"I am wicked with a ticket girl"---is Lenny Henry's Delbert. It also contains jokes which amount to nothing more than repeating the same sentence with a different order of words. "They had been briefed to pay a visit to a brilliant scientist and inventor. A man who had invented something quite brilliant and scientific." That's simply not funny. Funny, that is simply not.

Elton occasionally apologises for his rather simple-minded, one-dimensional views on the grounds that he's trying to communicate with the common man. But reading Gridlock you don't get the impression that, if invited to give a lecture to the Royal Society, Elton's views would be much more sophisticated. This unending diatribe against government secrecy, party conferences, corporate hospitality, advertising, marketing, sexism, snobbery, and burglar alarms is the sum total of his political wisdom. It's about time this farty came down off his soap box.

Punch, 1991

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