Elton sees stupid future
Comic and author Ben Elton looks ahead in anger with his latest book. He talks to Adam Dudding about the idiocy of contemporary culture, and not being a lefty sell-out despite the size of his bank balance.
Ben Elton has got all apocalyptic again. From Stark (1989) onwards, the English comedian's first few novels imagined near-future Earths where human existence was imperilled by environmental degradation, wicked businessmen or the motorcar. He has since dashed off thrillers, a war-yarn- cum-detective-story and a comedy about infertility, but with book number 12 he is worried once more.
Blind Faith is set a few centuries from now. Global warming has long since redrawn the world map with considerably less land, but environmental catastrophe is just the backdrop; the real targets of Elton's characteristically inventive, preachy and clunkily-written satire are social. His future Britain is a fascistic hellhole where religion is compulsory, privacy is considered dangerously subversive and science is virtually illegal.
On the phone from Melbourne, where he is battling jetlag at the start of a five-day tour to flog the book in the antipodes, Elton spells out the literary debt: like all other creators of dystopian visions, he has followed "the basic template set down by the genius of Orwell". So he has borrowed the bones of 1984, but is venting his spleen at the 21st-century curses of sex- obsessed bloggers and reality TV and McDonald's and Christians and, well, stupid people. But where Stark and Gridlock and This Other Eden somehow managed to be both apocalyptic and jaunty, Blind Faith just seems grumpy.
Elton prefers "angry". He's angry at the disastrous "juvenilisation" of society, "and I'm beginning to get less upbeat about our ability to bounce back".
He means the self-indulgent drivel of TV talk shows: "You have the most ill-educated and ignorant people able to spout psychobabble as if it meant something - 'I've been on a journey through drugs and now I feel I've had a conversation with myself'."
He means over-sweet junk food and the fact that at Disney World, breakfast is "served with bowls of f---ing M&Ms to sprinkle on your cereal, which is sweetened already; it's an absolute nightmare".
He means people who think their feelings are of more value than their intellect and thus leave their children unvaccinated because it feels a bit weird to stick needles into people.
Such earnest angst seems a long way from the anarchic hilarity that first made Elton famous. A showoff from the time he joined a Guildford local amateur dramatic society at 11, Elton studied drama at Manchester University.
He was 21 and a stand-up comic when in 1981 a former university mate, Rik Mayall, asked him to help write a wacky sitcom about a bunch of student flatmates. That was The Young Ones, all surreal silliness and cartoon violence. The following year Elton joined Richard Curtis as writer for the second series of the Rowan Atkinson comedy Blackadder, another huge success and loved as much for its utter puerility as its cynical intelligence.
In the intervening decades, Elton's career has taken multiple directions, all successful. He has written prolifically for TV (including further series of Blackadder and the police comedy The Thin Blue Line). His stand-up career was at its peak during his Thatcher-baiting days of the 1980s, but he still resurrects it for the occasional tour. There have been all those novels, six of which have taken the top spot on the UK bestseller lists, plus a few plays and musicals - one of which, We Will Rock You, using music by the band Queen, has just opened in Auckland. He directed the film adaptation of his book Inconceivable.
It's not really multi-tasking, says Elton. "I'm doing much the same job in whatever genre I'm working in. Even when I'm directing I see myself as a writer; the script is what really concerns me."
He's not a workaholic, "because a -holic is someone who's dysfunctional, and I'm highly functional", and he has never experienced writer's block, because "if I don't feel like writing it I just don't write".
Then he corrects himself. Maybe he does get blocked, but without any need to write day by day to feed his children, he doesn't sweat it: "I go and build a piece of wood in the garden or something."
Elton has three young children with his Australian wife Sophie Gare. They have a home in Fremantle, Perth, and in 2004 Elton gained Australian dual citizenship, but they live mainly in England.
There are German roots too: Elton's father was a teenager when his Jewish family fled Germany to escape Nazism. They arrived in London, via Prague, in 1939, and he changed his name from Ludwig Ehrenberg to Lewis Elton. Lewis was a physics professor before switching discipline in midlife to become a leading British educationalist.
With a non-Jewish mother (an English teacher), Elton is technically not a Jew, and he feels no connection with that heritage: "I couldn't name a single Jewish holiday."
Nor is there anything specifically "Jewish" - in the Woody Allen sense about his comedy ("we don't have that culture in Britain. It's American"). But he wonders if there is perhaps a whiff of subliminal anti-Semitism in the criticism he has received for his perceived lack of modesty: "People say 'well, the fact that you work a lot and are happy to say that you think your work is great - the British don't like that. You ought to say actually it's awful, it's all shit and all nonsense'. And I don't."
Elton has been widely sneered at for collaborating with the Tory-voting composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber for the musical The Beautiful Game, as if it were some sort of betrayal of the left-wing views he espoused so vigorously in the 1980s. There were parallel suggestions that the middle- brow populism of the Queen musical was somehow beneath the man who had written such scripts as the remarkably elegiac and moving final episode of Blackadder, set in the trenches in World War I.
Such criticism is snobbish, but also illogical: The Young Ones and Blackadder were more often crass than cultured, and why shouldn't a lyricist collaborate with Britain's most successful theatrical composer? And if anyone is going to beat up Ben Elton for betraying his principles, it is going to be Ben Elton.
Self-flagellating leftishness was always turned to comic effect in Elton's stand-up routines, but in conversation he doesn't seem to think it a joke. He sounds quite miserable about all the jet fuel he has burnt flying to Melbourne. "My carbon footprint is terrible; I worry about it all the time and yet I've flown out here to promote my book." He flies first class but vehemently wishes governments would legislate to ration the amount of international flights any individual could take per year.
And while he has stopped writing letters to newspapers to protest at overestimations of his wealth, he still has the grace to sound uncomfortable about his bank account. "I like to think I act moderately responsibly with my money, but there's no doubt about it - I have more than my fair share. Not quite as much as people think, but so much more than I ever imagined I would have that it's an irrelevance. So yeah, call it a billion, it might as well be because it's enough to have whatever I want.
"Luckily, I don't have any desire for a yacht or anything like that, but owning more than one home is something that as a young man I would have definitely disapproved of strongly. And I find that I do. Go figure; I guess that's what happens to people in life isn't it?"
Blind Faith, By Ben Elton, Bantam, $37
Sunday Star Times