Ben Elton – On The Street Interview (circa 1990)

Ben Elton image from Penguin Australia by Johnny Rigg cropped

Musician & music writer Zoë Howe recently edited this 1990’s interview of internationally acclaimed comedian, performer and author Ben Elton for AMMP.tv. 

The following transcript is Ben Elton being interviewed by Jessica Adams for On The Street (OtS) Sydney.  OtS was a popular free weekly music and arts publication in the 1990’s, Jessica Adams was Editor of OtS at the time.

Writer, musician and visual artist  Zoë Howe recently edited the original version of this transcript for AMMP.tv.

The interview took place in the 1990’s, just prior to Elton appearing in two shows (Sydney and Melbourne), organised by Peter Garrett to bring attention to environmental issues.

 

Ben Elton image provided by Penguin Australia by Johnny Rigg

ADAMS: Now I understand that the concert’s come about because you are friend of Peter Garrett?

ELTON: Well, I mean, that’s how I happen to be specifically doing this concert, but I do as many benefits a year as I can for the various things that I’m particularly interested in, and certainly this won’t be the first time I’ve tried to be involved in the Green debate.  But certainly, these specific concerts are (what) Peter asked me if I’d do.

Awhile back, he (Peter Garrett) said next time you’re in Australia — it all came about because about a couple of years ago we met on Rave – that’s one of the great places for meeting people – and he had a little benefit already arranged for Jervis Bay, I don’t know if you remember it? It (the Jervis Bay event) happened at the Harold Park Hotel, in Sydney. He (Garrett) asked me if I could do that and that was a couple of years ago and we had a bit of fun and I said look, you know, if I can ever help again I will.  So, he (Peter Garrett) said keep in touch whenever you’re in town and we’ve sort of met a couple of times since and yeah, on this occasion it came together and I said look, I’ll do two shows, one in Melbourne and one in Sydney.

ADAMS: It’s hard trying to be totally environmentally sound isn’t it?  I just wondered if there was anything that you catch yourself doing that makes you cringe.

ELTON: Oh, everything.  I mean, it’s very, very important, in a way I don’t think we should really use even use terms like ‘totally environmentally sound’, because there is no way.  It’s not even necessarily desirable because, the facts of existence, I mean every action one takes has a reaction to quote a bit of neutrality and physics.  And it’s because we’ve failed to act responsibly as a group, that the actions we take out are having such a devastating effect.  For instance, the internal combustion engine doesn’t have to be an evil, you know what I mean?  So, the fact that using a car isn’t even in itself, it’s just that we don’t pressurise, as a democracy our elected representatives enough to legislate properly so that we run a society (in an environmentally sound way).

What I’m trying to say is that the most off-putting thing of all, and it’s equally off-putting for me as it is for anybody else, is the idea that there is some draconian list of rules, that if you don’t follow, you might as well forget the whole damned thing, you know what I meant?  And I certainly don’t want to set myself up as some kind (of) somebody who knows better.  When I get on that stage on Friday night, I’m just as much a part of the debate as everybody in the audience, you know.  I was asked by a newspaper, ‘what’s your message?  Tell us how to save the world’.  That’s fucked.  You know, I don’t know, you don’t know but we can all be part of the debate, we’re all confused, we’re all worried so yeah.

Obviously, one tries as best to make sure one gets involved in the recycling, don’t use your car too much and use public transport.  But it would be a terrible thing if you feel you have to chastise yourself every time you did anything wrong, I mean the problems are wider.  I reckon if anybody was feeling guilty, then don’t, you sort of put sack-cloth glasses on, just spend 20 minutes writing to your MP asking where they stand and what are they pressurising their party on, for instance, at the moment the World Summit etc.  I think the debate is the important thing and that’s why I’m doing these gigs because it’s important to keep the issue to the fore.  The main thing is not to try to pretend anybody knows better than anybody else, you know.   Particularly, us ‘celebs’ because we don’t.  The reason I can do a gig and make some money, maybe for people who do know better, and that’s what I’m doing.

ADAMS: Onto the subject of ‘Stark’…

ELTON: That’s going to be a TV mini-series.

ADAMS: Is that an Australian production?

ELTON: It’ll be a British/Australian production.  BBC/ABC.

ADAMS: On the subject of TV, they’re still flogging The Young Ones.

ELTON: Yeah, I think it’s a shame, well, I don’t know. I can’t watch them anymore, they were of their time and there are still some good bits, but I find the good bits you remember and the bad bits you’ve forgotten, so you come away remembering the bad ways (sic) on the second watch.

I’d prefer it if they weren’t repeating them, I certainly don’t get paid for any of them.  I’ve got quite a high profile on tele at the moment.  Okay, they’re only The Young Ones, but I can assure you it’s not something they pay, they sell these things ad infinitum.  Even if I were being paid, I’d still prefer them not to repeat The Young Ones because I think it’s a good memory.  I think Black Adder still stands up quite well, but I’m not slagging The Young Ones, I’m terribly proud of it and my part in it, you know there was (sic) a lot of people involved.  I just don’t think it is quite as fresh as it was 10 years ago. It’s 10 years old you know.

ADAMS: Yeah, it is a bit of a time capsule thing.

ELTON: But I suppose it’s interesting in that respect, but I think perhaps new viewers might wonder what all the fuss is about, you know.

ADAMS: You mention Blackadder, are we getting a series after The Blackadder Goes Forth or not?

ELTON: No, I think not.  I mean I wouldn’t say for sure because why make myself ………. Like that — although it is not entirely my decision — I suppose the core decision makers are myself and Richard who write it, Rowan who is the principal star and John Lloyd who produces it.  I think if any one of us rang everybody else and say ‘hey, let’s do it again’, the other three would be very surprised, but we’d certainly listen.  It might happen, I think it probably happens when we all need the work, but fortunately at the moment, none of us do.

ADAMS: I read an interesting interview with Richard Curtis where he said that you were a big fan of Blackadder but you actually only like the theme tune.

ELTON: [laughs].  I didn’t know he did interviews.  When did he do that?

ADAMS: He did one, Q, had a thing on comedy writers and Q interviewed Richard Curtis, probably a couple of years ago now.

ELTON: Gosh, Richard doesn’t do interviews, he’s a very private guy.  Obviously, he must have picked up the phone on that occasion.  No, that’s Richard being facetious, we both loved it, but it’s quite a painful process.  We didn’t sort of split up in anyway, I didn’t really split anybody, but you know, Richard and I write a script, because that’s very difficult because co-writing takes a lot longer and is far more fractious than solo writing.

And you’ve already got a piece that’s been massively chewed over when it gets to rehearsal, then John and Rowan and Stephen and Tony Robinson get involved.  It’s a very long and tough process and I don’t think anybody at the moment feels like doing it again.  Particularly since we were very proud of Blackadder Goes Forth.  I mean, everybody felt it was the best series and the last episode was the best episode.  So, at the moment, leave while you’re ahead.  We only ever made twelve Young Ones as well, which is why they keep getting repeated because there are so few of them.

ADAMS: Do you have a favourite Blackadder simile?

ELTON: Occasionally.  It’s very strange, when I do gigs some strange sort of barking physics students will come up to me with a big grin on their faces and say something like, you know, ‘it wasn’t exactly a small newt scrotum was it?’.  I’ll look at them and I’ll say what the fuck are you on about?  And it turns out they’re quoting some line from Blackadder which is their favourite simile, which is, of course, very flattering and I shouldn’t say, well I don’t use the term ‘fart’ as an insult because I’m the biggest farty of all.  That’s why I’m doing this benefit because I’m such an ‘artist’, we don’t know how to look after things.  I don’t personally have a favourite line because frankly, I can’t really remember a lot of them.

ADAMS: Yeah, that’s funny.  The other thing I wanted to ask you about was what you’re writing at the moment.  Have you got time to be writing anything?

ELTON: Oh yeah, I mean yeah, I’m writing at the moment.  I’m actually, just as we speak, over this two-week period, in Australia.  I’m only over for a couple of weeks.  I’m actually doing, well hopefully, the finishing touches to the sixth draft to the Starks’ script.  So, that’s actually what I’m specifically doing at the moment.  David Parker and Nadia Tass are making it.  Nadia will direct it and David Parker will be Director of Photography.  You perhaps know them, best know for Malcolm and the Big Steel.  So, they’ve done a lot of fantastic work.  So they’ve got them in on it to bring them back to television.  It’s wonderful, I mean, because you know they’ve been in movies for so long, it was great that they were prepared to do this.

So, I’ve been talking to them a little and doing some work on the scripts to start with.  We shoot this southern spring.

ADAMS: Do you have a cast confirmed for that yet?

ELTON: No, and I certainly wouldn’t speak on it, because I’m not the producer nor the director.  It’s produced by Michael Waring who is the BBC Head of Features.  He’s done some unbelievable stuff, but Boys in the Black Stuff he directed, he produced Edge of Darkness.  So, he and Nadia will certainly do the casting.  I mean I’m sure they’ll discuss it with me, but I’m very careful not to be a part of these things in all the years I’ve done television and theatre.  I’ve only directed.  Once I directed one of my plays and that was great and I cast that, obviously because I was the director, but I mean on this occasion, I’m the writer so no, I think they’ve got a lot of thoughts, but certainly nobody’s actually been contracted.

ADAMS: Well, I think that’s just about it.  I’ll let you go onto your next three interviews.

ELTON: That’s great.  As long as you give the old benefit a plug.

ADAMS: Well, you’re on the cover mate, don’t worry about it.

ELTON: Tell everybody to go along.  Just one thing that I do feel very strongly about at the moment is, particularly in Australia, there almost seems to be an orchestrated effort by the media, the backlash, the secret war against Green.  There was an article in The Australian the other day, this absurd simile they keep using about Greenies, as if they’re some kind of religious zealot and try and pretend that Greenpeace is some kind of church.

I’m sure it’s being sort of orchestrated because there’s no evidence for this kind of ‘world ended’ – I’ve always wondering whether if there’s going to be a knock on the door at 5 in the morning and a Greenpeace executive will be full of children of green, you know.  I do think it’s pretty wicked, they actually had a TV documentary about it a few months ago which made my blood boil.  They said, ‘like all religions, they even have their own martyr’ and they cut to the Rainbow Warrior.  As if Greenpeace have blown the poor fucker up, you know, in order to make him a hero, you know.

 

Ben Elton Biography

Ben Elton’s multi-award winning career as both performer and writer encompasses some of the most memorable and incisive comedy of the past thirty-five years. In addition to his hugely influential work as a stand-up comic and as host of Saturday Live in the UK, he was co-writer of TV hits The Young Ones and Blackadder and sole creator of The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow.

Elton has written fifteen major bestsellers, including titles Identity CrisisStark, (which was made into a BBC series)  Popcorn, Inconceivable, Dead Famous, High Society, Two Brothers and Time and Time Again; three West End plays and three musicals, including global phenomenon We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. He has written and directed two feature films, Maybe Baby and Three Summers.

In 2019 he toured Ireland & UK with a new stand-up show after a fifteen-year break from live comedy, and was scheduled to do a following eleven shows in Australia in April & May 2020. Due to COVID-19 the Australian concerts have now be rescheduled to 2021. Visit Live Nation for more details on his Australia tour.

(Credit: part of Ben Elton’s above biography was adapted from a version which appears on the Penguin Australia website)

 

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