Ben Elton Q&A: “The F-word is all very well, but it’s very little use as a comma”

The comedian and author talks Upstart Crow, PG Wodehouse, and Churchill and Attlee.

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Born in 1959, Ben Elton began his career as a stand-up comic, where he was associated with the left-wing “alternative comedy” scene. He was a writer on “The Young Ones” and “Blackadder” and later the Queen musical “We Will Rock You”, and has published 16 novels, including “Popcorn”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being in hospital for a night aged two. I had suspected meningitis; they basically knew I was fine but insisted on keeping me in. They wouldn’t let my mum stay with me and I was in a room on my own and I was very distressed. My dad was furious with the hospital. I remember a bewildered night and a nurse occasionally coming in to say it would be all right in the morning.

Who are your heroes?

PG Wodehouse changed my life when I was about 11 – discovering him gave me the reading habit plus the best lesson in comic timing anybody could have. As an adult, I’ll go with Mandela. No leader ever had more cause for bitterness and vengeance and no leader ever set a better example or showed more greatness of spirit. The policy of truth and reconciliation is the best example of conflict resolution ever set.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

The book that affected me most of all was Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which I read when I was 17.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Churchill for 1940 and Attlee for 1948. Britain’s two finest hours and in the same decade. What were the chances?

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Pop and rock, 1956 to 1989.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Nothing pre-penicillin. To own a time machine is my favourite fantasy. First I’d go and see the Beatles at the Cavern but then it would be off to ancient Rome.

What TV show could you not live without?

Upstart Crow. Sorry to mention one of my own but I really thought my TV career was over and then Shane Allen and the BBC gave me another shot. I’m very grateful. It’s given me the most happiness of any show I’ve done on telly.

What’s your theme tune?

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

After seeing my act once my mum told me that the F-word is all very well as a punctuation mark but it’s very little use as a comma. I try to bear that in mind.

What’s currently bugging you?

The fact that nativism and nationalism are once more on the rise at the very moment when the most urgent problems facing humanity are entirely global.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not having psoriasis.

When were you happiest?

Childhood Christmas Eves.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

A Beatle.

Are we all doomed?

I’ve got kids so I have to believe we’re not, but in all honesty I am less confident about the prospects for humanity than I have ever been in my life. Our planet simply cannot sustain our wilful recklessness. 

“Identity Crisis” by Ben Elton is published by Bantam Press on 4 April

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty