SEARCH:  
Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 21st January 2000

Ben Elton


Ben Elton is, by all accounts, a very nice man. In the course of researching this profile, I didn't speak to a single person who had a bad word to say about him. On the contrary, he was frequently described as "intelligent", "conscientious" and "hard-working". According to his friends and colleagues, he's true to his principles, faithful to his wife and scrupulous about not letting success to go to his head. In short, he's the very essence of a good bloke.

Why, then, do so many people hate him?

Mention Elton's name at a dinner party--even a dinner party hosted by Labour Luvvies--and everyone starts groaning with pain. The response is often quite passionate, seemingly out of all proportion to his faults. What is it about this thoroughly decent chap that brings people out in hives? Somehow the king of alternative comedy, the man who made a name for himself by attacking "Thatch", has become the Noel Edmonds of his generation.

How did this happen?

A good deal of it, no doubt, is attributable to sour grapes. Still only 41, Ben Elton's enjoyed more success in four separate careers than the vast majority of people have in one.

First, there's his career as a television writer. He joined the BBC in 1980 as its youngest ever writer and helped create The Young Ones, a groundbreaking sitcom that altered the landscape of television comedy for ever. He subsequently joined forces with Richard Curtis and together they wrote the second, third and fourth series of Blackadder, generally considered to be best British sitcom since Fawlty Towers. His most recent credit is as the writer of The Thin Blue Line which, while it hasn't received the critical acclaim of his earlier work, has been a huge ratings success for the BBC.

Next, there's his career as a stand-up comedian. At 21 he became a regular at The Comedy Store; at 23 he made his television debut on a programme called Alfresco; and by the time he was 28 he was headlining on Friday Night Live, a prime time, BBC showcase for Britain's stand-up talent. He's still a regular television performer, most recently as the host of The Ben Elton Show

Then there's his career as a novelist. To date he's written five best-selling novels--or "novs", as he calls them. The most successful of these, Popcorn, sold 450,000 copies and came within a whisker of being short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Finally, there's his career as a playwright. He made his West End debut with Gasping in 1990 and followed it up with three more. Popcorn, which he adapted from his own novel in 1996, won acclaim from some unexpected quarters, including Mary Whitehouse and The Daily Mail, and received a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

To this glittering array of careers can now be added a fifth: Hollywood player. His latest project--a film called Maybe Baby which he wrote and directed for the BBC--has just been sold to a US distributor for a tidy sum, guaranteeing it a wide release on the other side of the Atlantic. Will the self-confessed "smug git in a shiny suit" be the first of Britain's alternative comedians to make it in Hollywood? No doubt if he picks up the Oscar for Best Director he'll make a speech in which he first describes himself as a "farty" and then goes on to chastise the studios for perpetuating racial and sexual stereotypes.

Perhaps the first charge that might fairly be laid at his door, then, in the light of all this versatility, is that he spreads himself a little thin. Obsessive Elton-watchers have been known to trace jokes that have made their debut in The Young Ones, re-emerged in a more polished form in Blackadder, been wheeled out again as part of a stand-up routine, then shamelessly repeated in one of his novels. Elton prides himself on being environmentally conscious, but that's taking recycling a bit too far.

A more serious charge is that his work is extremely uneven. For every successful BBC sitcom he's written, there've been an equal number of failures, including Filthy Rich and Catflap and Happy Families. Even the successful ones have varied in quality. For instance, few would dispute that the second series of Blackadder was infinitely better than the third. More recently, the episode written specially for the Skyscape cinema in the Millennium Dome, Blackadder Back and Forth, is as dismal as everything else connected with the £780m folly. I watched it on the day the Dome opened to the public with a captive audience of 2,500 over-excited Blackadder fans and it barely got a laugh.

Still, even if Elton's writing is occasionally mediocre, that wouldn't explain why the mere mention of his name unleashes torrents of babbling rage. There are plenty of hack writers churning out sitcoms for the BBC, yet none of them illicit the furious response that Elton does. What is it about him that gets up people's noses?

One complaint that has dogged him for at least ten years is that he's a turncoat, largely because he's never had any qualms about accepting jobs that seem completely at odds with what he stands for. For instance, in 1989 he hosted Wogan, happily substituting for the television personality who'd become a byword for bland, middle-of-the-road entertainment. More recently, he's been collaborating on a musical about football with Andrew Lloyd Webber, surely a man who, once upon a time, represented everything he hated.

Elton is very sensitive to the accusation that he's sold out. When The Mirror estimated his personal fortune at £5m in 1998 he immediately fired off a letter vehemently denying it. "I am indeed a very lucky and well-paid person," he wrote, struggling to adopt a suitably humble tone for The Mirror's readership, "but for the record I do not have a tenth of that amount."

If that's true it's remarkable since earlier that year he'd signed a two-book deal with Transworld Publishing which netted him £1.5m. It's not as if he's a big spender, either. His well-publicized views about fossil fuel emissions mean that whenever he's in London he travels everywhere by tube.

Another, slightly different, charge is that Elton has never been quite as right on as he seems. When he first appeared on Friday Night Live in 1987, railing against the Conservative Government for it's neglect of the National Health Service, critics pounced on his conspicuously fake working-class accent. They gleefully pointed out that the motor-mouthed, street-fighting comic had been brought up in the leafy comfort of Godalming, the son of a Professor at Surrey University, and that he'd attended Manchester University.

Even today, as a fully-paid-up member of the Notting Hill Gate set, he likes to pretend he's a man of the people. In the last series of The Ben Elton Show he did a stand-up routine about Marks & Spencer food in which he pretended not to know what the words "canapes" and "crudites" meant. Not even the most credulous, lager-swilling Elton fan would believe that.

Still, he isn't the only middle-class boy guilty of dropping his 'h's to garner a bit of street cred. Irritating though this ploy is, it hardly explains the preponderance of Elton-haters. Just why does he put people's backs up so?

The answer, perhaps, is that he takes himself far too seriously. He has a tendency to sermonize that he's constantly in danger of slipping into, even in the middle of a stand-up routine. In some peculiar sense, the funniest British comedy writer since John Cleese doesn't have a sense of humour.

Take the following quote from a newspaper interview in 1997 in which he admitted that he'd never been considered cool. "I have no ability to look cool," he confessed. "I have always known that for what is considered cool, the main prerequisite is cynicism. I'm not going to do something I disapprove of in order to be liked." In typical Elton style, he starts off trying to sound self-deprecating and ends up bestriding the moral high ground.

His early novels aren't funny so much as laughably politically correct. In Gridlock, for instance, he unleashes a hysterical attack against cars. He doesn't like their macho image or their snobby, French-sounding names--above all, he doesn't like their fossil fuel emisions. The hero is a wheelchair-bound scientist called Dr Geoffrey Peason who invents an environmentally safe car and who eventually prevails because, wouldn't you know it, people are always underestimating the disabled.

Of course, Elton doesn't refer to them as "the disabled". He calls them "people with disabilities".

It's this terrible, creeping earnestness that people find so irksome. Elton can't help being sanctimonious, even when he's telling a joke. One minute he's the kid at the back of the class, making faces behind the teacher's back; the next he's the school headmaster, lecturing us on the Green Cross Code.

Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC's head of comedy and the co-producer of The Thin Blue Line, offered the following explanation to The Independent when asked why Elton put so many people's backs up: "A lot of it is to do with Ben's apparent self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. He argues his corner quite strongly, and quite often says serious things. People are suspicious of that. They think, 'a lecture's being slipped in here'."

However, before condemning Elton too strongly for his galloping didacticism it's worth baring in mind that without it he probably wouldn't have amounted to anything. When asked what it is that motivates him above all else, Elton always replies that it's the desire to "communicate". It's his old-fashioned, socialist evangelism, his urge to instill his left-wing beliefs in others, that gives him his extraordinary energy. At bottom, he's a bug-eyed propagandist, a cross between Goebbels and George Bernard Shaw. He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Britain would surely be a poorer place without him.

The New Statesman

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share





Twitter Awful story. A revealing glimpse of what Corbyn’s “caring” supporters are really like link  (25 minutes ago)

BEST OF THE WEB

The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski - the-american-interest.com
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony - jerusalemletters.com
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller - quillette.com
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand - newyorker.com
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge - economist.com
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell - city-journal.org
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander - prospectmagazine.co.uk
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell - quillette.com
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff - newsweek.com
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings - dominiccummings.wordpress.com
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew - politico.com
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus - claremont.org
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman - theguardian.com
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer - conservativehome.com
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan - nationalreview.com
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs - newstatesman.com
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker - edge.org
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood - theatlantic.com
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray - quadrant.org.au
Beware the soft Stalinists of the campus by David Aaronovitch - thetimes.co.uk
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter - conservativeteachers.com
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win - youtu.be
Corbyn's first seven days - theguardian.com
Corbin's cabinet chaos by Darren McCaffrey - news.sky.com
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons - gq-magazine.co.uk
Inside Westminster's free school - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn's politics are a fantasy – just like Alice in Wonderland by Tony Blair - theguardian.com
Robert Conquest obit - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that - news.stv.tv
In defence of free schools by Toby Young - standpointmag.co.uk
 

BLOGROLL

Andrew Lilico
Andrew Neil
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Normblog
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Slate
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone
 

COLUMNISTS

AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
 
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.com


  • IMdb Page on the film