Benjamin Charles Elton
3 May 1959
Fitzrovia, London, England
|Alma mater||University of Manchester|
|The Young Ones|
Benjamin Charles Elton (born 3 May 1959) is an English comedian, actor, author, playwright, lyricist and director. He was a part of London's alternative comedy movement of the 1980s and became a writer on the sitcoms The Young Ones and Blackadder, as well as continuing as a stand-up comedian on stage and television. His style in the 1980s was left-wing political satire. Since then he has published 17 novels and written the musicals The Beautiful Game (2000), We Will Rock You (2002), Tonight's the Night (2003), and Love Never Dies (2010), the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. His novels cover the dystopian, comedy, and crime genres.
Early life and education
Elton was born on 3 May 1959 at University College Hospital in Fitzrovia, London, the son of Mary (née Foster), an English teacher from Cheshire, and physicist and educational researcher Professor Lewis Elton. He is a nephew of the historian Sir Geoffrey Elton and a third cousin of singer Olivia Newton-John. Elton's father is from a German-Jewish family and Elton's mother, who was raised in the Church of England, is of English background.
Elton grew up in Catford, south London, before moving with his family to Guildford, Surrey in 1968, where he became involved in amateur dramatics groups. Reflecting on those times at an event in Guildford in 2013, Elton said:
I started with the Curtain Raisers in Onslow Village. Yes, we did Peter Pan in 1969 and mum persuaded me to go along to the audition. For me it was literally an Epiphany. My road to Damascus was Friar’s Gate. I had an absolute revelation. I loved the theatre and I knew I wanted to be involved in story telling and the public arts. From that moment onwards I was completely hooked.
Raised in a non-religious home, he is an atheist. Elton studied at Stillness Junior School and Godalming Grammar School in Surrey, before leaving home at age 16 to study theatre at South Warwickshire College in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he took and passed A-levels in English, History and Theatre Studies. In 1977 he went to study Drama at the University of Manchester, where he met Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, and in 1980 he graduated with upper second-class honours.
His first television appearance was a stand-up performance on the BBC1 youth and music programme Oxford Road Show. His first TV success, at 23, came as co-writer of the television sitcom The Young Ones, in which he occasionally appeared.
In 1983/84 he wrote and appeared in Granada Television's sketch show Alfresco, which was also notable for early appearances by Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane. In 1985, Elton produced his first solo script for the BBC with his comedy-drama series Happy Families, starring Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson. Elton appeared in the fifth episode as a liberal prison governor. Shortly afterwards, he reunited Rik Mayall and Edmondson with their Young Ones co-star Nigel Planer for the showbiz send-up sitcom Filthy, Rich and Catflap.
In 1985 Elton began his writing partnership with Richard Curtis. Together they wrote Blackadder II, Blackadder the Third (in one episode, Elton appeared as a bomb-wielding anarchist), Blackadder Goes Forth and a failed sitcom pilot for Madness. Blackadder, starring Rowan Atkinson, was a worldwide hit, winning four BAFTAs and an Emmy.
Elton and Curtis were inspired to write Blackadder Goes Forth upon finding World War I to be apt for a situation comedy. This series, which dealt with greater, darker themes than prior Blackadder episodes, was praised for Curtis's and Elton's scripts, in particular the final episode. Before writing the series, the pair read about the war and found that:
All the lead up to the first World War was very funny. All the people coming from communities where they'd never bumped into posh people and all being so gung ho and optimistic. The first hundred pages of any book about the world war are hilarious, then of course everybody dies.
Elton and Curtis also wrote Atkinson's 1986 stage show The New Revue, and Mr. Bean's "exam" episode.
Elton became a stand-up comedian primarily to showcase his own writing, but became one of Britain's biggest live comedy acts. After a regular slot on Saturday Live – later moved and renamed Friday Night Live – which was seen as a UK version of the US's Saturday Night Live, he became the host of the programme.
In 1990 he starred in his own stand-up comedy and sketch series, Ben Elton: The Man from Auntie, which had a second series in 1994. (The title plays on The Man from UNCLE: "Auntie" is a nickname for the BBC.) In 1989 Elton won the Royal Television Society Writers' Award.
The Ben Elton Show (1998) followed a format similar to The Man from Auntie and featured Ronnie Corbett, a comedian of the old guard that the "alternative comedians" of the 1980s were the direct alternative to, as a regular guest. It was Elton's last high-profile network programme in the UK as a stand-up comedian.
In April 2007, Get a Grip, a new show, began on ITV1. Featuring comic sketches similar to those on The Ben Elton Show and staged studio discussion between Elton and 23-year-old Alexa Chung, the show's aim was to "contrast Elton's middle-aged viewpoint with Chung's younger perspective" (although Elton was responsible for the scripts).
In Third Way Magazine, Elton accused the BBC of allowing jokes about vicars but not imams. "And I believe that part of it is due to the genuine fear that the authorities and the communities have about provoking the radical elements of Islam".
On 10 October 2010, Elton headlined the first episode of Dave's One Night Stand.
Elton worked on Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth, a live one-hour comedy show which debuted on 8 February 2011 on the Nine Network in Australia. Live from Planet Earth was axed by the Nine Network on Wednesday 23 February 2011 after three episodes, despite having six commissioned. The show's final airing rated 200,000 viewers.
In 2016 Elton wrote the sitcom Upstart Crow, parodying the writing and family life of William Shakespeare, and starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare. This programme ran for a second series in 2017, and a third series in 2018.
As writer and producer
Elton wrote and produced The Thin Blue Line, a studio-based sitcom set in a police station, also starring Rowan Atkinson, which ran for two series in 1995 and 1996. A prime-time family show, its traditional format and characters won it the 1995 British Comedy Award and both the public and professional Jury Awards at Reims.
In 2012 a new sitcom for BBC1 was commissioned, written and produced by Elton starring David Haig. Filming for a full six-part series of the sitcom The Wright Way (formerly known as Slings and Arrows) was completed in late February 2013. It debuted in April 2013 to negative reviews.
Elton starred with Adrian Edmondson in a sitcom based on the song "Teenage Kicks" for BBC Radio 2. A television version of Teenage Kicks for ITV has been made; Elton appeared in the pilot but was replaced by Mark Arden when it went to series production.
He has authored 17 novels since 1989, the first four published by Simon and Schuster, and the rest by Transworld.
- Bachelor Boys: The Young Ones Book (1984) (with Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer)
- Stark (1989), UK No 1
- Gridlock (1991), UK No 1
- This Other Eden (1993), UK No 1
- Popcorn (1996), UK No 1 and Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain Gold Dagger Award for fiction
- Blast from the Past (1998), UK Top 5
- Inconceivable (1999), UK Top 5 (later made into a film, see below)
- Dead Famous (2001), UK Top 1
- High Society (2002), UK No 1 and WH Smith's People Choice Fiction Award
- Past Mortem (2004), UK Top 5
- The First Casualty (2005), UK Top 5
- Chart Throb (2006), UK Top 5
- Blind Faith (2007), UK Top 10
- Meltdown (2010) UK Top 10
- Two Brothers (2012), UK Top 10
- Time and Time Again (2014)
- Identity Crisis (2019)
On a publicity tour for Past Mortem in 2004, Elton mused on the high school reunion theme and his own drama college reunion:
We'd had a very happy time all together, so there were no old scores to be settled really, we'd been a pretty happy bunch. And yet one person, who'd been a bit of a golden boy – he certainly went out with a girl I was besotted and unrequitedly in love with – he came up and he said, 'Why did you come? Was it to show off?' That really surprised me, that anyone would think that ... he came kind of carrying my agenda. It was weird. I hasten to add I didn't think my life to be more successful than anybody else's. If you're happy and honest and fulfilled in what you do, then you're having a successful life.
While in bit parts in his own TV series, he began professional film acting as CD in Stark, the Australian/BBC TV series adaptation of his novel, in 1993. This was directed by Nadia Tass and filmed in Australia.
Behind the camera
Elton wrote and directed the film adaptation of his novel Inconceivable, under the title Maybe Baby (2000) starring Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson. It was a moderate UK success and distributed globally. The film was also nominated for a prize at Germany's Emden Film Festival.
In 2015, Elton wrote a Wiggles song for the Wiggle Town DVD and CD: The Wonder of Wiggle Town.
Elton wrote All is True, released 2018, a speculative story of William Shakespeare's years in Stratford-upon-Avon after his retirement from the theatre and move from London. Along with the filmcraft and acting, returning collaboration with Kenneth Branagh, All is True shows Elton giving a more serious and biographical perspective to some of the same characters who appear in Upstart Crow.
Elton collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game in 2000, writing the book and lyrics (Lloyd Webber wrote the music). The Beautiful Game won the London Critics Circle Award for best new musical.
He went on to write compilation shows featuring popular songs from the catalogues of pop/rock artists. The first was the musical We Will Rock You with music by Queen. Despite unfavourable early reaction, this was successful in the West End and won the 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Award for Best New Musical. It has since opened in the US, Australia, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, and The Netherlands. Elton also directed the 10th Anniversary Arena tour, in 2013. The musical ran for 12 years in London.
Elton has written five West End plays.
- Gasping (1990) was first performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It starred Hugh Laurie and featured the voice of Stephen Fry.
- Silly Cow (1991) again at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It was written for and starred Dawn French.
- Popcorn (1996) was adapted for the stage and went on a UK tour. It also toured Australia in a production starring Marcus Graham and Nadine Garner in its Eastern-States seasons. Popcorn won the TMA Barclays Theatre Award for new play and the Olivier Award for comedy. The Paris production of Popcorn ran for a year and was nominated for seven Molière awards.
- Blast From the Past (1998) was also adapted for the stage and was produced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
- Elton's play The Upstart Crow, like the TV series Upstart Crow a comic version of Shakepeare's life and society, and sharing some of the same actors and characters, opened in London on 7 February 2020.
He made two albums of comedy, Motormouth (1987) and Motorvation (1988).
In 2005 Elton toured for the first time since 1997, touring the UK with Get a Grip. He toured Australia and New Zealand with the same show in 2006.
In September 2019, Elton embarked on a three-month long UK stand-up tour, his first since 2005.
Elton received an honorary doctorate in 2004, from The University of Manchester. In 2007 he was awarded an Honorary Rose for lifetime achievement at the Rose d'Or festival, and was also made a Companion of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, in recognition of his work with students. He has won 3 BAFTAs for Best Comedy Series for The Young Ones, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth. Popcorn and We Will Rock You each won an Olivier Award and The Beautiful Game was awarded the Best Musical at the Critics' Circle Awards. The Man From Auntie won him a Royal Television Society Writer's Award and The Thin Blue Line won a British Comedy Award as well as Jury Award at Reims.
His books are also award-winning. Awards include the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award for Crime Fiction (Popcorn), the Swedish Kaliber Award (Popcorn), WH Smiths People's Choice Fiction Award (High Society) and Prix Polar International Crime Writer Award (Amitiès Mortelles for Past Mortem, French edition).
Elton met Australian bass player Sophie Gare in 1987: they married in 1994 and have three children. He lives in North Fremantle, Western Australia and in East Sussex, England. Elton holds dual British/Australian citizenship, the latter since 2004. He said he would like to move back to London when his children have finished school.
He was a Labour Party supporter and was one of the biggest private financial donors to the party. However, Elton distanced himself for over 20 years from the Party under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and New Labour in the mid-1990s, instead donating and voting for the Green Party, although in April 2015, he stated that he was "back with Labour" for the 2015 general election.
Elton has been criticised for writing a musical with Conservative Party supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber. In his defence, Elton said: "If I were to refuse to talk to Tories, I would narrow my social and professional scope considerably. If you judge all your relationships on a person's voting intentions, I think you miss out on the varieties of life." He is also one of the few items to have been put into Room 101 twice: first by Anne Robinson in 2001 and then by Mark Steel.
Elton says of his criticism: "I would have loved a honeymoon period, but I've been irritating journos from the beginning. Originally I was knocked for being too left-wing, and now apparently I've sold out and I'm too right-wing, but all the time I've been being me, and that certainly isn't the person I recognise in anything that's written about me." He has denied being anti-establishment. He also said he was a socialist at a time when "the media was on the whole slavishly worshipping of Thatcher". He said of his political views "I believe in the politics of Clement Attlee. I'm a Welfare State Labour voter."
He parodied himself in the sketch "Benny Elton" for Harry Enfield and Chums in 1994, using the style of Benny Hill to send up his (Elton's) "right on" socialist image as a politically correct spoilsport, chasing Page 3 models around a park to chastise them and tricking heterosexual couples into becoming gay.
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Elton described himself as an atheist but said he was in favour of God defined as "the mystery of the universe".
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