Portrait

A sit-down with the stand-up Ben Elton. By Romy Ash.

Comedian and writer Ben Elton

Ben Elton strides across the foyer of Melbourne’s Sofitel, shakes my hand. He sits down, arms crossed over his chest. At first he speaks with a slow weariness. He’s been doing this sort of thing since he was 23 and The Young Ones was broadcast on the BBC. Even with his cropped grey hair, he has the look of a bored child. He’s here to audition the cast for the 2016 season of We Will Rock You, the Queen musical he wrote and directs. I ask him if he thinks himself funny.

“Well, I know I can write comedy, because, you know, I’ve had a lot of success and I’ve heard people laugh.” And as a kid? “I was never particularly always desperate to get a laugh. But I was a very talkative kid,” he says. “I became a stand-up for practical purposes and it was a very scary and unpleasant experience, as it is for all stand-ups. There’s nobody that doesn’t suffer horrible nerves when they first start to do it. You get better at it, or you stop. When I first became a stand-up I felt sick all day. I wasn’t able to eat … Because you’re going to get up in front of a bunch of strangers who are hostile, because they’ve never heard of you. They think you look like a farty little shit, and they want to shout at you.”

As he speaks, his words quicken. He opens his arms out, becomes bigger, expansive with the sound of his own voice. He’s not yet speaking in the machinegun patter of his stand-up routines but it’s fast.

“I developed quite an aggressive style and I slightly regret that, but it was a hard school I learnt in, the early ’80s punk. We were sort of punk comedians really – and we performed in some quite rough venues. Comic Strip was a nasty place. Those people who wanted to get a word in were hecklers. I didn’t fucking want to hear from them. I’d developed a series of ideas that I’m bringing to a conclusion and the last thing I want is some drunk dickhead spoiling it as I get there.

“I was very successful very quickly. I became a successful comedian because I had a lot of good material. I don’t think I’m naturally funny. I’m not like Rik Mayall or Rowan Atkinson, who can go on a stage and just smile and raise an eyebrow and people fall about. That’s an extraordinary and very different talent to what I have. My talent is all based in ideas. What I’ve got to offer is what I’ve got to say.”

His opinions are spoken loudly. He calls himself a “shouty guy who does a lot of jokes about politics”. He’s got a new sitcom out with the BBC in 2016, Upstart Crow, as part of their Shakespeare season. His previous, in 2013, The Wright Way, was poorly received, especially in the Twittersphere. He says of Twitter, “For me when journalists quote Twitter it’s like quoting a heckler.” He doesn’t want to talk about the new show, as if it might jinx it, or lest the barrage of tweets begin. He says, “Sometimes there’s quite a bit of hostility to anyone who has been successful for a long time, in Britain particularly – you get it over here – but in Britain particularly. It’s a somewhat dispiriting aspect of the British psyche. There seems to be this constant desire to not let people get above themselves. Like a lot of people, I get quite a lot of shit.”

I say maybe it’s about time for the tide to turn, he surely can’t stay out of favour forever? He laughs. “My mother said to me about 20 years ago, when I was about 35, she was, ‘Benji, when are they going to start liking you?’ And she’s only talking about Time Out and The Guardian. Obviously punters either don’t care or they like it. I said, ‘Well, I imagine when I’m about 45, Mum.’ Well, I’m 56 now and it hasn’t happened yet.”

He crosses his legs, revealing shiny R. M. Williams, the kind of shoes farmers wear to a funeral. He says, “I mean it’s funny. Reviewing comedy is very hard. Harry Enfield made this point. He said people seem to get very angry when they don’t like comedy. If they find a new TV drama underwhelming, they’ll go, ‘Oh well, it was a bit weak.’ But if they find a new comedy unfunny, in their view – they get really angry about it. ‘This is shit, how does he…’ ” Elton shakes his fist in the air, as if to say, get away with it.

“The thing about comedy, you have to view it quite benignly, you have to be open to it,” he says. “Something like The Young Ones, I don’t think could have possibly survived in the Twitter age, because within five minutes everyone would have gone, ‘This is weird, I don’t understand what’s going on’… I do think the instant reactions of Twitter are very debilitating for art. I don’t think Hamlet could have survived Twitter – ‘Bored already. Seen loads of ghosts. I saw a ghost in another play.’ Do you know what I mean? You can’t get into something if you’re already reacting to it. I think the world’s going to have to find a way of allowing art to breathe a bit.” And just for a moment, he too stops, takes a breath.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Without fear or favour". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.