Once the angry young man of comedy, Ben Elton talks to Hannah Stephenson about political correctness and turning 60 as his first tour in 15 years heads to Yorkshire this autumn.
Ben Elton is showing his age. Though looking tanned and trim, and clearly as vocal as ever, he confesses he’s having trouble keeping up with change.
“I’ll be 60 this year. I used to be known as somebody who was opinionated, but I recognised that I was increasingly less sure about some opinions – not obvious ones like supporting the welfare state or enjoying drinking – but just a world where I used to be quite radical. Thirty years ago, I was ahead of the curve on quite a lot of radical things. I was young and on the front foot, but now things are moving so quickly I’m having to catch up.”
As the fast-talking, left-wing, angry young host of Saturday Live in the 80s, he was famed for ranting about ‘Thatch’ and other victims of his acerbic wit.
He went on to co-write The Young Ones and Blackadder, a string of bestselling novels, collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen on West End musicals, and has penned further sitcoms including The Thin Blue Line and, most recently, Upstart Crow, starring David Mitchell.
Today, Elton – who turns 60 in early May – wants to talk about his 16th novel, Identity Crisis. It’s a comedy thriller, in which a series of murders sees old-school detective Mick Matlock trying to navigate his way through a quagmire of politically correct terminology and issues of race, sexuality and human relations – which is largely fuelled by social media and has him constantly treading on eggshells to avoid offending one or more factions.
Elton stresses that he is not Matlock – although there are similarities – and doesn’t agree with the notion that we have become so politically correct that the world has gone mad. “I don’t think PC [political correctness] has gone mad. I believe in PC. I’ve always been accused of being PC. I’m one of the people who half-invented it.
“Thirty years ago, I was accused of being ridiculously pious – we were a generation trying to move on in terms of sexual politics,” he says. “I’ve always tried to express myself honestly.
“To me, PC was always about good manners and a respect for people.”
In the book, thinly veiled parodies of the likes of Germaine Greer, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg dip in and out of the storyline, while the Harvey Weinstein debacle, #TimesUp, #MeToo and even Love Island (which becomes Rainbow Island) get the Elton satirical treatment.
“Personal identity is becoming the central focus of people’s lives, enabled by the internet. I hope people will look back and think this is the weirdest decade in my lifetime.”
Elton writes humorously, as his hero detective tries to identify with the LGBTQIAP+ communities, but hopes nobody will be offended by the book. “We need more tolerance of everyone,” he reflects. “I don’t think people are desperate to be outraged.”
Elton himself is not on social media. “I’d live in a constant essay crisis,” he says.
“If I was on Twitter, every day I would be thinking, ‘I’ve got to feed the beast, I’ve got to write something clever about this’, and I’d be getting into conversations with people that I haven’t got time for.
“If I allowed myself to be drawn into it, I would find it irresistible and I’d be involved in countless debates and endless echo chambers and I haven’t got time.”
He’s divides his time between England and Western Australia, where he’s lived for the last six years with his Australian wife, musician Sophie Gare, and their three children, Lottie, Bert and Fred, who are now at university.
They met in 1986 when he was on a tour of Australia with Rik Mayall. An all-girl Australian rock band was assigned to join them, featuring Gare on bass – and they’ve been together ever since.
With the nest now empty, Elton will be embarking on his first UK stand-up tour in 15 years in September, and agrees he has plenty of material to work with, thanks to Trump, Brexit and all the social and political changes this decade has seen.
“My wife encouraged me to do it,” he shares. “I was slightly worried that she wanted to get me out of the house. She thinks I’m a good comic. And as I spend my life reading the papers and watching the telly and saying, ‘God, I wish I was on stage tonight, I’d talk about this ridiculous thing...’ I thought, why not?
“The nest is empty. It’s a bit funny, isn’t it?
“One moment you’ve got three large teenagers and all their friends galumphing about the place, making toast at four in the morning, the next time it’s just you and the missus for the first time in 20 years.
“I used to do all the family cooking and the shopping. Sophie did the housework. I spent 20 years planning for the week, thinking, ‘Well if I give them chicken on Monday, I can use it for sandwiches on Tuesday and Wednesday’. For years, every morning I’d make three lots of packed lunches.
“But I was glad when I didn’t have to make any more sandwiches – and it’s great to have the house back. On the other hand, we miss them as well and they’ll come back – we’ll see them.”
On the tour, he’ll be doing 80 gigs in regional theatres over three-and-a-half months. The tour will visit Leeds Town Hall in October, with other regional dates in Chesterfield and Middlesbrough.
“I can’t play arenas, I can’t sell tickets like that, I’m not Michael McIntyre. I play theatres so I have to do the dates.”
He seems a bit nervous about it, and groans when I ask him how the writing’s going.
“I’m tense and already aware that the start line is coming, when I’ve got to deliver 90 minutes of a stream of consciousness and thoughts as good as I’ve done before.
“The ego is so fragile when you’re trying to work up new material. I still live in fear of hecklers 30 years on, or just being interrupted in the middle of a train of thought.”
Is he going to offer the same angry delivery of old?
“My wife used to say, ‘You’re shouting a bit too much, you’re talking too fast’. But now she’s saying, ‘You’re getting too apologetic for it’,” he says with a smile. “I would like to think that I’ll be a little calmer and perhaps speak a little slower, but not that much. And I’ll definitely swear less than I did in the 80s.”
He’s had flak over the years from critics, who accused him of becoming part of the ‘establishment’ he once railed against, as he made his millions and collaborated with Tory-supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“I never claimed to be ‘anti-establishment’,” he retorts, although the criticism still clearly hurts. “I have been consistent in my politics all my life. I vote Labour. I believe in the welfare state. My kids are state-educated. I pay my tax with great care. I believe the better-off should make a bigger contribution.”
No concerns as landmark birthday approaches
Elton says the approach of his landmark 60th birthday next month holds no fears for him as he still feels young at heart.
He says he drinks most nights but exercises every day and loves paddleboarding when he’s in Australia.
“I always feel like I’m 21,” says Elton, whose first television success came as a co-writer of The Young Ones when he was just 23 years old himself. I’m as eager, and as committed to expressing myself to the best of my ability, to as many people as I can.”
Identity Crisis by Ben Elton is published by Bantam Press, priced £20. Available now. He will play at Leeds Town Hall on October 16. Visit www.leedstownhall.co.uk.