INTERVIEW: Ben Elton
Over three decades ago, Ben Elton stormed onto the national stage as the electrifying host of Channel 4’s pioneering programme, Saturday Live. Now, after a 15-year gap, Ben is coming back to the medium he was so instrumental in shaping. The ground-breaking comic will be touring the country with an all-new stand-up show – Ben Elton Live 2019 – in which he attempts to make sense of a world which may well be clinically insane.
His 66-date tour begins in Dublin on 27 September and then visits every corner of the UK, ending in Stevenage on 20 December. So let’s celebrate the return of the godfather of modern stand-up.
Ben is a coruscating live presence, a wonderfully charismatic bundle of energy fizzing with brilliant ideas and even more brilliant jokes. It is a delight to welcome him back to the arena he has done so much to define.
Critics have been equally positive in their assessment of this magnetic and hugely influential stand-up. The Sunday Times, for instance, declares: “Just give him a stage and a microphone and Ben Elton is the best. No contest.” The Evening Standard, meanwhile, asserts that, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing to beat Ben Elton live!” I couldn’t agree more!
Ben, 60, is just as captivating in person. He is a veritable livewire who lights up any room with his dazzling sense of humour. Chatting to me in the run-up to the tour, in typical fashion he kicks off with a joke. When I ask him if he feels nervous about coming back after a decade and a half away from stand-up, he deadpans, “Nah. Two hours of brand-new gear to an audience who are all wondering if I can still cut it? Why would I be nervous? OF COURSE I’M FLIPPING NERVOUS!”
A multitalented artist who is also a bestselling novelist, award-winning playwright and acclaimed feature film writer and director, Ben proceeds to explain what has drawn him back to stand-up comedy. “Our nest has finally emptied, so I’m freed from the tyranny of having to make school lunches at seven in the morning while the kids try to kill each other and my wife struggles to match socks and assemble sports kits. I’ve certainly missed the soft gentle hum of a hotel mini bar.”
Ben, who has also written some of the best loved sitcoms of recent decades, including The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow, goes on to underline quite how thrilled he is to be back in the live arena. “I spend most of my working life in front of a computer screen, so it’s going to be fantastic to be back on the road visiting every part of the country.
“Mind you, what country? I start in September, so Scotland will still be part of the UK and the UK will still be part of Europe, but who knows where we’ll all be by the time I finish at Christmas? I may need a passport to play Cornwall!”
He stresses that live comedy gives him a rush that no other art form can match. “A stand-up gig is absolutely in the moment. Every second is unique. There’s such a special intimacy between you and the audience, which just doesn’t occur when you do comedy on TV or in a film.
“It’s not the sort of buzz I imagine a rock singer gets, strutting about and thrusting the loins and a’sexing and a’saucing. It’s all about the words, the ideas. For me a gig is a meeting of minds, almost a dialogue. Not literally, I hasten to add! When it comes to heckling, I’m a zero-tolerance comic. But laughter is the other half of the conversation. It means I’ve got my idea across, made myself understood. That’s a real buzz.”
The comedian, who has also fronted such popular TV programs as Ben Elton: The Man from Auntie and The Ben Elton Show, has made his name as a very trenchant commentator on current affairs. So now, when the world appears to be going stark raving mad, is a very good moment for a stand-up with such acute political antennae to be making his return.
Ben observes that, “I feel very strongly that if ever there was a time to get out there and have a go about what’s going on in the world – to celebrate the good and castigate the bad – that time is now. I hope you’ll be aware that my tongue is firmly in my cheek when I say, I’m back because I’m needed!
“But you do feel, with the sort of comedy I do, it is probably more worth doing now than it was in what we perhaps wrongly thought of as the comfy and safe years. In the days of Blair and Major, politics seemed quite centre ground. But things have got polarised again now, as polarised as they were in the days of Thatcher and Kinnock, and that’s an exciting time to be a comedian.”
The world is certainly in a precarious place at the moment. Ben emphasises that the threats posed by President Trump, climate change and Brexit worry him deeply. “I’ve never been more concerned about the future. We are involved in a battle of ideas that could very easily cost the Earth. But you can’t despair! You have to stay engaged. And of course, see the funny side – that’s my job.”
The other thing that Ben is really looking forward to is reconnecting with his legions of stand-up fans during the tour. “It’s the ultimate recharge. Meeting people who appreciate what you’re trying to do. Exchanging ideas with them.
“We all live such isolated lives, staring at our screens, stroking and prodding our phones, cut off by our ear phones. I think that’s why live gigs have got so popular – everybody wants to reconnect and get in touch with humanity, their own and everybody else’s.”
All the same, Ben admits that performing stand-up can be a taxing process. “It’s exciting, of course, but also tense and very demanding. I’m weaving a lot of ideas together, trying to communicate quite complicated thoughts in a supposedly hilarious manner.
“I’m too focussed on getting the material across to have fun – I’m at work after all! I’ll enjoy it afterwards, when I can have a beer or two knowing that a whole bunch of people have let me live in their heads for an evening and hopefully are glad they did.”
Do fans come up and chat to Ben after the show? “Most of the people who come to see my shows don’t hang around afterwards. Not these days, anyway. When Rik Mayall and I used to tour back in the 80’s, we were young and hip and there’d be a crowd of excited kids. We even got asked to sign the occasional bra (well, Rik did – he was sexy, I was farty).
“Older audiences tend to be a bit more concerned about not missing the last bus. Or last orders. One thing that does occasionally happen is people wanting to tell me that they met their partner at one of my shows years ago. That’s always lovely. Particularly if they’re still together!”
Ben is reluctant to name specific subjects he will be addressing in the show, but what he does say is that, “I’ll be covering anything and everything as I always do. I never like to talk about actual subjects because it never sounds funny.
“It’s like if you asked Van Gogh, ‘What subjects do you like to paint?’, and he said, ‘I thought maybe a small vase of sunflowers,’ you’d think, ‘Blimey, that sounds a bit boring.’ It’s all in the treatment and the delivery.” You can rest assured, however, that whatever topic Ben chooses to tackle, the result will be hilarious.
Always able to see the funny side of everything – a characteristic that makes him so superb at his job and has kept him at the top of his game for more than three decades – Ben wraps up by revealing what he hopes audiences will take away from his show. “The happy sensation that no matter how much sh*t we’re in, we’re all in it together!”
Ben Elton Live 2019 UK tour comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on Thu 14 Nov.
For tickets visit birminghamhippodrome.com or call 0844 338 5000.
Words: James Rampton