Ben Elton speaks to Event about his renewed reputation and comedy in the social media age

Ben Elton says, with relief in his voice: ‘It’s nice to get some good bloody reviews again, at last!’

He’s really not joking. The co-creator of the brilliant Blackadder and The Young Ones was once the king of alternative comedy, and he’s back in favour with a blistering new book called Identity Crisis and a pair of unexpected hits featuring William Shakespeare. The sitcom Upstart Crow with David Mitchell and the movie All Is True with Kenneth Branagh both concentrate on the Bard’s home life. ‘Five years of my life have been dominated by Shakespeare,’ says Elton. ‘I didn’t see that coming!’

Ben Elton says, with relief in his voice: ‘It’s nice to get some good bloody reviews again, at last!’

The Bard has redeemed Elton’s reputation, which was at an all-time low six years ago. He stood accused of selling out by writing musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the rock band Queen, Love Never Dies and We Will Rock You. ‘I spent a lot of time on We Will Rock You and I don’t regret that for a moment,’ says Elton, who has profited from its 12-year run in London and continuing performances around the world. But the critics loathed it and one even said he ‘should be shot for such a risible story’. Then came The Wright Stuff, a sitcom about health and safety in 2013 that was abandoned by viewers and savaged for being painfully unfunny.

‘I never Google myself and I never read what is written about me, but if you have kids in the house you can see it on their faces and that was hard,’ says Elton, speaking in his study in Fremantle, Australia, where he has lived for the past decade with his musician wife Sophie. He’s approaching 60 now and his swept-back hair is turning white, although he still wears a youthful Breton-style striped T-shirt.

‘After The Wright Stuff people were saying I should be hung for it and asking why were my shows s***? I was this awful person and it was weird. Newsnight had a thing on me – the panel discussed why I was rubbish!’

The experience lit a spark that ultimately led to the novel Identity Crisis, an entertaining crime thriller about the way lives can be ruined when people get a kicking online, particularly now when it is so easy to say the wrong thing.

‘The age of outrage is making everybody nervous, everybody is watching what they say. Everybody is aware there’s this social media machine that could suddenly make them world-famous as a hate figure.’  

The co-creator of the brilliant Blackadder and The Young Ones was once the king of alternative comedy

The co-creator of the brilliant Blackadder and The Young Ones was once the king of alternative comedy

His old-fashioned murder detective Mick Matlock drops a clanger at a press conference and is swept up into the bewildering world of blurred gender lines, reality shows and social media outrage. He struggles to understand what’s happening and find the right language when a trans woman, a famous feminist who questions whether a transitioning man can ever be regarded as a woman, and a computer gamer who identifies as Wotan Orc Slayer are murdered.

Transsexual rights and the question of what does – or doesn’t – make someone a woman is at the heart of the plot. It’s fast, funny and close to the bone, but surely Elton was taking a bit of a risk? Not many other straight male writers would dare to touch the subject right now. ‘That’s why it’s timely. We are too scared to talk about stuff. You can’t shut people down.’

Not everyone around him was as confident.

‘I’ve taken a lot of trouble. I’ve had a lot of people read it. It made me nervous. My wife said, “Oh God, you’re going in to these identities, you’ve got a trans character, you’re a middle-aged straight white man.” But I say, “I’m a novelist, the satire is not about the characters. The satire is about the outrage that swirls around us all.” ’

Did he have a trans person read the book before publication? ‘I didn’t know anyone and I felt it would have been a curious exercise to seek someone out, as if seeking permission. I didn’t think that would show respect, either to me as an artist or to a very broad community who all will have different personalities and different opinions. There is no one trans person, just as there is no straight white male.’

Elton was often criticised for being too politically correct in the Eighties, but now finds himself lagging behind.

‘I’m feeling like a dad man. I’m aware I have no cultural capital. I could play the half-Jew card but I’m not going to. I’m a middle-aged white man, from a privileged middle class. But I can stay in my lane, so my hero is like me. I like to think I’m not one of the bad ones.’

 There is a problem with a world where truth is subjective. We may be looking at a new Dark Ages

Elton stays away from Facebook and Twitter but is well aware of the fury generated there.

‘The outrage is exaggerated. I don’t think people are as filled with anger as they’ve been painted, but there are troll factories manipulating and generating outrage. This is terrifying. And there is a problem with a world where truth has become entirely subjective. I think we may be looking at a new Dark Ages.’

So what should we do?

‘A lot of people wish the internet had never been invented. All right, I wish it hadn’t. I see empty high streets. I see people finding their communities in the dark recesses online but never knowing who lives next door to them. I regret it, but it happened. There’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no point being a Luddite. We need to continue to attempt to hold the tech giants to account. We have to make laws with teeth and hit them where the money is, with taxation.’

David Mitchell as Will Shakespeare and Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth in Upstart Crow

David Mitchell as Will Shakespeare and Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth in Upstart Crow

Elton has long been associated with Comic Relief, so what did he make of the Twitter row recently in which MP David Lammy attacked journalist Stacey Dooley for going to Africa for the charity, saying: ‘The world does not need any more white saviours’?

‘It’s a good example of how Twitter can blunt and coarsen debate. Charity is complex and we all struggle with it. Most sensible people can see the contradictions while also wishing to do their bit. David Lammy has a point in that Western attitudes to Africa, no matter how well intentioned, can be counter-productive, although he could perhaps have put it less combatively. It’s complex and Twitter can’t do nuance, as I explore in my book.’

Just a few days before our conversation, a right-wing gunman who spread his beliefs online killed 50 worshippers at a mosque in New Zealand, but Elton resists making any connection with the issues in his book.

‘My novel is really not about that level of madness or evil. I do not consider homicidal lunatics part of an identity group, I consider them to be criminally insane. The most culpable enabler of the horror that destroyed so many innocents in Christchurch isn’t the internet, it’s the fact that people can buy machine guns in high street shops.’

The killer came from Australia, where Elton now lives. His wife Sophie is Australian but they are considering spending more time in England again now their children – Fred, 18, and twins Lottie and Bert, 19 – are grown up, with the boys at university in Melbourne and Lottie studying at Cambridge. ‘The nest is now fully empty and so we’re thinking about the future. I’ll be in Britain throughout the whole of the autumn touring, so we’re still living a double life.’

Why is he returning as a stand-up after 15 years? ‘My wife has always encouraged me to do stand-up. I sit there in front of the telly, saying, “I wish I was on the road now, I’d skewer this.” She says, “You should think about that.” ’

He continues to work so hard because he wants to, despite an estimated wealth running into tens of millions. ‘I consider it the greatest privilege of my career that I made enough early on that I haven’t had to work for money. Richard Curtis [his Blackadder co-writer] and I turned down “Police Academy Six: The London Beat!” ’

That was in 1989, just after Blackadder Goes Forth, when Ben Elton was at the peak of his first fame. He has three Baftas, two Oliviers for the theatre and a British Comedy Award on his shelf.

‘There should be bloody more Baftas, that’s all I can say. I’m kidding, obviously. I remember my mum saying 30 years ago, “Oh Ben, when will they start to like you?” I said it would probably be when I’m about 40. Ha! Well, I’m nearly 60 now…’ 

‘Identity Crisis’ is published on Thursday by Bantam Press, priced £20