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15th November 2019

Review and Interview: Ben Elton

Sam James reviews and interviews comedy legend, and University of Manchester alumnus, Ben Elton
Review and Interview: Ben Elton
Photo: Ingo Hoehn (Wikimedia Commons).


It has been said by far greater men than me that: ‘if the Eighties had a comedy pulse, the person with his finger on it was one Benjamin Charles Elton’. This Manchester University Alumni came to prominence on London’s ‘alternative Comedy’ circuit in the early Eighties. He rose to national acclaim in 1982 when he co-wrote the cult comedy classic The Young Ones with Lisa Mayer and his fellow UoM graduate, the legendary, Rik Mayall.

The alternative comedy movement, culminating with The Young Ones, is credited by many as the spark revolutionising British and, to an extent, global comedy forever. It created a shift from traditional joke-telling structures and politically incorrect material towards the anarchic and absurd. Without this we would not have seen the likes of Steve Coogan, Lucas and Walliams or The Mighty Boosh.

Following this early success, Elton collaborated with Richard Curtis on the latter three series of “Blackadder” (the better ones). As he proudly boasted during the performance, he has had a television hit every decade since The Young Ones. Moreover, he has been a hugely successful stand-up comedian, publishing fifteen novels and penning two West End musicals: the jukebox musical, using Queen’s music, We Will Rock You, and the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies.

But now he’s back on the road for the first time in 15 years. On Thursday the 24th October, I left the Lowry after a three-hour show with an aching face. Elton had only himself, two polo shirts and a head mic. He brought the house down, added almost an hour to the show, and kept the hilarity flowing without even a glass of water or a pause for breath.

His comedy is defined by his Wikipedia page as “Left Wing Satire”, which is, in essence, correct, but I don’t think this description is nuanced enough. He is not a whining, self-important performer with little time for anyone who disagrees with him, as is the stereotype. On the contrary, he constantly demonstrates how he knows his beliefs are not infallible or necessarily fixed, which is a blessed relief in comedy at the moment.

He started off the show by saying he was not going to reference Brexit, and this was true for the vast amount of the show. Politics, in general, only got a scant analysis. His material instead covered modern music, growing old, ethical dilemmas, and Channel 4. This was a contemporary and completely original show, apt for the current social climate. One thing I did not expect from a Ben Elton show was escapism, but that is exactly what I got.

Elton is a performer who is not afraid to “lose the laughs”, but unlike a top comedian I saw at the Edinburgh Festival this year, it was not as jolting. This unnamed Edinburgh comic seemed to stop the show to shoehorn in a student newspaper opinion piece (nothing wrong with that), but Ben Elton would do the same thing in such a subtle and engaging way that by the time you realised you had listened to something profound for three minutes, it was time to laugh again.

Elton was very much trading off the “grey pound” at the Lowry. The audience members under the age of twenty-five stuck out like ink spots on an otherwise white piece of paper, evident from their bequiffed hairstyles and bomber jackets. Despite this, I found his material applied just as much to myself as the rest of the audience.

The show ended on a message; he warned against the spread of misinformation and alluded to the importance of fluid political views. This final speech propelled an audience, which included Slade frontman Noddy Holder (whose retirement fund centres around a “Merry Christmas Everyone” based pyramid scheme), to their feet.

I genuinely do not have a bad word to say about this show. It was a night honed to perfection for maximum punch. If you are looking for one show to see between now and Christmas, this is the one. Ben Elton continues his stand-up tour of the UK until mid-December and I expect a live recorded version to be available soon. Keep those eyes peeled!



On the day that Ben Elton returned to Manchester to perform his stand-up show, I put to him a series of questions about his career:

Q: What was the moment you felt like your professional comedy career started?
A: Two key moments, both in February 1981. The first was standing on stage at the Comedy Store for the first time and surviving the gong. The second was Rik Mayall ringing me to say that the BBC were commissioning a pilot script for The Young Ones. An incredible moment for me.
Q: Out of all the mediums you work in (script/novel writing, stand-up), which is currently your favourite?
A: It all comes down to writing for me, so they are all similar in that sense, but my novels and my stand-up are probably the places where I put the most of myself, my own personal passions and beliefs. Having said that, I think the work that has brought me most satisfaction has been Upstart Crow, certainly in terms of TV anyway.
Q: Do you prefer to work alone or collaborate? 
A: I work alone even when I collaborate. With Rik and then with Richard Curtis, I would do my stuff and then discuss it with them. I have never worked in a writers’ room, or even in a pair, and the vast majority of my writing has been a solitary effort until I share it with editors, producers and, of course, friends.

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