Ben Elton on Friday Night Live’s Return and Today’s Comedy

“The last time we did it, a right-wing Conservative woman was prime minister, some city bankers made it up and Cliff Richard was putting out a Christmas record,” Elton said. “Literally, nothing has changed in 34 years.”

The return of Saturday Live (or rather, strictly speaking, its successor, Friday Night Live) is a chance, he says, to settle unfinished business. “Channel 4 never really celebrated a show that changed British entertainment,” he tells me. “It was the most influential variety show since Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The world of modern stand-up started with Saturday Live.

More like this

The original Saturday Live aired from 1985 to 1987, followed by Friday Night Live in 1988, and left an impressive legacy. Some of those who made their first appearances on the show may have started out as part of the alt-comedy vanguard, but they’re now household names.

“I have a group of friends who all became very famous, but none were famous when we became friends,” Elton says. “I met Stephane [Fry]Hughes [Laurie] and Emma [Thompson] on the same day in December 1981, as Granada assembled a group of unknown talents to put on a show. The show flopped, but the friendships have lasted ever since. I’m having lunch with Hugh and Emma next weekend and I see Ade [Adrian Edmondson] tomorrow evening.”

It’s not just the acts that have appeared on Saturday Live that have gone mainstream. In the 1980s, Elton and his cohort were dismissed as overly “fair” and alternative comedy would be derided as an alternative to comedy. “No one ever really knew what that phrase meant,” Elton recalls, “but it had a meaning. The one thing that was a hallmark of most new acts in the 80s was an active movement against racial comedy and sexist. We had a new mindset and wanted to find new ways to be funny. It was ridiculed then, but time vindicated it.

Saturday Live helped Ben Elton make a name for himself, but fame comes at a price. Too many people have seen a bright, garish young man talking about politics, a revolutionary when he only ever wanted to be an artist. They thought he was obsessed with Margaret Thatcher when he was actually obsessed with Morecambe and Wise; they imagined he wanted to overthrow the old guard of comedy when in fact he had written jokes for the Two Ronnies.

It probably didn’t help that Elton, whose mother was an English teacher and father a physics professor, adopted an exaggerated accent on stage, leading some to accuse him of inauthenticity. When he later collaborated with composer and Conservative Party supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musicals The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies, the accusation of inauthenticity was joined by allegations that Elton, who supported Labor , was a hypocrite.

Ben Elton on Friday Night Live. Channel 4

All of this helps explain why, while Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders and the others are universally admired, Ben Elton’s public reputation is more disputed.

Everything could have been so different if he had never appeared on Saturday Live. “If I hadn’t had that gig, my whole life would have been completely different,” he says. “I only became an actor to advance my writing and I always thought that as soon as I became a successful playwright, I would stop that. [stand-up], because it’s awful. So I would have done it less and less. I was already a very successful TV screenwriter before Saturday – The Young Ones and Blackadder II had been hits.

It’s amazing to remember that Elton was only 23 when he co-wrote the groundbreaking game The Young Ones and had already co-written Blackadder II with Richard Curtis before it appeared on Saturday Live. After Blackadder, Richard Curtis wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and a series of other films, and I had always assumed that both Elton and Curtis were now far too rich and successful and busy to imagine working at together again. “We were a great team and I talked so many times about doing something else,” Elton reveals. “Not Blackadder yet. I don’t think any of us want to do that.

So what’s stopping them from working together again? “It’s Richard,” said Elton “I think I needed it more. I’m always the one to say we should try. And he kind of says yes, but no because Richard spends half of his life working only for charity, so he has to focus on his movies, and I guess he doesn’t need me to help him with them, given how successful he’s been.

Elton’s post-Saturday Live career was not short of success: 16 novels, five West End plays, four musicals including Queen’s musical We Will Rock You and Rod Stewart’s musical Tonight’s the Night, three film scripts as well as the sitcoms The Thin Blue Line and, more recently, Upstart Crow, which he also adapted into a stage play currently playing in the West End.

In 2019, he returned to touring with his first stand-up show since 2005, in which he reflected on all that has changed in culture and comedy. “I find it unfortunate that there are no rules,” he says when I ask him what he thinks of modern sitcoms. “We were so lucky because we had all these very tough strict rules – ‘you can’t swear, you can’t talk about sex’ – and that meant we had to be very creative in finding ways to do it. . But if you’re basically able to say anything, then no one will bother to think of a more interesting way to say it.

Ben Elton in Friday Night Live

Ben Elton in Friday Night Live Channel 4

The irony is that while there is this freedom to say anything, that freedom is arguably more restricted than it was in the 1980s.

I ask him if he agrees that these days the left is more censored than the right. “My wife [he is married to the Australian musician Sophie Gare, with whom he has three grown-up children] came up with a good observation the other day,” he says. “She said our generation is about breaking the rules and it seems the younger generation is about making the rules: these are things you can’t say anymore, these are things you should be saying now. There’s a a whiff of Maoism in the air, a whiff of cultural revolution. There is now a new way of thinking, and you will be asked to think it. Most of these new ideas appeal to me, but I am a little afraid that ‘I’m told to do it.

He then adds that I shouldn’t assume that means he’s anti-reawakening. I also shouldn’t assume he’s a curmudgeon who thinks everything new is rubbish. He loved The Office, but is less enamored with what followed in its wake.

“The idea that the only legitimate way to be fun is to be understated and ironic and basically do a Gervais sub is a very corrosive attitude,” he says. “Comedy which admits that its purpose is to make people laugh has gone out of fashion, and I have suffered terribly from it. Some of my stuff may not have been so good, but it was castigated for being so old-fashioned that it was deeply and morally wrong.

In other interviews I’ve read, Elton is often described as fragile and defensive, and there are flashes of that today – defending criticism I didn’t make and answering questions which I did not ask, for example. “I just had a lot of shit,” he says. “I could never do an interview without being asked, ‘So you’re sold?’ ”

I haven’t used that word in this whole conversation, I tell him. “No, but I’m talking about what happened in the past,” he says. “It’s only relatively recently that I went unanswered for an alleged crime that I know I didn’t commit.”

I tell him he reminds me of Paul McCartney: a slightly needy desire to please, a preference for hummable melodic tunes and a lack of cynicism meant he was never seen as the cool or given respect. the most abrasive that John Lennon received. . He does not mind comparison. “That’s why people always thought Alexei Sayle was so special – because he was rude to everyone,” he says. “I always want to be nice. I’m like Paul, I’ll try to be polite. Farts are never considered cool.

When he first appeared on Saturday Live, Ben Elton was in his twenties and represented the future of comedy. He returns to the show at the age of 63 – does he worry about trying to stay relevant? “I had my chance to have an influence,” he says.

“I am very proud that the language of the Young Ones and Blackadder is still part of the culture to this day, but nothing I write now will enter the language. No act I do will be considered before. -thinking because I will never be young again. I will never change the game

Ben Elton on the cover of this week's Radio Times

Ben Elton on the cover of this week’s Radio Times Radio schedules

I was, so I will continue to express myself as honestly as possible and try to find as wide an audience as possible.

In recent years, that audience has, to its obvious delight, begun to change. “I used to go to the door of the stage and see people who were my age, but suddenly there were the 50s and 60s, but they brought their children to the show,” he says. . “It was joyful for me. Realizing that you can still be relevant and fun for young people is a beautiful thing to imagine.

Cheerful and, I suppose, delightfully vigilant to know that after all these years, his work is appreciated and respected, not only by the aging members of his own generation, but also by their young ones.

Did you love this great RT interview? Check out these…

This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. If you’re looking for something to watch, check out our TV guide.

The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for just £1. For more on TV’s biggest stars, listen to the Podcast Radio Times View From My Sofa.