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Saturday Interview: I've never been hip. What's wrong with being an anorak or a train spotter?; YES INDEED, LADIES N' GEN'LMEN.. MOTOR MOUTH BEN ELTON ON LADS, MARRIAGE, OASIS AND A BIT OF POLITICS.

The interview over, the interviewee fancies a pint across the road.

The pub is empty, apart from three pensioners who sup stout, suck dentures, stare at racing on the telly and wouldn't know the small, dark-haired comic in the glasses from Arthur Askey.

Ben Elton likes it like that. He likes his beer too.

We're talking politics and he gets carried away. After an hour he spies a clock and it almost ushers a change of underwear.

"Jesus, no. Oh no." He has ten minutes to get across London to do a live interview with a New Zealand radio station and what colour is left in his face drains quicker than you can say his name and goodnight.

I suggest the practice adopted by thirtysomething, wide-boy Media Lads when they hit trouble with radio stations - go on a West End bender. It doesn't wash.

"You're joking. I can't let them down. This has never happened to me before."

He narrowly escapes death by taxi, and when he enters it, words fly from his mouth like shrapnel from a Sten gun. "It's breakfast time in Auckland and some poor DJ is saying, `So that was Middle Of The Road singing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. Now coming up, live from London, Mr Ben Elton.' Oh God. Will I make it?"

I tell him it's only a few hundred sheep-rearers we're talking about, and try to lure him into a pub-crawl. I fail. This isn't a man who lets people down.

In fact the comic who in the Eighties was perceived as a "loud-mouthed, smug, arrogant, bigoted git in a shiny suit" doesn't have much time for the Nineties version of his old self.

"The New Lad thing is a joke. The idea that being a p****d-up w****r is new is ridiculous. I've been one more times than I can remember, and there's nothing new, fashionable or cool about it."

Gazza, Chris Evans and Danny Baker, drink your livers out.

"In my day if a man wanted to buy pornography he had to be honest about it. He had to ask for a copy of Fulsome Funbags and some Kleenex. Now he buys Loadedand flatters himself that he's a post-modern icon, an unreconstructed bloke, a fearless battler in the crusade against political correctness.

"I've bought Loaded because there's a picture of Tiffany from EastEndersin a bra on the cover, and that's the only reason anyone buys it. Not because there's some unwitty article about how to drink lager and have it off at the same time. Oh s**t, I'm off on a rant again, aren't I?"

He is. Ben Elton still rants. When he does he looks like a scaled-down version of Grant Mitchell at closing time in the Queen Vic. He talks loud and fast, his eyes expand, his neck veins bulge above a black T-shirt which highlights muscular biceps.

HE MAY be a millionaire, feted in literary circles for four fine novels and three even finer plays, but the anger is still raw.

Homelessness, Labour's drift to the right, the environment and someone called Thatcher dominate his waking thoughts.

"She turned the Royals into radicals. And Major has achieved the most astonishing thing in British history. He has made the judges look like lefties."

What annoys \Elton even more is the treatment handed out to Neil Kinnock: "He's the most misrepresented man in British history. The vilification was inexcusable. He was an intelligent, sensitive, strong man. What a great prime minister he'd have made."

Elton is still a member of the Labour Party but the passion has clearly waned.

He was brought up in Surrey, one of four children. His father was a professor at Surrey University. All young Ben wanted to do was write, and by the time he'd finished reading drama at Manchester University he'd written 30 plays. At 21 he became the BBC's youngest ever scriptwriter, later penning two of its finest sitcoms, The Young Ones and Blackadder.

In 1981 the cash dried up, and in order to eat he did a stand-up routine at London's Comedy Store, moved on to Saturday Night Liveand provided right-wing commentators with a face they could kick to death. His act was despised by many. Why was he so loud and frantic?

"The first summer I did stand-up there were riots in every city in Britain. Then there was the miners' strike, Wapping and the Falklands. But apart from all of that, I was bloody petrified."

Elton doesn't look smug in real life. But smug was how he was perceived. Did all the criticism hurt?

"You bet it bloody did. We all want to be liked. It's not fun getting a kicking."

Weren't you asking for it? The in-your-face, big-headed persona?

"Well no. Because actually I haven't got a big ego. If I had do you think I would write for others? No. I'd take all the plum roles myself, wouldn't I?"

"I'm not a natural clown. I'm not Rik Mayall or Rowan Atkinson. What I've got is words and ideas."

THE criticism has waned. His new play, Popcorn, which opens in the West End this month, is getting rave reviews.

He's got a sell-out, 85-date stand-up tour and he has just fronted the Brit Awards. So how does it feel to be hip again?

"I was never hip. I was always the earnest, smug git. I hate cool. What's wrong with anoraks or trainspotters? Why do we have to sneer at anyone who isn't sneering?"

He thinks for a second and slaps his leg as if he's discovered gravity. Then he says the following sentence slowly:

"The only way to avoid being sneered at is to sneer. Yes! I've always hated cynicism. Always thought it the most boring of all poses.

"I mean Oasis are brilliant but they're trying too hard not to give a s**t. And I knowhow much of a s**t they give.

"Look at The Girlie Show. They're saying everyone is a w****r. Everyone. It's pathetic and it's sad that feminism to them means acting like a shower of p****d-up lads."

Elton is married to Sophie, an Australian guitarist. Apparently their union is blissful.

"Give us time. It's only been three years," he says.

He's being unusually evasive. "OK, so we're fantastically happily married, but I don't think that's unique.

"Lots of my mates are happily married. Rik (Mayall) and Barbara, Jenny (Saunders) and Ade (Edmonson), Lenny (Henry) and Dawn (French). Even Harry (Enfield) has done a couple of weeks now."

I point out they're all comedians. And maybe the Eighties mafia is destroying the theory that comedians are sad, insecure clowns.

"I'm not insecure," he hits back - too quickly. So I mention his BBC sitcom, The Thin Blue Line, which surely made him feel insecure.

"I wrote a perfectly innocuous sitcom. And a very successful one. But it was as if I'd peed on the Queen Mum and dropped an electric fire on her.

"But comedy is inexplicable. If you only ever saw one episode of Friends you'd think it was a pile of crap.

"You'd think, who are these six smug, self-indulgent, pampered, New York, supermodel coffee-drinkers."

I DID. And I thought it was crap. And The Thin Blue Line wasn't much better. I couldn't comprehend how it been written by same hand that wrote Blackadder.

"That's it. My entire TV writing career is judged on the last seconds of the last episode of Blackadder. And that's unfair."

Which is fair enough. Ben Elton seems to have an answer for everything. So I go for the big one. Ben, I ask, why are we here?

"Well, as far as I'm concerned it's to try and act honourably and achieve happiness. Because it's not possible to achieve happiness acting dishonourably."

He dashes from the cab and sprints into his office, visibly relieved that there are seconds to spare and he hasn't let down the sheep-shearers.

And I'm left with the impression that here is an honourable man.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Reade, Brian
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 15, 1997
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