El­ton’s back – but is com­edy a young man’s game?

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts -

Eight years ago at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe, I in­ter­viewed an Amer­i­can YouTube com­edy sen­sa­tion called Bo Burn­ham. He was only 20 and had a sim­ple the­sis – com­edy, he told me, was a young per­son’s game. He asked me to kill him if he turned pre­dictable. Sure enough, he has since switched to screen­writ­ing and di­rect­ing; his first fea­ture film, Eighth Grade, came out to much ac­claim this sum­mer.

I thought of Bo on hear­ing the news last week that Ben El­ton, aged 59, is set to go on tour next year. He was, you will re­call, the An­gry Young Man of Bri­tish com­edy back in the Eight­ies. He was the smart, smarmy mo­tor­mouth who dom­i­nated Chan­nel 4’s Satur­day Live (com­pèring its suc­ces­sor Fri­day Night Live), which in­tro­duced the na­tion to the new “al­ter­na­tive com­edy” scene that had emerged, leer­ing and sneer­ing, from Lon­don’s Com­edy Store. In suit and tie, large specs and of­ten ter­ri­ble hair, he carped on about the so-called ills of Thatcher’s Bri­tain. His catch­phrase “A lit­tle bit of pol­i­tics” se­cured the at­ten­tion – if not ex­actly the af­fec­tion – of the view­ing masses at home.

Given his in­volve­ment with some of the best sit­coms of the decade

– The Young Ones and Black­ad­der – he stood some­where be­tween com­edy god and ob­nox­ious git. And his rep­u­ta­tion has fluc­tu­ated ever since – those who re­viled him as a pseudo work­ing-class lefty got handed am­mu­ni­tion as he churned out best­selling pop­ulist fic­tion and trooped off to work with An­drew Lloyd Web­ber and Queen on mu­si­cals. Re­cent suc­cess with his Shake­speare sit­com Up­start Crow has boosted his stock. But isn’t that en­tirely the prob­lem ei­ther way? Suc­cess it­self smoth­ers the edgi­ness of stand-up.

If El­ton and his con­tem­po­raries such as Rik May­all and Adrian Ed­mond­son aroused ad­mi­ra­tion, it was be­cause they were flick­ing the fin­ger at all the old-timers who had hogged the lime­light in the Seven­ties. The sud­den pro­lif­er­a­tion of com­edy clubs that gave El­ton and co a platform flowed from the per­cep­tion that com­edy was the new rock ’n’ roll.

The lo-tech na­ture of the form al­lows those with­out power and in­flu­ence but with fizzy en­ergy and pup­py­ish fear­less­ness their own soap­box. But El­ton now looks like the an­tithe­sis of the voice of anti­estab­lish­ment “yoof ”. His recla­ma­tion of his old turf is equiv­a­lent to those wrinkly rocker tours. Peo­ple may praise the Rolling Stones for keep­ing go­ing, and for what they have achieved in the past, but no one thinks they’re rel­e­vant.

And if you’re not rel­e­vant in com­edy, what are you? An ob­struc­tion? A nos­tal­gia act?

Even those who never played on be­ing young can’t es­cape the prob­lem of the up-es­ca­la­tor of suc­cess mak­ing it harder for them to keep their feet on the ground. In re­cent shows, co­me­di­ans such as John Bishop and Micky Flana­gan have re­flected on that dif­fi­cult dis­con­nect. It’s hard to credit anec­dotes about some­one do­ing the self-ser­vice su­per­mar­ket check­out when you know they’re loaded. At this year’s Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val I watched Regi­nald D Hunter: once the epit­ome of con­tro­ver­sial, he sud­denly sounded com­pla­cent.

Some co­me­di­ans – like the great Billy Con­nolly, who has only just an­nounced his re­tire­ment – man­age to keep go­ing for decades, some­how stay­ing young at heart even as they ac­quire wis­dom and wealth. The late Ken Dodd’s cheery re­fusal to re­tire, or ac­knowl­edge his ad­vanc­ing years, in some ways be­came the run­ning gag that fu­elled his longevity.

For those who enjoy wide­spread af­fec­tion, there’s no press­ing need to quit. It was a shock when hy­per­ac­tive Lee Evans did so, aged 50, in 2014, feel­ing that he had done all he could. Rather less of a sur­prise was French and Saun­ders’ de­ci­sion to call it a day. On the wane as a com­edy force, they ended on a high in their 2008 farewell tour.

We’ll see how El­ton fares. Given that we’re go­ing through a bit, if not a hell of a lot, of pol­i­tics, he may have cho­sen the per­fect mo­ment to resur­face. But he should heed what his griz­zled for­mer Com­edy Store as­so­ciate (also turned fic­tion-writer) Alexei Sayle said, ahead of his abortive re­turn to stand-up: “My wife is very anti me do­ing this,” the for­mer loud­mouth joked. “She says I’m di­lut­ing the legacy. Her the­ory is that I’m so revered be­cause no­body has ever seen me.” As they say, many a true word is spo­ken in jest.

Tick­ets for Ben El­ton: Live 2019 are on sale from to­mor­row at 10am (tick­et­mas­ter.co.uk).

Bit of pol­i­tics: but can Ben El­ton, left, hope to be as rel­e­vant in the age of Brexit as he was in the age of Thatcher? He is pic­tured dur­ing re­hearsals in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, in 2016, be­low

How tick­led I am: Ken Dodd re­fused to re­tire and that be­came part of his act


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