Ben Elton on 20 years of We Will Rock You, the return of theatre after the pandemic and why he feels immune to cancel culture

With the 20th anniversary tour of We Will Rock You about to hit Yorkshire, an emotional Ben Elton tells Mark Casci of his pride – and why cancel culture holds few worries for him.

If there is one consistency in Ben Elton’s incredibly varied and storied career, it is that he seems capable of turning his hand to virtually anything. Perhaps best known for his role in the so-called wave of alternative comedy in the 1980s that brought us, among other things, Blackadder, he has enjoyed success with stand-up, novels, cinema, playwriting and music theatre. It is in the latter where he achieved arguably his best-known work, We Will Rock You, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.

To mark this milestone, the tribute to the career of British band Queen is touring the UK, with a run at Sheffield’s City Hall planned. Since hitting the stage in 2002, it has travelled to 20 countries and been seen by more than 18 million people.

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Speaking from Western Australia where he currently lives, Elton remains proud of the surreal storyline that sees all music centrally controlled by large corporations. “On a lot of levels it is unbelievable,” he says. “On a purely getting a lot older level, like everybody, it does seem very strange for it to be 20 years old. I mean where did the time go?

Ben Elton looks back on 20 years of We Will Rock You.Ben Elton looks back on 20 years of We Will Rock You.
Ben Elton looks back on 20 years of We Will Rock You.

“But on an artistic and professional and creative level, it is an unbelievable thing that a piece of work that we worked so hard on all those years ago is still alive and still rocking.”

Elton has directed the new production, with both Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen having attended rehearsals to give their thoughts.

For Elton, the success lies beyond the enduring popularity of Queen’s music, which is at a particularly high ebb following the success of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic of Freddie Mercury.

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“Clearly the story resonates,” he says. “Brian and Roger loved it, as did John Deacon, when I first laid it out. They wanted a comedy, as did Freddie’s estate. When we opened, Freddie’s mother wrote to say that it was a comedy that he would have loved. She ended by saying ‘if music is the food of love, rock on’.

We Will Rock You arrives in Sheffield this month.We Will Rock You arrives in Sheffield this month.
We Will Rock You arrives in Sheffield this month.

“The story of We Will Rock You is one I am still proud of. It really is a labour of love, so that is why we always remember what Freddie’s mum said.”

For someone best known early in his career for his high-energy, acerbic, witty and often downright rude sitcoms and stand-up comedy, penning one of the most successful musicals of all time might seem like something of a departure for most.

However Elton takes a different viewpoint. “I have always loved musical theatre and I have been part of a small but very successful movement which has finally kind of made it cool. And now the world has finally caught up.

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“It was never cool in my day but I liked it from when I was a young kid. I saw Grease at the Dominion Theatre in 1972 and I just thought it was the best thing I had ever seen. And one of the most thrilling things when We Will Rock You went into the Dominion was here I was 30 years later with my own rock musical.”

Pictured with fellow alternative comedian Adrian EdmundsonPictured with fellow alternative comedian Adrian Edmundson
Pictured with fellow alternative comedian Adrian Edmundson

The return of We Will Rock You to theatre stages is a particularly cathartic one for not only Elton but the whole team behind the production.

Operating on a smaller scale to some of the larger production companies that stage musicals makes the job all the more challenging, even with the juggernaut of Queen behind you. The team were all set to take the show out in 2020 until the pandemic stopped it in its tracks.

When I ask about the feeling that came from finally opening the show’s tour, Elton becomes emotional. “What can I tell you, man. Covid was, and I have used these words many times, but cultural catastrophe scarcely describes two years without live entertainment. No music, no bands, no stand-ups, no gathering in a field, no singing in a church. They are all the parts of community, singing, and theatre and music – it is central to being human. Even during the Blitz London cinemas did not close because people needed to come together as a community.

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“It was heartbreaking. I can’t tell you the sadness, the sadness for the audiences but the sadness too for the theatre professionals. I closed two shows. This was just a tiny drop in the ocean of all the unemployment and all the desperation. It was a terrible time for artists and a terrible time for communities because those artists serve communities. And actually, theatre is not an emergency service but it is an essential one.

Elton in his stand up hey day.Elton in his stand up hey day.
Elton in his stand up hey day.

“So bringing We Will Rock You back, which let’s face it, is about the need for live entertainment, as opposed to everybody consuming it alone through a device and that we were bringing it back to an audience that had been deprived of it for so long – there were tears. It was deeply emotional.

“When we opened in Portsmouth and Brian and Roger came, and when Brian came on stage and played the Bo Rap solo at the end, I mean, the electricity and emotions. Live rock was back.”

This year marks an interesting time for stand-up comedy. The so-called “woke” movement and cancel culture have seen a raft of stand-ups being targeted by campaigners objecting to their comedy. However, the genre itself is arguably enjoying its most popular period in a generation.

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I ask about how he squares the circle. “You are the first journalist in probably four or five years who, the moment stand-up comes up, hasn’t asked ‘can you still say anything, have you been cancelled?’ So I am glad to see you have noticed that cancel culture doesn’t seem to have cancelled a lot of comedians because they are all over the place.

“It feels like live stand-up was something people were quite hungry for, I would imagine it is even more so after Covid. I don’t watch because I am always worried that they will do something I have been thinking of and their material will be living in my head. Stand-up is very vibrant but I can’t go to a small stand-up club because it reminds me of the grim days 40 years ago as an unknown little farty when I had to pay my dues. If I go out now, it is music or theatre.”

So the most obvious follow-up is, does he believe he, along with the likes of Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, would have become as popular as they did if they had emerged in today’s cultural landscape?

Elton hopes to return to stand up soon.Elton hopes to return to stand up soon.
Elton hopes to return to stand up soon.

“I think it definitely would because we were self-censoring,” he says. “There was a feeling that we weren’t going to do anything racist or sexist. This phrase ‘punching down’ hadn’t been coined. But alternative comedy was about not punching down but looking for new subjects. It’s not like we all had a meeting, there was just a vibe. All the people I worked with were not out to shock.

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“So I have no fear of cancel culture. I will say what I believe honestly and if people have a problem with it, then at least I wasn’t doing it just for a laugh, I was just trying to find my truth in comedy.”

We Will Rock You runs at Sheffield City Hall from August 29 to September 3.