Premium

Ben Elton Live, Nottingham Playhouse, touring, review:  motormouthed brilliance, anti-Boris ranting and unexpected pining for Margaret Thatcher

4
Ben Elton
Ben Elton Credit:  Trevor Leighton

Ben Elton careened into popular consciousness in the early Eighties with his motormouth stand-up – a prominent snarling face of the alternative comedy boom, that anarchic but politically progressive bunch of bright young things who consigned the likes of Benny Hill to history and changed British comedy forever. Now he’s back, all revved up and roaring with renewed discontent. Once he wanted to change the world; nowadays he just wants to make sense of it.

It’s 15 years since he last went on tour. In that time, much has happened professionally. There have been half a dozen novels. His flop sitcom The Wright Way (2012) has been followed by the fillip of Upstart Crow (2016-), restoring the critical kudos he established with Blackadder and The Young Ones (somewhat battered by his part in the Queen musical We Will Rock You).

In terms of personal appearance, that mullet of his is long gone; his hair is thinning and greying. Many comics in late middle-age (he’s 60) take a pop at creaking limbs, flagging libidos and failing faculties. All that is entertainingly alluded to here, along with the unkind jibe that he has hit the road to avoid his wife’s menopause (there are disloyal generation-divide digs at his son too). But it’s what has shifted socio-politically in the interim that he’s feeling the most.

To spend two hours in his hyper-garrulous, cockney-accented company is akin to listening to a man who has woken up in an age that bewilders him. No longer wearing the spivvy suits of yore but casual dark jeans and stripy top (and glasses, as per usual), he declares his theme early on at his first UK stop-off. “I don’t understand anymore,” he wails. “My confusion isn’t just increasing going forward, it’s increasing retrospectively. I do not even get what I got.”

His thesis thus declared, he draws into his one-man debating chamber the rise to world-dominance of the internet (not good, in his view – he wishes Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t bothered), the discombobulating emergence of identity politics (broached in his current novel), the waning of our meritocracy and a host of other issues, some trivial some less so (there’s a blistering riff on his father’s hideous end-of-life suffering). It’s like a TED talk with gags, some of them foul-mouthed.

Elton’s timing and phrasing remain impeccable, his structure is masterly, and his restless physicality impresses too. The stock-still combativeness that characterised his early compering of C4’s Saturday Live has been cast aside.

Not all the gags land. He self-identifies the show as very funny and denounces anyone who dissents as committing the hate crime of Ben-ophobia. Groan. Yet he’s astute enough to note the absurdity of hogging the limelight amid the twilight years of the patriarchy. “I am a straight, white middle-aged man – do I have a scintilla of the cultural credit required to take the piss out of identity politics? Of course, I don’t.” Mind you, is he even a man? He ponders with teasing – but politically correct – finesse the arrival of non-binary categories.

These days, Elton seems more comfortable than ever in his own skin: that erstwhile self-righteous studenty indignation has ripened into self-mocking Middle Englander incredulity at the pace of change – he huffs at Fleabag’s explicit sexuality and puffs at our declining high streets. Amid Elton’s amazement at the lack of boundaries today, some kind of apology from him would be nice. After all, mightn’t the collapse of deference and rise of dumbing-down and “woke”-think owe something to his sneering right-on example?

The biggest surprise of the night is that he now thinks fondly of the once-reviled (almost running-gag) “Thatch”: “I miss Mrs Thatcher – she was a woman of principle,” the old lefty says, to gasps. The biggest disappointment is its related excoriation of Boris Johnson. The last 10 minutes are a tub-thumping, doom-laden tirade. “A little bit of politics”? Great. A ranting load-full? No thanks, Ben.

Touring until Dec 20. Details: benelton.net