Ben Elton – In Conversation

Exploding onto the comedy scene in March 1981 when he made his debut at the infamous Comedy Store, writer and comedian Ben Elton went from budding comedian to one of the leading pioneers of British Alternative Comedy with his political observations and brash sense of humour. Having been bred on British comedy including Morecambe and Wise, The Goons and then later Monty Python, the young Ben had the desire to emulate these heroes and set about making waves in the early eighties comedy landscape.

Press play, below, to listen to the full interview


This coincided with the steady development of Thatcher’s Britain which notoriously divided the nation as an era of social unrest commenced. Having such a forthright character as prime minister resulted in the rebirth of political satire and Ben was one of the leading performers of this comedy revolution. Don Ward and Peter Rosengard opened The Comedy Store in March 1979 and made overnight stars of Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. Ben Elton made his Comedy Store debut in 1981 to rave reviews, becoming an overnight comedy phenomenon with his quick witted repertoire of political angst. Reflecting the formidable backlash against The Iron Lady and the conservative values of eighties Britain was seen as a much needed rebellion for the downtrodden, forgotten youth and Ben became synonymous with mocking the establishment. Irrespective of Thatcher’s values, in hindsight Ben appreciates her commitment to what she believed in and thinks that forthright philosophy is somehow missing from today’s political sphere.


In 1986 following a series of successful guest hosts including Lenny Henry, Ben secured a presenting role on Channel Four’s Saturday Live and introduced future comedy heavyweights French and Saunders and Harry Enfield. Based on the variety formula of Sunday Night At The Palladium, Saturday Live challenged the very foundations of traditional entertainment with satirical, anti establishment values. At such a politically charged time, satire was arguably experiencing its biggest popularity surge and there was a growing requirement for comics to subvert the biggest stories of the day. As a young comedian, Ben took great delight in mocking the political establishment with his left wing observations. Yet while this material proved popular, he was adamant not to become a one trick pony and became aware of the need for the audience to witness the full extent of his comedy repertoire.


It was on an episode of Saturday Live that Ben was alleged to have made a joke about the late great comedian Benny Hill which prompted considerable backlash from the British media. The fact that Elton never even mentioned the comedy legend and would never criticise a fellow comedian somehow seemed irrelevant as the press had already firmly grasped hold of the story and now was running with it. As a huge fan of post-war entertainment, this left Ben completely mortified as the story escalated even further to the extent where he was personally held responsible for Hill’s downfall. The extraordinary thing was that Ben was only 24 years old and had no weight within the TV fraternity but yet supposedly had the power to overthrow such a comedy icon. Such a terrible example of misjustice has surrounded the rest of Ben Elton’s career, not only tainting all of his future career ventures but also creating the illusion of a strong divide between him and his comedy heroes.  Something which still upsets the comedian who has such love and passion for Britain’s rich comedy heritage.


Beyond performing, Ben was also quick to master the art of screenwriting, penning the anarchic sitcom The Young Ones alongside co-writers Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer. Just like Elton’s Stand Up, this series rebelled against the fixed concepts on which sitcom had been shaped. The anticisis of this is symbolised in Adrian Edmondson physically tearing down the opening titles of The Good Life which was heralded as the start of a cultural revolution. Surviving for just two series between 1982 and 1984 The Young Ones followed the frequently bizarre antics of four positively flawed students in a house share: political activist Rik with a strange fascination for Cliff Richard, pyromaniac Vivian who often defied the laws of physics and would regularly sever part of his body only to magically fix it again. Then there was the hippie new age vegetarian Neil who would frequently set the kitchen alight when attempting to make what would be considered a vegan dinner today.


Following the enormous cult success of The Young Ones, Ben was considered the epitome of Britain’s bright new creative talent and was promptly drafted in to assist Black Adder creator Richard Curtis on the writing of the second series of the historical based sitcom. On the subject of the writing process, Ben explains “Richard and I never wrote together. Our method was for each of us to work on a script and then swap and work on the others. Our absolute rule was no looking back, if one or the other of us had cut something then it wasn’t allowed to make an appeal, you had to lump it and move on. Of course you could always stick it back on the next draft swap! Mind you we rarely did because normally the line you least want to cut is the one you probably should.”.


Ben Elton was now at the pinnacle of his TV success and in 1998 secured his own self titled BBC1 Stand Up series. The Ben Elton Show reunited the comedian with the format which had originally launched his career with the added bonus of a regular special guest. As a huge fan of the history of British comedy, it was a dream come true for Ben to welcome the legendary Ronnie Corbett to reprise his armchair monologues for nineties Britain. In addition Ben was fortunate enough to be able to write these sketches for one of his heroes, following in the footsteps of Corbett’s former writers Spike Mullins and David Renwick. To think the comedian who supposedly had a strong angst against the older generation could feature such a comedy icon in Ronnie Corbett was just implausible and proved to the sceptics that Ben Elton was an innocent party.


As the new millennium dawned, Ben decided to expand his talent pool as he crossed the entertainment border into musical theatre. Directed by Christopher Renshaw and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, We Will Rock You, the original West End production opened at the Dominion Theatre on 14 May 2002, with Tony Vincent, Hannah Jane Fox, Sharon D. Clarke and Kerry Ellis in principal roles. On the subject of musical theatre, Ben states “Working on musicals hasn’t really changed my perception of the arts. I have always loved musical theatre as an entertainment and a legitimate art form. I have never held with the snobbery (less commonly said these days) that musical theatre was ‘for Grannies’. Musical theatre like any art can be bland and it can be cutting edge. Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is musical theatre. Rice and Lloyd Webber took an enormous risk when they created the first true rock musical and based it on the death of Christ! That’s not to say that musicals need to be ground breaking to be brilliant, I think the musical I enjoy most is Grease.”


In 2019 Ben Elton was back on the road with his first Stand Up tour for fifteen years, playing to packed out theatres both the breadth of the UK and around the world. Frustrated at the lack of trust in our political system brought on by issues surrounding brexit, Ben has returned to the stage to vent his angst about the appalling goings on at Number 10. In a lot of ways, Ben feels more angst towards the conservative cabinet especially Boris Johnson than Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party of the 1980’s. Therefore it seems that Ben Elton’s career has now gone full circle and however many years have passed, live theatre will forever have an enormous pull for Ben and long may he reign over the comedy landscape. It was a great pleasure to meet the great Ben Elton and wish him all the very best for the rest of his remarkable career.