elton01Ben Elton on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton

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Aside from being devilishly handsome, Ben Elton is one of the world's great talkers, in fact there's a good chance I mightn't get a word in past, "Welcome to the show". So if I slip out at some point during this interview for a drink, it's only because I know you are all safe in the hands of the prolific Ben Elton.

ANDREW DENTON: God, you are handsome.

BEN ELTON: Yes, you too.

ANDREW DENTON: Welcome back to our fair shores and back on the stage after 10 years with 'Get a Grip'. Are you still just as nervous as you always used to be?

BEN ELTON: No, I don't get nervous before I go on stage anymore and I haven't done for a very long time. I don't think that you can possibly carry on as a comic if you continue to suffer the sort of nerves that you do when you start. I mean I used to say the arsehole of a stand-up comedian ages at twice the speed of the rest of his or her body. I'm 47 but my arse can remember the war.

ANDREW DENTON: Do you ever really let yourself go? You're such an organised person mentally, in your ideas and your thinking and expression, is there ever a time where you just are completely unravelled?

BEN ELTON: I am quite organised, in that I'm often thinking about work, my work, which is self expression, so it's a lovely job to have. I'm sort of heading this, I'm not I'm not craving, sort of, moments of madness or, sort of, drop a bunch of magic mushrooms and rush through a field or anything. I think, perhaps, I'm never disengaged. Like, one of my big recreations, one of the things I really enjoy doing, is chopping wood and splitting logs and things. I'm very lucky, I've got a bit of land in WA and we've got a nice place in Sussex, and I love the fact that when a tree comes down, because naturally they do you know, I can work it. I can reduce it to firewood over a period of time. But I'm a wood bore. Sophie can't believe I try and get people interested in grain and things, because obviously if you want to split a very large piece of wood - I know, you're already glazing over.


BEN ELTON: You've got to attack it, and, mate, if you've only got like four or five wedgies and there's a piece of wood that big, you got to decide where to drive them in or they'll all be in there and you'll be buggered.

ANDREW DENTON: So correct me if I'm misrepresenting you, but basically deforestation is a Zen experience for you?

BEN ELTON: As I say, I work only on fallen wood. I'm a wood manager.

ANDREW DENTON: Is that right? And if a tree falls in a forest and no-one was there to see it except you, Ben Elton, who was responsible?

BEN ELTON: I'd chop it up.

ANDREW DENTON: Your mum calls you a 'worrit', which means what?

BEN ELTON: That was a long time ago. A worrit - I'm very concerned about other people. I think a lot of people are. I used to feel, if I was a dinner party, like if there was a gap in the conversation it was kind of my fault, and that's a foolish trait and an intrusive one. I mean it wasn't a major thing. She didn't get up - not each day, "There's the worrit," you know, "I see the worrit's come home from school." It was a phrase I remember using to describe, I think in the days when I used to do a routine called Captain Paranoia I went through a lengthy period of plug checking and gas checking, you know like leave the house, "Oh, I'd better go back one more time. Yes, that ring's off, yes that ring's off, that ring's off," because obviously they could easily have turned themselves on.


BEN ELTON: And, you know, the electricity could leap from the wall to the pilot light and then, well, the world would explode and then I'd have no-one left to worry about so I'd better go and check the gas. But I got over that. So whatever it was she was referring to, I think it's gone. She certainly hasn't used the phrase in a long time.

ANDREW DENTON: You've had the chance to meet some of your heroes. Were you cool then or were you a fan? People like Paul McCartney.

BEN ELTON: Oh, always a fan. I mean I think I know enough about human nature not to be boring. I do know that people like to be appreciated, and even if you've achieved - a true, true cultural great, like a member of The Beatles, will always be appreciative that people like what they do. Because people tend to think the next generation are all going to hate them anyway. But, yes, of course I'm a fan. I mean I got to meet all the surviving Beatles and actually get to be friends with two of them particular, George Harrison and also Paul. I mean not hanging out every night and "What you're doing tonight, mate? Let's have a sausage together." But I knew them properly and I don't think any aspect of my fame, such as it is, has ever been more satisfying in that it opened that particular door. Because, for me, The Beatles weren't just the greatest rock group of all time, I think they're arguably the greatest popular artists of the 20th century. I mean, certainly, you know you could have Chapman, The Beatles, whatever, but for me anyway.

ANDREW DENTON: I don't want to stay on a celebrity jag with this, but I do love this story and I'd love you to share it. An awkward moment - you and Robert De Niro.

BEN ELTON: Goodness gracious, it sounds like all I've ever done is - look, I've been in the business 25 years. Over that time I've met a few interesting people. I got to know Bob, as I'm allowed to call him, although I don't know him remotely well, I mean the man - it's been quite a long time now. But the brief period I knew him slightly because he was involved with the Queen musical - long story short - you get into rehearsal, De Niro comes over to see and then we have sort of summit meal where, you know, he wants to express some of his doubts and his worries, and there were some doubts and worries because we were halfway through developing this colossus which had a very difficult start indeed. But, anyway, I set it up myself and we had a frank exchange of views, at the end of which he - it the most appalling situation - we were in a room in a restaurant which was a room - they'd booked a room for eight, unfortunately there was 16 of us. So here we were, with De Niro, literally - I'll just do it for you, we were sitting like this, everyone was cheek by jowl, and it was this tiny room. I was a good five bodies away from him and at the end of it, "Okay, I've got to go, got to get to the airport," and sort of, "See ya, see ya, see ya." He did this - it was a surprise, he got up, and I thought, "Great, he's going to go so we have a tiny little bit more room," he's not a big guy, he wasn't going to make a lot of difference, but anyway. He then worked his way round past Brian, you know, round past Roger, and he there's behind me, and I'm - because, literally, we're like this. This is Robert De Niro, hovering over me, was he going to whack me? He was like this. And I think, "I'm up for the hug." He wants to give me a hug, which was a lovely gesture, but we were in the wrong room for it. You know, I've got the manager of Queen there and I've got Brian there, and I had to do this and he had to - and we had one of those awful hugs where you can't - there's no room, it's all gone wrong, you're...

ANDREW DENTON: You're hugging his belly button?

BEN ELTON: I was hugging his - yes, I kind of was somewhere around there and he was sort of hovering over. But, anyway, we touched each other in various places.

ANDREW DENTON: That's a collaboration.

BEN ELTON: That was a collaboration. It's obviously, I'm sure, not one that he'd remember, but it certainly was a funny moment.

ANDREW DENTON: I suspect it's one he remembers all too well.

BEN ELTON: I think he does. I think it comes back to him at night. He thinks, "Did I enjoy that a little too much when that little half-Jewish, English farty guy with the knob gags put his head very close to mine." I don't know. Maybe. Maybe he remembers.

ANDREW DENTON: Can we move on to slightly weightier matters? A lot of your books are about great themes of, in some ways, human decay and darkness. We've got war and we've got the destruction of the planet, we've got reality TV, all difficult themes, and yet you're a very positive person. Where does your faith in humankind come from?

BEN ELTON: Well, it's instinctive I think. I don't think that to be, sort of, robustly critical of oneself and one's environment and the times in which you live, necessarily indicates a despair or a kind of vicious anger. I can be angry without being negative. I think perhaps we're not maintaining our rage, certainly in environmental terms. I mean I deal with this a lot in the tour, in my show. There's a sort of spurious theme that sort of takes you through the two hours of nob gags, which is the - I start by looking at the size of a Mars bar I've just bought. I don't know if you're aware, they've just got bigger over the years. I mean, you know, the Mars bar used to be too big, even when it was an ordinary Mars bar, and now modern Mars bars make the original Mars bar look like a Milky Way, you've got to be honest. Basically I do a long - I say, "The journey tonight is to draw a parallel between the size of my Mars bar and Newton's Third Law of Mechanics," which is - this is stand up comedy at the edge, mate, this is the cutting edge.

You stand up in front of 2,000 people and say, "Now where were going tonight is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the size of my Mars bar." But the point I'm making is that basically as everything grows, Mars bars, 4X4 cars, TV screens, coffee cups - at what point did we start drinking coffee in pints? I mean that's extraordinary, isn't it. I mean 20 years ago, "Are you going to have a coffee?" "Yes, I'll have a half. No, bollocks, I'll have a pint. Go on, give us a pint." The obscene over-production, oversizing of everything, you know, from cars - you know, they re-released the Mini - it's not a Mini anymore. It's a biggie. It's a largie. It is a genuine - I mean you look at the modern Mini and that's our world. There was a beautiful little tiny car designed once. Now they've redesigned it three times as big and they still call it a Mini. In the meantime you've got Newton's Law, haven't you? And I'm kind of giving away one of the punchlines of the show, but basically for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and as the Mars bars get bigger, the rainforests and the ice caps are shrinking.

ANDREW DENTON: And as you come to that realisation, father of three young kids, does that make you worry?

BEN ELTON: Yes, I mean yes of course. But again it's difficult, isn't it? And what am I doing? I mean I'm a massive consumer. I was saying like get a grip, the whole point is get a grip. That's what the tour is. When you get a grip of anything, there's four fingers pointing back at you, and I'm very aware of that. My own culpability. There's, indeed, constant involvement in eating the seed core, which is what we're doing, consuming the world's resources.

ANDREW DENTON: So what do you do to wind that back, to make your contribution?

BEN ELTON: Well we all do our bit, don't we? We do our recycling, we do our best, we don't run a second car, some people have to, we are able not to. You know, feel guilty the whole time, which is a real big contribution. I really feel that's helping a lot.

ANDREW DENTON: There's a study done that guilt is actually trapping temperature and creating a greenhouse effect...

BEN ELTON: I believe, yes, the guilt that's sitting over everyone...

ANDREW DENTON: Yes, nothing can escape.

BEN ELTON: ...As they read the 18 sections of their newspaper about how we're consuming the world. How many more sections about the environment can we get?

ANDREW DENTON: John Clark, a man you admired, described the internet once as a junk shop dressed up as a museum.

BEN ELTON: Well, that's a very interesting phrase. I mean I'm not anti - this is isn't Luddism at all. It is an extraordinary tool and one that's very, very useful. Again, I deal with it at length on stage. I mean you know, good comes with bad. Spam, who is out there? What are they hoping to achieve, these Spammers, that every time I log on and nobody's sent me any emails, except I got 10 invitations to increase the length of my dick. What do they think going's to happen? I mean I'm going to, "Oh, that's - oh, gee, I never thought about that." I mean, as I say, on some credit, "The snail mail, oh how contemptible, it's so slow," but at least the postman didn't heckle you about your nob size every morning. I mean when I was a kid, you know, National Geographic, there's a tit. Now, click, click, click, there's eight billion tits.


BEN ELTON: I mean I guess that's progress. Look, I'm not going to burden - the conversation we're having, you and I both know that we take great delight in much of what is new and what is fascinating and there is much to be said for this, God knows where this 'My Space' thing is going. Apparently every band can now find a constituency. Gosh, it would be great if they could, as long as they then go out and play live. But, look, let's see where it ends up, but I do not subscribe to this romanticism about this incredible array of information that young people are going to be suddenly empowered by and using, because I know, from the banality of my own thoughts and the laziness of many aspects of my own youth, that it actually takes an effort to get anything of any value and you can't do it quick. You can't absorb ideas quickly, you can't appreciate a story quickly, you can't revel in a character creation. I find it much more difficult to find time to read a book because, as you know, the more time we have, the less we have. Now there are so many distractions, you know. The days when, "The sun's gone down, we've got half a candle, what should we do? Well there's a book, we might read it," are gone because now what can't we do? DVDs, instant download. I've got, like, 60 channels at home. You know, it's extraordinary.

ANDREW DENTON: And this is the other question about time, and I've asked you to send me, because there's no way I could remember this, just a list of what you've done over the last five years, and this is just a summary of it. I've had to write this down, it's quite incredible. This is your professional achievements over the last five years - four novels...

BEN ELTON: They're not all achievements.

ANDREW DENTON: Well, four novels, six screenplays, not all of them made...

BEN ELTON: In fact none of them made, I think.

ANDREW DENTON: Nonetheless written, wrote and directed three stage musicals in various countries, wrote and directed three TV series, wrote and appeared in 'Get a Grip', done 55 Dates. You've written monologues for people like Rowan and charity gigs and the Queens Jubilee Concert, and you've got three kids under the age of six.

BEN ELTON: And I do my bit as well.

ANDREW DENTON: How is this humanly possible?

BEN ELTON: If you're watching in Freo...

ANDREW DENTON: You're either writing a book in a minute and a half. How can you do all of this?

BEN ELTON: It doesn't take as long as that, Andrew. I'm lucky, I work at home, I'm a writer, so I see plenty of the kids. I find I get up ready to face the day. Soph needs a cup of tea, so you know I'm first up and get on with that. I like to be busy. I don't say this in any sense derogatively, but whatever "lazy" means, I'm not. Some people think, and I think there's a real argument to say, there's elements of being lazy which are highly commendable. They give you time to stop and consider and perhaps I should do more of that. But I consider things very quickly. The famous Ian Forster quote is a misquote, I don't know it exactly because I've never read him, why would I? I've got the Internet. So I can find his misquotes in seconds.

ANDREW DENTON: Yes, that's right, yes.

BEN ELTON: And I can find some bloke saying he was actually a woman and actually he never existed, and he killed Lady Diana shortly after he shot Kennedy. It's all on the net anytime you want.

ANDREW DENTON: Yes, I know. And he was flying that plane into the Pentagon on CIA instructions.

BEN ELTON: Exactly. So he said, "How can I tell you what I think until I've heard what I have to say," or at least he said something along those lines, and that's me. I'm no good at reflection. I don't achieve much sitting quietly.

ANDREW DENTON: Are you ever lost for words?

BEN ELTON: Well, if I were, you wouldn't know because I'd just sort of make up some other ones until I got back on track, I suppose.

ANDREW DENTON: Start speaking Esperanto?

BEN ELTON: Yes. I don't think - if I was lost for words, I wouldn't be lost for words because I wouldn't have anything to say. It's like this writers' block thing. For me, I often have writers' block in that I haven't got anything I wish to write or am writing. But for me that's just - you know, I'll wait until an idea occurs and I'll do it, and honestly there are many periods when I'm not writing. Sometimes a year might go by and I - like during this massive thing which is 'We Will Rock You', which has taken over so much of my life without me knowing it was going to, which is directing these various productions. I can't let go of it because the comedy is so important to the piece. So I look back on a year and I think, "God, I hardly wrote anything this year." But if something had occurred to me, I would have had to get back to the hotel and do it. So what I'm saying to you is, writers' block, lost for words, for me, lost for words, just not saying anything, which is a different thing.

ANDREW DENTON: Ben, it's been great talking to you. If you haven't got time to watch this whole interview, you can get just a transcript of it minimised on the net. Ben Elton, thank you very much.


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