Ben Elton: It's not all bad...

Asif Baul looks back on the motormouth stand-up looking back

It says a lot about Ben Elton’s status as a comedy scapegoat that the Channel 4 announcer previewing his two-hour Laughing At The 80s programme, should make an allusion to ‘a sell-out... sell-out comedy that is’.

Anyone who grew up with Eighties comedy will know the charge sheet against Elton. Motormouth, shiny suit, and hypocritical to talk so much about left-wing politics before swanning off to write musicals for performers who broke sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa like Queen and Rod Stewart.

Yet, I’ve always defended Elton, not least because Queen have long since been rehabilitated – Freddie Mercury’s death and the classic status of their hits made sure of that.

Alas for Elton, his part in We Will Rock You alone is enough to diminish any credibility he may have had with the ‘right-on’ Eighties generation of which I was a part. This is a shame because at the peak of his performing ability, in around 1989, Ben Elton was a fine stand up. He is not a natural performer – as he himself always acknowledged he is primarily a writer – but in his sell out two-and-a-half hour shows around the cusp of the decade he delivered more material than most performers manage over several Edinburghs.

The Motormouth delivery speed was – contrary to received wisdom – his main strength. Even when he had weak material or (more usually) silly but funny toilet material, his witty running commentary on his own act was more than a match for most audiences .

As a fan, I’ve long known that admitting to having enjoyed his stand-up is social suicide – but no matter how many embarrassing things he does now, Ben Elton will always be remembered for the quality of material he wrote in his twenties. The University Challenge episode of the Young Ones and three Blackadder series stand testament to that.

Yet, as he drifted off into novel writing and poorly received films, his moment had passed. Crucially for me, the slowing down of his delivery exposed his limits as a performer and undermined his material; these days, Dara O Briain perhaps comes closest to matching his style, but the Irishman is funnier, as his physical presence and geniality make the crowd warm to him much more, even when he delves into the sort of geeky material of which Elton was an early exemplar.

So it was with some interest that I tuned into see Elton’s leisurely review of the Eighties. Would it all seem as funny as I remember and how would Elton recall his own impact? On the plus side, the programme was highly watchable with plenty of context for younger viewers about the impact of the Comic Strip and Spitting Image during the highly politicised decade and Elton and Rik Mayall made for an entertaining double act with plenty of self-deprecating reminiscences.

Sadly however, Elton’s good nature meant that he downplayed the political side of Eighties comedy of which he was so much a part. Hence, while he gave plenty of time to the theme of women in comedy with Victoria Wood and French & Saunders recalling their breaks in detail, he merely went into middle-aged mode to briefly lament the rise of the C word and profess to being behind the times in understanding the nuances of post-modern comedy.

The programme still gave a sense of what he felt though in relation to sexism but was less explicit in relation to racist humour. Of course there was the obligatory ‘looking back at how racist comics could be’ clip with a particularly unfunny extract of Bernard Manning vilely calling on a crowd to join him in bullying an unsmiling Japanese man in his audience. But the programme and Elton clearly felt too uncomfortable to explore the ever interesting theme of race in much detail.

For me this was a real shame as one of my earlier recollections of Ben Elton in person is a discussion he took part in with Howard Jacobson at the Midland Arts Centre in 1988. While Jacobson provided ample intellectual justification for rejoicing in stereotypes and admitting to liking Manning, Elton was passionate in arguing against comedy that excluded people. (Looking back now, there was an unspoken subtext with the overtly Jewish Jacobson defending the sort of stereotype based humour that offended the relatively deracinated Elton; the two could barely look at each other.)

What I remember most, though, is how passionately Elton launched into a tirade about a comedian he once saw struggling on Sunday Night At The Palladium. After failing to get traction, the comic resorted to jingoism and got an easy cheer with: ‘We got the Falklands back didn’t we?’

He followed this up with ‘We’ll get Bradford back next,’ for which he got huge applause. Commenting as much on the applause as the gag itself, Elton (already a huge success by this time himself) angrily pointed out that this joke and applause was effectively saying to two million British citizens on a mainstream popular programme that they were not really British.

I’ve never forgotten Elton’s passion in seeing and exposing this racism.

For the record he clearly influenced other acts. Take a look at Tony Banks’s GQ interview with Frank Skinner in the Nineties for instance; long after New Laddism and postmodern backlashes against political correctness had made Elton’s concerns seem dated, Skinner recalled how he quietly dropped doing Sunil Gavaskar’s voice during his Test Match Special routines, because he didn’t like the way some people in the audience were reacting to his Indian accent.

While I shared Elton’s passion at the time, I can accept much of Jacobson’s argument without agreeing with him on Manning. Sitting in a cosmopolitan London comedy gig with diverse crowds and audiences, absolutely any sort of stereotype can work well as material. The sort of joke which in the Eighties may have seemed threatening or abusive to a lone non-white or rare gay face in the audience at the time just doesn’t come across the same way with mixed 21st Century audiences that expect both acts and the crowd to know the differences between irony, comment, abuse and incitement.

Unfortunately, Elton didn’t choose to explore these nuances. Understandable perhaps in a feelgood nostalgia programme in a time when the audience doesn’t need to be told that racism is bad. But an opportunity missed in a programme Elton used to stage a bizarre ‘comedy summit’ with Sunday Night At The London Palladium host Jimmy Tarbuck. With past differences airbrushed – so it was just ‘we didn’t talk to each other in the London Weekend studio lift’ rather than ‘I didn’t talk to you because I hated your politics and thought you hosted racists‘ – it appeared far too stage managed for a programme that celebrated the forthright abuse and anarchy of much Eighties alternative comedy.

The irony of this was not entirely lost on Elton, who used the programme to gratuitously show clips from Filthy, Rich and Catflap mocking Tarby and Brucey dialogue. But in another way, Elton hasn’t changed his views at all; at the time in the Eighties he regularly praised Morecambe and Wise as mainstream humour that was not exclusionary or nasty, so perhaps he was just being true to himself. Or maybe the Channel 4 announcer did have a point after all...

But to end with another line in Elton’s defence, one that is apt in an era when it is de rigueur to deify Bill Hicks and mock Elton’s politics, I do have another Eighties memory of Elton saying said wouldn’t do any adverts for products that were not his own. As far as I can tell, he has stayed true to this Hicksism – even in this distinctly less political comedy age. So as John Lennon once sang: ‘All I can tell you, it’s all showbiz.’

  • Asif Baul is an occasional stand-up and regular compere at YeOLDE17 comedy club
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Published: 1 Jan 2012

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