Comedy legend Ben Elton: I hate Boris Johnson with a physical, visceral passion
Ben Elton starts his first stand-up tour for nearly 15 years with shows in Dublin and Belfast later this month. David Roy quizzed the alternative comedy pioneer and award-winning writer of TV hits Upstart Crow, Blackadder and The Young Ones about his return to the stage
HI BEN, it's been almost 15 years since you last did a proper stand-up tour. Will you be doing any warm-up shows to get back up to speed before the main dates?
I'm doing a few warm-ups: on the 14th of September, you may look at your watch at 7.30pm and think to yourself, "there is a 60-year-old in Frome who's now s***ting himself onstage at the Cheese & Grain"– because I haven't done [stand-up] for a very long time.
And just simply remembering it all – a 90 minute show? I will be working from notes for the first few warm-ups, no doubt about that. F***ing hell, I've been drinking for 40 years, I can't just remember 40,000 words just off the cuff!
It is nerve-wracking, but I mean not quite like it was when I was young and playing really horrible, rough gigs. The Comedy Store in '81 was a nasty place with a lot of nasty people in it. The licensing laws in those days meant it was one of the few places you could get a pint [after 10pm] so we certainly didn't have what you would call 'comedy lovers' in for most of the time.
So I'm not scared the way I was then: to a certain extent, I'm burdened by what I know will be a very legitimate expectation. I think I've delivered some interesting stuff over the years and anyone who buys a ticket for me now will do so because they liked my stuff. There's going to be very few 'Ben virgins', if such a thing ever exists, and I fully intend to fulfil their expectations.
I mean, I think there have been times when I've been pretty good at [stand-up] and I've been working very hard at coming up with some interesting observations about what are very confusing and different times to any that I've done stand-up comedy in before.
So, at the moment I'm feeling confident, but not complacent – does that sound like a good slogan for the tour?
Why did you stop performing?
I was never concious of stopping. I've been a stand-up for 38 years now and I've always loved it as an art form and as a medium for ideas. As a writer, I find it a very personal way to express myself.
I've always loved it and would never ever give it up, I just stopped doing it without even noticing. I think the reason is rather domestic in that we have three kids – the last time I was on tour in '05 they were around four or five and I was away for three or four months.
I just thought "well, I'm not doing that again for a while – I can write at home and be a part of the family". So that's what I did for the past 14 years!
Do you have good memories of performing in Ireland?
It's been a long time since I played Dublin, but I had a few wonderful nights at The Olympia when I was first courting my wife many years ago back in 87/88, so I have a romantic connection.
I also played Belfast a number of times and you may be aware that I wrote a musical set there at the birth of the Troubles [2000's football-themed The Beautiful Game, with music by Andrew-Lloyd Webber], so obviously I've read a very great deal about its recent history.
But that's not why I'm playing Belfast, I'm playing there because I like to play wherever I can find people who want to see me.
As mentioned, there's a lot for you to talk about at the moment. Has it been tricky to whittle that down to a tight set?
Well, that's partly what the work in progress gigs will be doing – although obviously it can't be that 'tight' because I haven't got a support act!
It is a vast canvas, there is no doubt about that – we are living in stranger times than I ever imagined I would live in. The impact of the internet on the discourse of ideas and to find oneself in only 15 years 'post-truth', 'post-shame' and with the high street having ceased to exist after 10,000 years of human communities, it's a very different world – beyond anything I could ever have imagined would happen in my lifetime.
Also, it's very confusing. I used to kind of know what I think, I kind of knew where I stood and it's harder now because you have weird s***. For example, the departing leader of the Scottish Conservatives [Ruth Davidson] is a married lesbian with a daughter by her female partner. Now, that's wonderful – it's also f***ing astonishing, because I grew up in a world where the Tories were burning lesbians as witches.
So things are worse than they ever were economically, but socially they've changed completely. The world has turned on its head, we're all talking about national 'communities' yet really the individual has triumphed. People are not interested in geographic communities at all, they are interested in identity communities – all Britain is now is an archipelago of identity-based communities which exist online.
People don't see their community as the people next door – less so in Belfast, perhaps, where there are particular reasons to identify with local community because of course it's been bedevilled by a deep sectarian division – and that's a very strange time for nationalism to be resurging.
Trump wants to build a wall around America, but what is he building a wall around really?: a deeply disparate and divided community, just as Britain is talking about 'taking back control' – of what? When I hear politicians talking about 'the British people' I just think, "are you f***ing mad?!"
Was politics better in your day, then?
I certainly look back to the days of serious, heavyweight b*****ds, ones you could respect. Thatcher – I might have hated her, but my God you had to respect her.
I hate Boris Johnson with a physical, visceral passion and I also can't even respect him. He floors me with the level of my contempt, I feel almost rendered dysfunctional by how much contempt I have for that man. And, actually, it makes for hard comedy. There's nothing you can say about Trump or Johnson which they basically don't already admit themselves – and indeed glory in.
And in fact their supporters not only don't care to learn that they are bullies, that they have no respect for the truth, to realise that they are entirely motivated by self-interest and deep vicious personal entitlement.
So it's very very hard to know where to start – but believe me, I will find a way!