Acclaimed writer Ben Elton is the author of 16 novels, numerous plays, three feature films, a few musicals and was also behind the beloved TV series The Young Ones, The Thin Blue Line and Blackadder. Following a sell-out tour of the UK and Australia, he is bringing his one-man show to cities around New Zealand this May.
'I have a theory - unhappy childhoods live with you forever but, if you're happy and fine, it's all a bit of a daze – and because I had a very happy Catford childhood, I don't really remember an awful lot. But there is one little story. I was definitely a chatterbox and, as the youngest child and the last to go to school, for a couple of years I was home alone with mum. And mum had a rule. I had to wait until I'd seen her raise her second cup of tea to her lips before I started chattering and asking questions.
'I'm not from a particularly theatrical family. My grandmother on mum's side was a hugely enthusiastic amateur dramatic opera singer, the leading light of her Gilbert & Sullivan company in Northwich in the 20s and 30s. Both my parents were teachers. My father was secular German Jewish, ethnically, and also an atheist. He became quite a prominent educationist, and Mum came from a family of miners, a northern working-class community, and was the first person in her family to get a degree.
'I was 10 when I had the first of two creative epiphanies when the local amateur dramatic society, The Curtain Raisers, put on Peter Pan. Mum said I'd enjoy it so I auditioned. I didn't get the part of Peter Pan, or John Darling. But I was one of The Lost Boys, Slightly Soiled, and that gave me the theatre bug and, instantly, from that point I was obsessed and knew I wanted to be an actor.
'I also loved comics. Beano and War Picture Monthly. But about that same time my parents encouraged me to read proper books, good prose. Dad bought me the short stories of PG Wodehouse and I loved them completely. I was utterly taken by his brilliant comic writing and for years I read almost nothing else. From the age or 11 or 12, I had a sense of knowing where I was going - I wanted to be an actor and a comic writer.
'I left home at 16, but not under any sort of cloud. I was simply itching to get into professional theatre. But my parents wanted me to stay at school so a compromise was found and I went to a technical college run by a visionary educationalist who thought drama and theatre studies should be part of the broader education, because theatre is part of life. And I agree. So I left home to go to this technical college where they also taught catering and engineering. There was a very interesting culture, and a certain amount of clash in the canteen. The engineers in overalls, the catering students in whites and tall hats and us, the drama students, in leotards and bare feet, so self-consciously proud of ourselves. This is the mid 70s and everyone thought everyone else looked silly.
'I grew up in a beautiful time. The last years of a post-war consensus community. Education was free, everybody had a job so there was general feeling of, why not try to be a writer because I could always get a job doing something. It's a lot less easy now than it was in my day.
'When I left home, I had my own little moped and I lived in a caravan in a field that I rented off a farmer. It's quite funny to think of it now. I regret that kids today have less of those opportunities, because we're much more worried and protective. It's hard to imagine my wife and I letting our kids live alone in digs at 16, in a caravan in a field. The college canteen meant we had a highly subsidised main meal in the middle of the day. I'd use the college toilets and showers and live on sandwiches or packet chow mein at night. I had five pounds a week to survive on and the landlady was always trying to rip us off, but it was formative and wonderful and I made great friends. I also wrote three plays during that time. Then, at 18, I went to university in Manchester where I met Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson and the nucleus of The Young Ones was formed.
'One thing I learnt a long time ago, never read reviews. I have had very good ones and very bad ones, but they all get in your head and they bother you. The ones I've read, I can virtually quote them word for word. They never leave you.
'You ask me if I'm robust, well the way to be robust is to have the strength not to eavesdrop.
'The internet has changed everything, and the public conversation today is so splenetic and angry. It's defined by outrage and that's become the norm. I think that's partly why so many young people are unhappy now. I'm not on any social media. I've spent my lifetime trying to avoid bad reviews and hecklers, the last thing I'm going to do is go online to read what people say about me.
'Of course I'd like to have my say, but the price would be too high, and I'd spend all day in a constant tweet crisis. Should I say something clever? Although it's not easy to be off social media. Everyone else is on it, and it would be very useful when I'm going on tour to say, "come and see me" but, as much as I can see the good side of Facebook and Twitter, I value my sanity too highly. I do feel so sorry for young people who don't think they have an option to not be on it. If you want to make music or art today, you probably have to be on it.
'In the early 80s, Rik Mayall and I toured a two-part stand-up comedy show. I did the first half and he did the second. They were great days and it felt very rock'n'roll. Me and him out on the road, young and making money driving up and down motorways in a van. There we were, two comedians, playing halls with about 1000 or 1500, which felt huge for us but still big enough to be human.
'In 1986 we went to Australia. Neither of us had ever been outside Europe. We'd never flown business class either. We're smoking and drinking for 19 hours, at the drinks trolley pretty continuously, because when you're young you can do that. Back in those days, Australia's unions were strong and Australian Equity had a rule that there had to be two Aussies playing for every visiting pom which meant we had to have four local artists on the bill. It would've been weird to have four more stand-ups, and a four-piece all-girl band called The Jam Tarts was booked.
'I've been a dedicated trade unionist much of my life, but I never thought I'd owe my domestic happiness to the unions, but that is how I met my Australian wife, because I ended up marrying the bass player. Sophie was a real fork in my road and, because of her, I embarked on my Australia life, completely and utterly unexpectedly.
'We have a wonderful life. We have three children, I adore my wife's family. But things change as the generations die and I can't deny it hasn't been hard professionally and physically, as I've had to drop the ball in Britain quite a lot, simply because I was courting an Australian. But, one amazing thing that happened almost immediately, I became a novelist. Up until then I'd been writing scripts, TV sitcoms, and I'd never thought about long-form prose but by 1988 Sophie and I were fully together as a couple in Australia and I didn't have much to do.
'People think I must be a workaholic but I just work quickly and rigorously. And, when I'm not working, I have loads of time off. I have an active social life. I take part in all the family stuff. We have holidays. I love to cook big meals. I love to drink although I try to go without on school nights. I probably average about four hours work a day, but some days I'll do a 10-hour block at my desk, when I'm really rolling. I'm not a perfect worker, but I do have a compulsion for it.
'If I was in charge of the world I would announce very clearly that climate action would be my number one priority, and I'd guide every other piece of legislation to mitigate it. The human race has proved itself capable of organising itself and the economy to prevent a threat like Covid, because it might kill granny tomorrow. So how the heck can we not be similarly organised against this threat that will kill us all the day after tomorrow? Climate change and the environment and poverty are all linked into the ever-widening disparity between rich and poor. If I was a benevolent dictator, the first thing I would do would move towards zero emissions, then look at the cause of so much environmental degradation, and human abuse.
'In my act, I talk a lot about the things that outrage me, in what I hope is a funny way. But when you've got children, you have to try hard to not be too depressing. Our kids have to live in this world as it stands. And I am a very positive person. I'm not angry but I am passionate about the planet. I don't despise anybody. I know where I vote, and everybody should be involved in the debate. I believe in community and most of all I try to be a positive and cheerful dad.'
• Tickets for Ben Elton's "Live 2021" tour are on sale now with shows confirmed in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Blenheim, Nelson, Dunedin, Queenstown, Hamilton, Palmerston North, New Plymouth, Tauranga and Napier. Visit livenation.co.nz for tickets.