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Ben Elton on the General Election, Rik Mayall memories and an incredible comedy legacy

Ben Elton.
Ben Elton.

Ben Elton doesn’t have much praise for Rishi Sunak, but he is happy about one decision the prime minister has made – calling an election before he goes on tour.

The comedian and writer, who spent much of the 1980s railing against the Thatcher government, heads back out on the road in September when it’s likely that Labour, the party he’s long supported, will be in power.

His tour show, Authentic Stupidity, uses the hook of the rise of artificial intelligence to reflect on society’s idiocy in letting the world get to the state it’s in. And, while politics will undoubtedly be in his sights, he’s glad it’s long after all the ballots have been counted.

‘I’m glad it’ll be over’

“I really don’t want a distraction like the election,” he said. “You can do three jokes on their personalities. But I mean, we all know. I’ve got so much material I want to talk about.

“I’d rather do that and give people a lovely night where we all share our common humanity than beat myself up trying to think of something about what Sunak’s said on the news yesterday. I’m quite glad to not feel the obligation of talking about it.”

In recent years, a point often made is that real-life politics has become ever more farcical and often outpaced satire.

“It’s difficult, post-truth and in a world of show-boating clowns,” Ben said. “Boris Johnson and Donald Trump between them set a bar so disgustingly, despicably low for self-interest, narcissism, sociopathy.

“Trump has made a world where even the people who love him say, yeah, he’s a criminal. But, hey, he’s Jesse James. They actually see it as some sort of credit.

“The American election will happen bang in the middle of the tour, which is so existentially terrifying, I doubt I’ll say much about it.

“It’s too scary. We’re watching democracy dismantled in real time here. There’s not much to be said about the current American election that’s very funny.”

Ben sees Boris Johnson, left, and Donald Trump as “show-boating clowns” who have set the political bar “despicably low”. © PA
Ben sees Boris Johnson, left, and Donald Trump as “show-boating clowns” who have set the political bar “despicably low”.

Something else Ben is sure of is that the argument of “they’re all the same, don’t vote” doesn’t wash.

“The greatest counter of democracy is that awful canard,” he insists. “They’re not all the same.

“They might all be getting a bit more similar, which is worrying, but one party invented the NHS and one is systematically undermining it.

“They’re not all the same. Even within parties. There are decent Tories, I’ve met a few. I knew John Major very slightly and he was by far the sanest voice in Brexit.

“He makes a lot of sense – it’s a shame he didn’t make so much when in office.”

Authentic Stupidity takes Ben to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the first couple of weeks of his tour.

He loves the “intellectual freedom” stand-up gives him – even if, at 65, heading out on the road for 67 shows is more physically demanding than it used to be. “I present myself perhaps slightly shoutier than I am at home, but what I’m saying is, to use that Gen-Z word, my truth,” he explained.

“That’s a great way for me to write every now and then, because if I’m writing a sitcom or a novel I’m in lots of different heads, playing different characters.

“When I’m on stage, it really is me. Artistically it’s very invigorating. Physically, it’s a slightly daunting prospect.”

Ben Elton in 1990. © Shutterstock
Ben Elton in 1990.

Rik Mayall memories

While it’s a different life on the road these days, Ben looks back fondly on his early days on tour with Rik Mayall.

This week saw the 10th anniversary of the death of the comedy icon, with whom Ben had a long-time professional relationship and a cherished friendship.

“The most fun I ever had on the road was with him,” Ben recalls. “It’s the only time I’ve ever toured with anyone.

“We did five together. They were much shorter in those days but it felt like a lifetime.

“We were early-20s and making money. It just felt incredible. We could buy anything we wanted to eat or drink and when you’re in your 20s that’s all you want.

“Rik was a proper star. It was exciting to have kids wanting autographs and he would get mobbed, it was a little bit rock’n’roll.”

It’ll be theatres Ben plays this time around when he visits Scotland, but it was the comedy clubs north of the border he remembers from his first forays into stand-up.

“We always used to start at Fat Sam’s Club in Dundee. That was where I recorded my first album, Motor Mouth, in 1986. Every bit of laughter is coming from Scots!

“Scotland meant a lot. It was Thatcher’s Britain and obviously she was even less popular there than she was in England.

“I remember one time there was a bit of a scrum at the stage in Glasgow, a nice scrum, but people getting over-excited about seeing Rik.

“The cops gently sorted the scrum out for us. I thanked them and they said ‘oh aye we’re not all Maggie’s boot-boys you know!’”

Ben Elton with his great friend, the late Rik Mayall, right, and Nigel Planer from The Young Ones. © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock
Ben Elton with his great friend, the late Rik Mayall, right, and Nigel Planer from The Young Ones.

The art of stand-up

When asked if he still gets the same thrill going out on stage as he did back then, he gives the answer his wife has advised him against – he doesn’t, and never really has.

“It’s a big effort,” he explains. “I’ve got thousands of words. I talk very quickly. I do two hours, all sorts of ideas weaving back and forth.

“I can’t deny it, I’m quite tense on stage. I love finishing the gig and feeling I’ve delivered, that my imagination has melded with that of the audience.

“With Rik, I could see he felt like Mick Jagger. He’d go on stage, he’d strut and preen and he loved it. He could work that audience with magic, a shrug or a grin and it’ll be a huge laugh.

“I’m not like that. I never have been – you have to listen to what I’ve got to say.”

A comedy legacy

Many have over the years, and through projects from Blackadder to his musical We Will Rock You and, of course, his stand-up, Ben has a huge cultural legacy.

“It’s an immense source of joy, but I don’t feel all tingly about it because I’m not a very reflective person,” he admits.

“I haven’t watched The Young Ones or a Blackadder in many decades. I don’t read my novels again.

“It’s particularly lovely when people like my books, because that is a real commitment. Anyone can drop in on an episode of Blackadder on YouTube, but to actually read 350 pages of a novel is a very intimate connection to have between artist and reader.

“I take great joy in all those connections and being involved in projects which really did enter the cultural fabric back in the day when you could still do that, when everybody was watching and talking about the same thing. I feel very lucky to have started when I did.

“It’s immensely satisfying to know The Young Ones and Blackadder actually still live on in the way people talk, even to this day.”

Ben Elton – Authentic Stupidity, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, Aberdeen Music Hall, Sept 3-5. Visit