A gong for Elton?

Profile - Stephen Smith wonders why an old lefty is now singing for the Republicans

As you read this, I have every confidence that Washington is still resounding to the cheers that will surely have greeted the end of Ben Elton's song, "Let Us Love In Peace". Musicologists have been scratching their heads to come up with a precedent for Elton's booking at George W Bush's inauguration. When did an artist last put his talents at the disposal of a head of state in such a way? Some critics may feel that there hasn't been a case like it since Stalin made Shostakovich his pet composer. But that would be terribly unfair. Poor old Shostakovich had no choice in the matter, whereas Elton rushed into the presidential clutches as if on castors. (That's to say nothing of what we might call the musical differences between the pair.) Bush had apparently requested a snatch of Elton's operetta about Belfast and football, the product of his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Elton explained: "When we wrote The Beautiful Game, we wanted to cover issues that could come out of the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan as much as Northern Ireland. Presenting the musical in Washington reinforces that context."

For a closer precedent of a prodigy laying his skills before a head of state, we might turn to Noel Coward. He also agreed to perform a small service on behalf of the United States government. "Lunched at the White House. Mrs Roosevelt as nice as ever and the President full of vitality," Coward told his diary in the dark days of December 1943. "After lunch I sang "Germans", which the President enjoyed keenly. Morgenthau [US Secretary of the Treasury] has asked me to make a recording of it for the government broadcast, which of course I shall do." Elton has said that he is an admirer of the master. He shares Coward's ubiquity - Elton has variously been a television scriptwriter, novelist, director and librettist - and appears to fancy himself a breezily irresistible wordsmith in the Coward vein. "I love playing with words," he said last year. "If you look at Blackadder or The Young Ones, I think some of the comic rhythms have entered the language. I'm proud of that."

Elton first made his name as an agitprop comedian: he put the stand-up in stand-up argument. His prime target was Margaret Thatcher, or "Thatch". Julian Barnes remembers a friend consulting a doctor, in the 1980s, about possible brain damage. The patient was asked: "Can you tell me who is the Prime Minister?"

" 'Everyone knows that,' my friend answered, half triumphant, half derisive. 'It's Thatch.' " The physician's question was a stock one, so it's a rare kind of feat to which Elton can lay claim: patenting the stock reply.

He test-piloted his premier-baiting routines as a hard-up wannabe at the Comedy Store in London. In a prescient essay on the future nabobs of alternative comedy who graduated from this environment, Ian Hamilton saw them diversifying into LPs (as they then were), not to mention tours and movies. But not even he anticipated comedians doing PAs at world leaders' gigs. An informal portrait snapped at No 10 in the late Nineties shows Elton and Mick Hucknall rubbing tailored shoulders with the Blairs (a shot reportedly referred to on one picture desk later the same evening as "the balloon-debate tag-team from hell").

Now that Elton is happy to do a benefit for a right-wing politician, work that several entertainers of the old school have hitherto regarded as their own, is it absurd to imagine him emulating them in other respects, such as threatening to leave the country if the lefties get in? We may be there already. Elton, the one-time whipper-in of Neil Kinnock's vote, told the Daily Express last May that he wouldn't be placing his cross in London's mayoral contest. "To be honest, sometimes you have other things on your mind," he said, with the air of a man whose steamer trunk is packed.

The former "motormouth" was reluctant even to discuss the contest. His interviewer commented: "It would only be 'Ben backs Ken' or 'Ben slags Ken'." Refusing to let the L-word pass his lips will have done Elton no harm in Downing Street. There's no suggestion that there was anything in it for him. However, it is well documented that indulgent Labour governments make a habit of rewarding the nation's showbiz favourites. Elton's hero, Noel Coward, signs off his diary with an account of another lunch, this time at Buckingham Palace in 1969. "During lunch the Queen asked me whether I would accept Mr Wilson's offer of a knighthood. I kissed her hand and said, in a rather strangulated voice, 'Yes, Ma'am'."

A gong for Elton? Remember where you read it first. His fans would say that he deserves it, not least for the stick he has taken since joining forces with Lord Lloyd Webber. As one first-nighter said: "It's not as if he's done a musical comedy with Dr Harold Shipman." Elton is popular and wealthy, and entitled to think that a lot of the criticism is sour grapes. When the Times raised the question of whether he had gone soft, he said: "Of course I answer, nonsense. I know that I've pursued the same principles and vision, whatever ridiculously overblown terms you might like to use to describe somebody who writes comedy. But I certainly have no complaints. Anyone who complains about the small inconvenience of having managed to be successful, young and make a lasting impression on people is very foolish."

Why is it always about you? It doesn't seem to occur to Elton that, as a writer who has traded on what used to be called a social conscience, he has to take care where he pitches his stall. To raise only one example, how does it look for the author of Gasping, a satire about greedy corporations franchising the air we breathe, to don the motley for a former governor of Texas who has been accused of favouring his friends in the petrochemical industry at the expense of the environment? Not the least irony in all of this is that the Ben Elton of 20 or even ten years ago would have seen it as grist to his mill. On second thoughts, the story of a left-wing rabble-rouser who embraces a Conservative peer as Rodgers to his Hammerstein, before serenading a polluting, convict-exterminating Republican, is beyond even Elton's satirical gifts.

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. His book Cocaine Train is published by Abacus (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson