In a rundown rehearsal room opposite a housing estate in Oval, Ben Elton is spilling political truths in sharp, disarmingly blunt sentences. He’s been talking for almost fifteen minutes, nearly half the time I have with him, but I’ve barely asked him a question.
Aged 63, Elton still fizzes with energy. He talks on three or four different topics in a few minutes flat, each of which he brings up himself. A lifelong Labour supporter, he has a teenager’s passion for social change, delivered with the authoritative manner of a headmaster. In a few breaths he goes from Boris Johnson to the importance of self-promotion, to a forthcoming major TV appearance (“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that. Is it a secret? No? Shit.”)
“I have always watched my language,” he says when I ask if he worries he’s too opinionated. “We never had the term ‘punch down,’ but I always knew what bullying jokes were, jokes that massaged a prejudice within the audience and got an easy laugh by saying to a large group you can have some fun at the expense of a small group. I’ve always had an instinctive loathing of that.”
It’s true – just last week, he won the Comedy Entertainment Programme award at the BAFTA TV Awards for his reprisal of the iconic Friday Night Live, the long-running television series that made him a household name in the 1980s. The show helped launch the careers of comics including Harry Enfield and Jo Brand.
Winning the award put Elton back in the nation’s living rooms. In his youth he created Blackadder and co-wrote Mr. Bean, but by his own admission, the writer, actor and director had fallen out of fashion over the past decade. The TV work dried up. What went wrong for one of Britain’s most lauded creative exports?
“I had an amazing ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Elton. “If I wanted to do a TV show, I pretty much could. I mean what fucking privilege. And then literally, I couldn’t, you know. I was aware that I couldn’t get a TV gig. But luckily I wrote novels and plays and musicals.
His “only regret” was not being able to land televised comedy gigs from around the turn of the century. “It’s the only part of my writing which is entirely subjective,” he says. “In a novel, or a play, or whatever, I’m obviously trying to represent lots of different points of view. But in my stand up, I’m only representing my own point of view, and I’m kind of delivering my truth, talking about feeling like a fatty in a restaurant or how, as you get older, you can’t get it up anymore.”
“It wasn’t like I wasn’t doing stuff, but I would often watch the news and say to [his wife] Sophie, ‘Fuck, I wish I was doing Saturday Night Live tonight.’”
Recently on Saturday Kitchen, days after his BAFTA win, Elton was being his usual affable self, chatting the ears off the presenters and complaining about how celeriac is a bad replacement for potatoes, when he announced his ‘Benaissance.’ “That’s what some people are calling it,” he said.
Elton’s ‘Benaissance’ begins this week, with his first ever West End acting role in a reprisal of We Will Rock You. Widely panned when it opened in 2002, the homage to Queen proved the haters wrong, becoming the 11th longest-running musical in the world, with performances across America, Asia and Europe. Set in a dystopian future, the musical imagines a high-tech future where all music would be created by corporate computers and distributed to kids via handheld devices. It sends a clear message about corporate greed and the insidious nature of social media. It was way ahead of its time given this was years before the iPod, let alone the iPhone.
“The honest truth is we invented the iPhone,” says Elton. “That’s something [to be] very proud of. But it also presented us with a problem, because the nightmare we imagined in We Will Rock You came true.” The latest version, written by Elton, will have new references which respond to our current technological landscape as well as a smattering of other new material. “You’ll notice a little dig at the state of Britain’s railways. I thought ‘I’m in it now, so I’ll put in a little bit of politics’. Only a little bit.”
He’s spent hours rehearsing with Queen veterans Brian May and Roger Taylor, because his performance also includes a solo song, These Are the Days of our Lives, but he says he isn’t nervous. “I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest song to sing because that disparages what is a ballad of exquisite delicacy,” says Elton. “But in terms of range, it’s less challenging than Champions or Don’t Stop Me Now.”
He has more sleepless nights thinking about the hundreds of actors who audition for roles with him who inevitably get turned down. If someone auditions he’s worked with before, and they don’t get the job, he will “write to say you’re brilliant,” and while he acknowledges reality shows produce good talent, he says we shouldn’t down value classical training. “We welcome the plucky dustman who’s having a crack and if it turns out he’s brilliant, well, great, but we mustn’t use that as a sort of stick to beat those who we have worked with all our lives.”
After spending time with Elton, you start to believe he genuinely cares. It’s a rare thing to feel so strongly in time-pushed press interviews. We’re wrapping up, but he finds time to illustrate how he won’t let his new leading role go to his head: “For me the cult of the director is disgraceful,” he says. “Directors do this whole thing of putting ‘A Fred Bloggs film,’ when they’ve directed it. I think it’s wrong. Charlie Chaplin didn’t do that,” he says through a mouthful of banana.: “It’s where we go wrong in our society – this adulation of the individual.”
- We Will Rock You starring Ben Elton runs at the London Coliseum from 2 June – 27 August. Tickets: wewillrockyoulondon.co.uk