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High Profile

Positive spin

Interview by James Cary

On stage, Ben Elton has been known to deliver 10,000 revolutions a minute, but the man they called 'Motormouth' was just ticking over quietly when Third Way met him over a latté in west London.

You have written a dozen novels, and each of them seems to take a very strong and particular theme, such as celebrity or faith. Given that you come from a family of academics, I wonder if it is primarily the ideas that interest you, rather than the characters or the story.

The ideas interest me initially, but the reason I write in the way I do is because I'm very soon caught up in the characters and the story. If I wanted to be an essayist or a polemicist, I would obviously just stick to the ideas, but I don't. I have no great interest in being either a politician or an activist. My first and foremost drive is to write stories.

Nonetheless, both as a novelist and a stand-up you have often seemed to be seeking to persuade us of something. I remember a routine you did years ago about the way we 'garnish' our lives with trivia and it was almost as if you were urging us, 'Don't settle for rubbish!' Are you conscious of trying to change people's minds?

No. Obviously, if through my work I cause you to ponder on anything, you know, from the nature of love to the banality of sticking a peach on top of a hamburger when all you want is a burger, then obviously I'm del?ighted; but I don't set out to do that. I set out to express myself. When I wrote that garnish routine, I was making myself think. I wasn't trying to make you think.

Obviously, if as an artist you only deal in 'the bedroom', you know, you're unlikely ever to be accused of trying to peddle ideas - though even in the bedroom, of course, there is endless sexual politics to be dealt with. But the minute you step outside the bedroom…

You know, I'm interested in the world. Look at Shakespeare. He explored every possible facet of the human condition, both public and private. Everything he wrote was political, everything he wrote was private. There wasn't a sentence that couldn't have been interpreted as a polemic, and yet he was obviously driven principally as an artist.

Still, I get the impression that you are an optimist who doesn't want our society to settle for second best…

Well, I include myself in 'society', that's the point.

I'm anxious not to allow myself to be presented as somebody who thinks they know better, or has something to tell you that you need to learn from me. I am continually aware of my need to learn, and that's one of the reasons I read and think and explore ideas. But, as a member of society, somehow I like to think that we can do better. I am, I suppose, still optimistic about the human race.

Nonetheless, for the first time I have begun to wonder whether it will be all right. I know we're not going to be destroyed by a fascistic dictatorship, but we might be destroyed by ourselves and our own preference for banality.

You know, we all know how easy it is not to think and to kind of just drift along - and now we seem to have a culture that is elevating that almost to the moral high ground - you know, talk without thinking, say what you feel, emote at all times, expose every possible weakness as a badge of honour rather than try and deal with it and develop. And now it is possible to take a television with you wherever you go and watch it at all times… I have begun to wonder what will happen to us.

I really do despair for children today. I don't think there's anything we can do, any legislation, but I think we are disenfranchising an entire generation - and all generations to come - from their own imaginations. I know from my own experience that if I can flip on a screen and doodle on the internet and look up crap, I will. I've got a very weak signal on my Wifi deliberately so that I can't just hop onto Google the minute my imagination runs dry. We need to be able to stare out of windows.

Is that something you did as a child? Are you aware that you benefited from boredom?

I don't remember being bored and suddenly having great ideas. I always wanted to write, but you don't have to be a writer to benefit from reflection - let's call it that rather than 'boredom'. But it's absolutely self-evident to me that you can't possibly develop as a whole human being if you don't have time to reflect.

And, you know, people today don't. Our lives are entirely filled with input. And it doesn't take a desperate Luddite to recognise that if you are constantly subject to input, you'll never come up with any output.

You are the youngest of four. Do you think that your place in the birth order has affected you in any way? Has it made you more reflective? I'm the youngest of four myself, and I know that from an early age I felt like an observer of society rather than a participant.

I have to say, I don't think about myself - the only time I talk about myself is when I'm being interviewed. So, as to what my childhood did to me as a writer I have no idea. I know I'm genetically programmed to want to write. I've felt it from a very early age and it isn't something that could be anything other than part of my, you know, DNA. And I still feel the urge to express myself in comic or semi-comic (and occasionally not comic) prose.

Has writing a novel about 'blind faith'1 changed your views on religion at all? I was rather surprised to read in the Times that you considered yourself to be a Christian. No doubt they hopelessly misquoted you.

God, that really is hopeless. No, I've never come close to making a statement like that. That is completely not what I feel. I'm not remotely a Christian.

I may have said - as I often have said - that there's much to be admired in the better bits of Christian doctrine - and the rest of it needs serious thinking about, you know. Just as we're all constantly assured of how much splendid peace talk there is in the Qur'an. Well, I'm sure there is - though I know more about the Bible, because I was brought up in an age when you were still taught it.

But Blind Faith is not about Christianity or Islam, it's actually about the banality of a new faith, really: the cult of the individual, the idea that we are all our own little gods. I think it's quite clever the way the 'preachers' are able to twist decent faith-based ideas into a way of worshipping yourself - you know, if God made Man in his image, then surely Man is like a god and should be treated as such in everything he thinks and does.

So, you are an atheist, as I thought?

I'm only an atheist insomuch as... Traditional religion seems to me extraordinarily banal. It is self-evident that the universe is a glorious mystery, because even the greatness of science comes back to: 'What came be?fore the Big Bang? Nothing.' But that humanity has been able to convince itself that it can take the glories of the universe and then imagine a God that looks like us, imagine its personality, imagine the communications we're having with it - directly - strikes me as, at the very best, arrogance beyond belief.

So, you know, I'm an atheist when it comes to a God with a human personality with whom we can personally communicate, describe, look at the history of and consider the future of. Obviously, if you want to define 'God' as the mystery of the universe before which we should have some real sense of our own smallness and take some view of our actions based on that, then I'm all for it; but the one who listens to prayers - I don't believe in that.

Would anything ever tempt you into a church?

It would have to be a more formal service. Frankly, if there's going to be a crèche, I'd prefer it to be outside the church, so that I can actually hear the poetry of the readings and join in the hymns. I like all that. I like the theatre, and there's a certain nostalgia in hearing those tunes because I sang them at school. I certainly wouldn't be interested in attending a kind of revival meeting, you know, with banal language and appalling tunes. You know, there's a feeling that perhaps the church 'tries too hard'.

But I do occasionally go to church. My kids are at the local C of E school.

Don't you mind them being given a Christian education?

I don't think there's any harm in it. In fact, I think there's an enormous value in learning about Christianity if you happen to be British, because it has without any question been the influence on our history and our culture.

Otherwise, you're going to find it very hard to understand Shakespeare, or most paintings pre-1900 - or, at least, your enjoyment of them will certainly be improved by knowing the stories on which they're based, the dilemmas that provoked them.

However, I would say that lack of faith should also be taught. I think the concept that faith in itself is a good thing should be questioned from day one, which it isn't. There's a presumption on chat shows and on the news that if you're a religious leader you are in some way already halfway up to the moral high ground and your opinion has more relevance than anyone else's.

Do you think, with the new law against incitement to religious hatred, our society shows too much deference to religious people?

I think it all starts with people nodding whenever anybody says, 'As a person of faith…' And I believe that part of it is due to the genuine fear that the authorities and the community have about provoking the radical elements of Islam. There's no doubt about it, the BBC will let vicar gags pass but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it's, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn't. It's because they're scared. I know these people.

I was on a panel once with a very controversial satirist, and he said he would be happy to do a satire about Islam but people don't have the same reference points and comedy is in a sense about shared experiences and therefore he got very tired of people saying, 'Well, you wouldn't write that about Islam.'

Well, he wouldn't. And that's all there is to it.

Yeah, that's true.

I wanted to use the phrase 'Muhammad came to the mountain' and everybody said, 'Oh, don't! Just don't! Don't go there!' It was nothing to do with Islam, I was merely referring to the old proverb, 'If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.' And people said, 'Let's just not!'

It's incredible. I'm quite certain that the average Muslim does not want everybody going around thinking, 'We can't mention you. We've just got to pretend you don't exist because we're scared that somebody who claims to represent you will threaten to kill us.'

On the same panel, I remember someone else made the point that people mistakenly believe they have a right not to be offended.

Well, he was absolutely right. You have no right not to be offended.

We're often told that religious people need to get a sense of humour. Do you think that comedy could benefit from having a sense of the sacred? A lot of comedy does seem very negative at the moment - it's just 'This is crap. This is crap. This is crap. Thank you and goodnight.'

Yeah, I would agree with that. I've always thought that the easy option is to sneer. I like to think that my work is on the whole positive.

But is faith of any use in comedy? I think that principle is. Perhaps faith in humanity, because if you don't love being a person, love being part of the human race, then I'm not sure I want to see your comedy.

But comedy does seem to attract misanthropes.

Yeah… I think they probably get more misanthropic the less successful they are. My view is that the embittered fringe who suffer no fools are the ones who haven't had a TV commission.

As soon as you get your own series, you've sold out.

Exactly. Exactly. And the journalists back them up - you know, 'He's always eschewed Hollywood, preferring to play a small pub in Barnstaple.' Well, send him an offer from Hollywood and see what happens.

Look, I love a big audience and the bigger the better - I mean, the Queen musical [We Will Rock You] brings me enormous pleasure; but I wouldn't play a Nazi rally, you know. So, my principles are the same now as they ever were, but one thing is sure: they never were about thinking there's something credible in being grumpy and refusing to mix in.
I think theatre critics ought to be more positive about the communal experience in the theatre, as opposed to the private, intellectual experience - 'I have seldom been more moved. I sat transfixed.' Yeah, great, that's good, that's wonderful and I'm pleased for you; but a communal experience - 'We all leapt to our feet at once and cheered' - is also rather splendid.

I remember when you wrote the sitcom The Thin Blue Line you said you were keen to write something that was positive and could be enjoyed, like Dad's Army, by all the family. That's something we're losing, isn't it?

I think so, but not deliberately. I don't think it's the fault of artists, or even commissioners; I think it's the fault of technology, of…

Personal media?

Yeah. You can't smash the Spinning Jenny, but we need to at least recognise its consequences. When I say that the chances of another Dad's Army developing are dim?inishing, it's because even if there is one happening at the moment, not enough people are going to notice for it to enter our consciousness and for us all to come to love it.

You have had some quite savage criticism, for We Will Rock You and The Thin Blue Line -

Oh, that was castigated - I mean, brutal, absolutely unbelievable. It was accused of being almost wicked in its awfulness.

Has that experience in any way made you more careful about criticising others?

That's an interesting question. I've never been asked that before.

I don't think I've ever remotely doled out the sort of shit I - and a lot of other people - have had.

Maybe Margaret Thatcher has your face on a dartboard.

Well, my criticism of Thatcher was occasionally vaguely personal. But, you know, she was one of the most powerful people on the planet, so I think she was a legitimate target. But of course so am I.

But you're right, I am, I am…

Keen to do unto others?

Well, I've always been like that. I don't feel I've dealt out a lot of personal criticism, but maybe I'm a bit more careful now.

Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, has remarked that satire today seems to be almost exclusively the preserve of the left. I get the impression that a lot of the most influential satirists of today are criticising Labour for not being left-wing enough.

I know that when I was a student I was considered reactionary by most of the lefties because I supported the Labour Party. I mean, I always knew, even as a kid, that the Soviet experiment was a nightmare and had produced far more wickedness than it ever produced good - I've read a lot of history. So, communism's out. And, you know, even though I've always said I'm a Clement Attlee man and I believe in a welfare state, I'm glad I don't have to balance the pension books.

So, that's for me. As to where satire stands at the moment, I don't think there is much, from right or left. But I think the traditional right and left are disappearing anyway. All you can do is speak honestly and say what you believe is right and true. Don't try and please other people and don't read what's written about you.

Looking back over your career so far, what are you most proud of, and why?

You know, I don't look back. I just don't.

I've never done anything just to get a laugh or to improve my chances of either critical or popular success, and I can take some pride in that. But as to taking pride in specific pieces of work, all I can say is I thought they were all great at the time and I still think most of them are great. I mean, I'm very proud that I can honestly say that when I did anything I've ever done I really believed in it and thought it was good.

I loved doing We Will Rock You and The Thin Blue Line as much as I've enjoyed doing stuff which perhaps had more critical acclaim, like Popcorn. (I haven't had a lot of critical hits, but I've had a few - and retrospectively Blackadder is now seen as something of value, although not at the time.) But, you know, I do projects because I love them and I'm inspired by them, so I've been genuinely proud of everything I've done.

I've recently watched some Blackadders again for the first time in nearly 20 years and I've taken enormous joy in the fact that my kids love 'em. That's something I never thought about when it was happening - that 20 years later I'd be sitting and watching it with my children.

1 Blind Faith was published by Bantam Press in November 2007.



Ben Elton was born in 1959. He was educated at Godalming Grammar School and Manchester University, where he studied drama.

His first professional appearance as a stand-up was at the Comic Strip Club in London in 1981. His most recent tour was in 2005-06.

His first sitcom for BBC TV was The Young Ones (1982, 1984), written with Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, which in 1984 won a Bafta. This was followed by Happy Families (1985) and Filthy Rich and Catflap (1986). With Richard Curtis, he wrote Blackadder II (1987), Blackadder the Third (1988) and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) - which between them won four Baftas and an Emmy - and The Thin Blue Line (1995, 1996), which won the 1995 British Comedy Award and two jury awards at Reims. He returned to BBC sitcom in 2005 with Blessed, which he also directed.

He wrote and performed in Saturday Live (1987) and Friday Night Live (1987-88) on Channel 4, The Man from Auntie (1990, 1994), which won the 1991 Royal Television Society's Writer's Award, and The Ben Elton Show (1998) for BBC1 and, for ITV1, Get a Grip (2007).

He is the author of 12 novels: Stark (1989), Gridlock (1991), This Other Eden (1993), Popcorn (1996), which won the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award, Blast from the Past (1998), Inconceivable (1999), Dead Famous (2001), High Society (2002), Post Mortem (2004), The First Casualty (2005), Chart Throb (2006) and Blind Faith (2007).

He has written four plays: Gasping (1990), Silly Cow (1991), Popcorn (1996), which won the Olivier Award for best comedy - all of which he directed for the West End - and Blast from the Past (1998). He has also written three musicals: The Beautiful Game (2000), with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which won the Critics' Circle Award for best new musical; We Will Rock You (2002), incorporating the music of Queen; and Tonight's the Night (2003), which is based on the songs of Rod Stewart. He also wrote and directed the film Maybe Baby (2000).

He has an honorary doctorate from Manchester University and last year received the Honorary Rose at the Rose d'Or Festival in Lucerne for his lifetime contribution to the television arts.

He married in 1994 and has three children.

This interview was conducted on January 22, 2008.