The New Statesman Profile - Ben Elton

A cross between Goebbels and George Bernard Shaw, even his jokes betray a galloping didacticism, says Toby Young.

Ben Elton is, by all accounts, a very nice man. In the course of researching this profile, I didn't speak to a single person who had a bad word to say about him. On the contrary, he was frequently described as intelligent, conscientious and hard-working. According to his friends and colleagues, he's true to his principles, faithful to his wife and scrupulous about not letting success go to his head. In short, he's the very essence of a good bloke.

Why, then, do so many people hate him?

Mention Elton's name at a dinner party - even a dinner party hosted by Labour luvvies - and everyone starts groaning with pain. The response is often quite passionate, seemingly out of all proportion to his faults. What is it about this thoroughly decent chap that brings people out in hives? Somehow the king of alternative comedy, the man who made a name for himself by attacking "Thatch", has become the Noel Edmonds of his generation.

How did this happen?

A good deal of it, no doubt, is attributable to sour grapes. Still only 41, Elton has enjoyed more success in four separate careers than the vast majority of people have in one.

First, there's his career as a television writer. He joined the BBC in 1980 as its youngest ever writer and helped create The Young Ones, a ground-breaking sitcom that altered the landscape of television comedy for ever. He subsequently joined forces with Richard Curtis and together they wrote the second, third and fourth series of Blackadder, generally considered to be the best British sitcom since Fawlty Towers. His most recent credit is as the writer of The Thin Blue Line, which hasn't received the critical acclaim of his earlier work, but has been a huge ratings success for the BBC.

Next, there's his career as a stand-up comedian. At 21 he became a regular at the Comedy Store; at 23 he made his television debut on a programme called Alfresco; and by the time he was 28 he was headlining on Friday Night Live, a prime-time BBC showcase for Britain's stand-up talent. He's still a regular television performer, most recently as the host of The Ben Elton Show.

Then there's his career as a novelist. To date he's written five best-selling novels - or "novs", as he calls them. The most successful of these, Popcorn, sold 450,000 copies and came within a whisker of being short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Finally, there's his career as a playwright. He made his West End debut with Gasping in 1990 and followed it up with three more. Popcorn, which he adapted from his own novel in 1996, won acclaim from some unexpected quarters, including Mary Whitehouse and the Daily Mail, and received a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

To this glittering array of careers, a fifth can now be added: Hollywood player. His latest project - a film called Maybe Baby which he wrote and directed for the BBC - has just been sold to a US distributor for a tidy sum, guaranteeing it a wide release on the other side of the Atlantic. Will the self-confessed "smug git in a shiny suit" be the first of Britain's alternative comedians to make it in Hollywood? No doubt if he picks up the Oscar for Best Director he'll make a speech in which he first describes himself as a "farty" and then goes on to chastise the studios for perpetuating racial and sexual stereotypes.

Perhaps the first charge that might fairly be laid at his door, in the light of all this versatility, is that he spreads himself a little thin. Obsessive Elton-watchers have been known to trace jokes that have made their debut in The Young Ones, re-emerged in a more polished form in Blackadder, been wheeled out again as part of a stand-up routine, then shamelessly repeated in one of his novels. Elton prides himself on being environmentally conscious, but that's taking recycling a bit too far.

A more serious charge is that his work is extremely uneven. For every successful BBC sitcom he's written, there has also been a failure, including Filthy Rich, Catflap and Happy Families. Even the successful ones have varied in quality. For instance, few would dispute that the second series of Blackadder was infinitely better than the third. More recently, the episode written specially for the Skyscape cinema in the Millennium Dome, Blackadder Back and Forth, is as dismal as everything else connected with the £780-million folly. On the day the Dome opened to the public, I watched the film with a captive audience of 2,500 overexcited Blackadder fans and it barely got a laugh.

Still, even if Elton's writing is occasionally mediocre, that doesn't explain why the mere mention of his name unleashes torrents of babbling rage. There are plenty of hack writers churning out sitcoms for the BBC, yet none of them elicit the furious response that Elton does. What is it about him that gets up people's noses?

One complaint that has dogged him for at least ten years is that he's a turncoat, largely because he's never had any qualms about accepting jobs that seem completely at odds with what he stands for. For instance, in 1989 he hosted Wogan, happily substituting for the television personality who'd become a byword for bland, middle-of-the-road entertainment. More recently he's been collaborating on a musical about football with Andrew Lloyd Webber, surely a man who, once upon a time, represented everything he hated.

Elton is very sensitive to the accusation that he has sold out. When the Mirror estimated his personal fortune at £5 million in 1998, he immediately fired off a letter vehemently denying it. "I am indeed a very lucky and well-paid person," he wrote, struggling to adopt a suitably humble tone for the Mirror's readership, "but for the record I do not have a tenth of that amount."

If that's true, it is remarkable given that earlier in the year he'd signed a two-book deal with Transworld Publishing which netted him £1.5 million. It's not as if he's a big spender, either. His well-publicised views about fossil-fuel emissions mean that whenever he's in London he travels everywhere by Tube.

Another, slightly different, charge is that Elton has never been quite as "right on" as he seems. When he first appeared on Friday Night Live in 1987, railing against the Conservative government for its neglect of the National Health Service, critics pounced on his conspicuously fake working-class accent. They gleefully pointed out that the motor-mouthed, street-fighting comic had been brought up in the leafy comfort of Godalming, the son of a professor at Surrey University, and that he'd attended Manchester University.

Even today, as a fully paid-up member of the Notting Hill set, he likes to pretend that he's a man of the people. In the last series of The Ben Elton Show, he did a stand-up routine about Marks & Spencer food in which he pretended not to know what the words "canapes" and "crudites" meant. Not even the most credulous, lager-swilling Elton fan would believe that.

But he isn't the only middle-class boy guilty of dropping his h's to garner a bit of street cred. Irritating though this ploy is, it hardly explains the preponderance of Elton-haters.

The answer, perhaps, is that he takes himself far too seriously. He has a tendency to sermonise - even in the middle of a stand-up routine. In a peculiar way, the funniest British comedy writer since John Cleese doesn't have a sense of humour.

Take the following quotation from a newspaper interview in 1997 in which he admitted that he'd never been considered cool. "I have no ability to look cool," he confessed. "I have always known that for what is considered cool, the main prerequisite is cynicism. I'm not going to do something I disapprove of in order to be liked." In typical Elton style, he starts off trying to sound self-deprecating and ends up bestriding the moral high ground.

His early novels aren't funny so much as laughably politically correct. In Gridlock, for instance, he unleashes a hysterical attack against cars. He doesn't like their macho image or their snobby, French-sounding names - above all, he doesn't like their fossil-fuel emissions. The hero is a wheelchair-bound scientist called Dr Geoffrey Peason who invents an environmentally safe car and who eventually prevails because, wouldn't you know it, people are always underestimating the disabled. (Elton doesn't refer to them as "the disabled". He calls them "people with disabilities".)

It's this terrible, creeping earnestness that people find so irksome. Elton can't help being sanctimonious, even when he's telling a joke. One minute he's the kid at the back of the class, making faces behind the teacher's back; the next he's the school headmaster, lecturing us on the Green Cross Code.

Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC's head of comedy and the co-producer of The Thin Blue Line, offered the following explanation to the Independent when asked why Elton put so many people's backs up: "A lot of it is to do with Ben's apparent self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. He argues his corner quite strongly, and quite often says serious things. People are suspicious of that. They think, 'a lecture's being slipped in here'."

However, before condemning Elton for his gallopping didacticism, it's worth bearing in mind that, without it, he probably wouldn't have amounted to anything. When asked what it is that motivates him above all else, Elton always replies that it's the desire to "communicate". It's his old-fashioned, socialist evangelism, his urge to instil his left-wing beliefs in others, that gives him his extraordinary energy. At bottom, he's a bug-eyed propagandist, a cross between Goebbels and George Bernard Shaw. He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Britain would surely be a poorer place without him.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School and a columnist for the Sun on Sunday and the Spectator.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands