Ben Elton, writer, director and comedian
The only success worth having is honest success ...
Ben Elton doesn’t read reviews. He learnt three decades ago while first forging his way in the comedy industry that taking to heart the words that are written about you – whether good or bad – can bring little good. In fact, he won’t even read this interview. He offered this disclaimer as we sat down over a cup of tea at Queensland Theatre Company last week to natter about his new play, Gasp!. Balancing a nasty case of jet lag with a full day of rehearsals, the award-winning novelist, playwright, TV and screen writer, lyricist, director, stand-up comedian and occasional actor lights up as he shares the personal joy of revisiting the first professional play he ever wrote. It’s this driving passion for his work that has led to hugely successful TV series like Blackadder and The Young Ones, musical hits including We Will Rock You and best-selling novels such as Popcorn and Inconceivable. Before Ben’s latest production opens at QPAC on November 17, The Weekend Edition enjoyed an honest chat about comedy and creative compulsion.
You’re such a prolific storyteller in so many different mediums, what do you think drives this compulsion to write? Is it a fascination with people, an attempt to understand the world around you or simply to entertain?
I have no idea really, I’ve just always known it. From when I was really quite young, 11 or 12 years of age, I began to know that I wanted to write comedy. I think it’s in my physical make-up. Everybody has their thing and I just have this ongoing compulsion to write …
We know you felt the creative cravings early on, but what else can you tell us about Ben Elton as a child?
Well I don’t think I was quite as irritating as some people presume I might have been … I know I talked a lot – my mum had a rule where I had to try not to start yabbering until she poured her second cup of tea. I was always very talkative but I wasn’t a smart aleck, and it wasn’t in an alienating sense. I know I made my mum laugh. Of the four kids, I was the clown, a bit of a show-off … I discovered amateur drama when I was ten and loved it. All of my mates were into football and I couldn’t have been less interested – I was just trying to audition for the local musicals!
Well it certainly paid off. Over the years, you’ve penned theatre productions, TV series, films and novels – do you have a personal favourite medium, or is that like choosing a favourite child?
What I enjoy most is working with people. So although a lot of my time is spent alone, because I’m principally a writer, what I like most is being among the company of actors on the studio floor. Writing a play and writing a novel are of equal irritation and pleasure to me – it’s something I feel the need to do, and sometimes I enjoy the moment, but it’s still work. But a script may well allow me to get into a studio and work with actors, while a novel will never allow me to do that.
And yet you’ve written 14 best-selling books …
Well the joy of a novel, as opposed to a play or a TV series, is it creates a relationship between the artist and the person who is receiving the art, which is astonishingly intimate and I never get over that. When people say to me they’ve read one of my novels, I just think that’s an incredible compliment – they’ve shared my imagination with theirs on the most intimate level. In any other medium, there are so many other people involved, from camera operators to costume designers to actors, and that’s lovely and wonderful, but it doesn’t have that pure intimacy. With a book, it’s almost a conversation between two imaginations – me producing something and you interpreting it and taking it in.
Your new project has seen you flicking back to the first professional play you ever wrote, Gasping, but this time setting the production in resources boom-era Australia. What made you want to revisit the piece?
It’s very exciting – not many playwrights get an opportunity like this to comprehensively revisit and rethink a play and an idea that excited me very much when I was half my age. It was a great idea that I’ve always wanted to develop – the conceit of a world where suddenly technology makes it possible to contain air and distribute it and change it and sell it in various ways – and then of course the inevitable social and environmental consequences of what is effectively a new and unexpected resource. I actually spent some time with Russell Crowe trying to make a screenplay of it about ten years ago. The play I wrote originally, although it was a big hit, was very simple and deliberately cartoon-like, and I’ve always thought there was more to it.
You’ve been in rehearsals all morning – are you still tweaking and refining the script at this stage, is it still an evolving beast?
Absolutely! But I always do, I can’t even stop me. I’ve just been in Munich for a week with We Will Rock You, which after 12 years I think I’m still improving. Comedy is a living thing and I love working with actors, asking them, ‘What’s a good word for this? ‘How can we make that metaphor better?’
That central idea of the play – privatising the air we breathe – is a fascinating concept. When did the idea first sprout and how did it evolve?
I actually got it from a novel that influenced me a lot when I was a kid, called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists written by Robert Tressell in the Edwardian times. It was a socialist novel written by a working man who was a painter and decorator, about a man who was a painter and decorator trying to get a union going in Edwardian England, against a great deal of opposition from the powers that be. One of his arguments to his colleagues is, ‘There’s plenty of food in the world and plenty of coal, but we’re all shivering and we’re all starving, and that can’t be right.’ His friends say, ‘But it is right, because someone owns the coal and the food, and we have to buy it and that’s just the way the world is.’ And this character offers the example of air and says, ‘Imagine if air could be contained in the way that food and coal can, then you’d be as short of breath as you’re short of food and cold in the winter. So is it inevitable that resources really are owned – or is it merely that that’s the way the world has come about?’ I was incredibly impressed with this passage, I read that when I was 17 and when I was 27 I used it as the inspiration for Gasping. But Gasp! isn’t a socialist play, it’s a morality play about how we deal with the resources of the world. It’s a rip-roaring comedy, but a comedy of tortured consciences – of which I think there are probably many in the resources sector …
Speaking of comedy, you were quite the alt comedy icon in 1980s England. Can you remember the first stand-up gig you ever did – was it terrifying?
Yes, very terrifying! You remember things that are difficult and grim – and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve never had to go to war or experience something truly terrible, but within the experience of a comfortable person who’s lucky enough to be brought up in a civilised world, I can honestly say that becoming a stand-up comedian was a very difficult thing indeed … You either get better quickly, or you have to stop.
Well your perseverance has earned you fans around the globe and many awards. Most of us would call this ‘success’, but what does success personally mean to you?
The only success worth having is honest success, when you’ve believed in yourself and taken a risk. In the long run, you’re much more likely to get big success by doing that because really good stuff is all about somebody doing something difficult and challenging. All I can say is that even though of course I always wanted to be successful and get my stuff to as wide an audience as possible, I pursued my own work and I’m pretty lucky that it’s been successful. There’s no real success for an artist in trying to be a ‘success’; you can’t produce anything worth producing if your principal ambition is to be successful – just seek to express yourself to the best of your ability and hope that people enjoy it.