It's hard to sum up Ben Elton's accomplishments. In a career spanning almost four decades, the comedy writer and playwright has tackled everything from Blackadder to a West End musical about Queen.

Throughout his career, the most pressure he's felt to sustain momentum is from himself.

"I do feel self-imposed pressure to continue to write and to create and express myself. The fact that I've always been able to make a living at it [comedy] has taken the pressure off."

We're speaking because Elton has returned to stand-up comedy after 15 years. He last performed in New Zealand in 2006 and is fresh from a 75-date UK tour. The live theatre production of his TV series, Upstart Crow, recently opened on London's West End.

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Ben Elton is returning to stand up comedy after a 15-year break. Photo / Supplied
Ben Elton is returning to stand up comedy after a 15-year break. Photo / Supplied

Anyone familiar with his work will no doubt know him as a straight-talker on politics. He's left-leaning and makes no secret of that.

Calling from his home in Perth, Elton was recovering from jetlag after flying from the UK. His wife, Sophie Gare, is from Australia and he has dual UK and Australian citizenship. He resides in Fremantle in Australia and Sussex in the UK.

Several have summed him up as a "motormouth" and I soon discover why. I ask him what living in Australia is like because of his UK upbringing and political beliefs and he goes on a lengthy tangent about the difference between the countries and inserts some stern advice about love.

"I wouldn't recommend falling in love with someone from the other side of the world, it's extremely difficult to organise," he says.

Logistics aside, he concludes that Britain and Australia are in similar political situations.
"They live and they breathe remarkably similar trajectories with grossly entitled middle-aged white men," he says, referring to respective Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison.

"[They] are being controlled by conservative parties, which have been hijacked by their reactionary wings, and it's a terrifying situation."

He isn't well-versed in New Zealand politics but as a UK Labour Party supporter was pleased to see Jacinda Ardern elected.

"I don't despise all Tories," he clarifies. "I wrote a musical with a Tory!"

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That musical was 2000's The Beautiful Game, and the Tory was none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the show's music. We Will Rock You, Elton's show based on the songs of Queen, initially received unfavourable reviews but went on to become the Dominion Theatre's longest-running musical. At least in terms of audience and commercial success, the critics got it wrong on that one.

Has Elton's attitude towards criticism changed over his career? The short answer is no.

"I try and live with bad reviews. I think I'm pretty good at it actually.

"If you've been as prolific as I have over so many years, you've dealt with a lot of criticism, in old media, but now everybody gets it.

Ben Elton pictured when he was last in New Zealand in 2006. Photo / NZH / Olivia Hemus
Ben Elton pictured when he was last in New Zealand in 2006. Photo / NZH / Olivia Hemus

"It's so weird to see all these young people or stars saying they feel awful because people are mean to them."

He cites Billie Eilish's recent speech at UK music awards The Brits. The 18-year-old said she "felt very hated recently" despite winning five Grammy Awards and penning the latest James Bond theme with her brother Finneas O'Connell.

"Over the years I've been pretty well-adjusted. I learned a long time ago not to read reviews, even the good ones," he says.

He doesn't do social media and argues that his creativity would be impacted if he did.
"I think the best thing to do is not look because otherwise, whether it's good or bad, it's kind of in your head, and I need my head to be clear.

"I couldn't handle it."

What Elton wants to be remembered for overall is his writing.

"I honestly give very little thought to my legacy or even my reputation.

"My guiding principle is to write what I feel is good, and if it turns out other people don't agree with you, then at least you were honest."

For someone as passionate about his beliefs as Elton, some of his fans may have the impression that he strives to create real change with his comedy. He's written 16 books covering issues from the environment to social media. Elton is adamant comedy can impact the conversation but doubts its power as a direct medium for change.

"When I do engage with social issues, I'm doing it subjectively, this is what truth I have, I hope I'm making it funny for you.

"Maybe you don't agree with me, but I would never think for a moment that I'm creating change.

"I don't think anybody ever got on the stage with the intention of affecting government policy let alone bringing down the government."

His return to stand-up has revived memories of his early career.

 Ben Elton and Rik Mayall in 1986. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Elton and Rik Mayall in 1986. Photo / Getty Images

His memories of The Young Ones focus around co-writer Rik Mayall, who died in 2014.

"I miss him. It was a great loss to comic art and, of course, for those who were lucky enough to be his friend.

"He wasn't perfect, but he was a wonderful man and a very inspiring comic," he says.

They didn't just work on The Young Ones together, but they toured together.

"Rik was standing beside me the day I met my wife, and my wife was standing beside me the day we buried Rik.

"I've just been on tour in Britain revisiting halls that we walked into, filled with excitement in 1984/1985," he says.

When he returns to New Zealand, audiences can expect much of the same old Ben Elton. He's not doing stand-up again because he wants to appeal to a new younger audience, but rather because he thinks he has more to say.

"I'm really pleasing myself," Elton says, hoping that he doesn't sound too arrogant.


The Lowdown:
Who: Ben Elton
What: First stand-up tour of New Zealand for 14 years
When: Auckland, May 9; Christchurch, May 10 and Wellington, May 12

By the decade: Ben Elton's career highlights

1980s

• Co-wrote anarchic student sitcom The Young Ones at the age of 23

• Made first television appearance on the Oxford Road Show

• Wrote Blackadder II, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth with Richard Curtis

• Wrote Rowan Atkinson's stage show The New Revue, also with Richard Curtis

• Published first novel Stark, which topped UK bestseller charts

1990s
• Starred in Ben Elton: The Man from Auntie, his own BBC primetime stand-up and sketch series
• Wrote four West End plays, including 1990's Gasping starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry
• Won the Royal Television Society Writer's Award
• Wrote and produced the TV show The Thin Blue Line starring Rowan Atkinson

 Ben Elton talks about his movie Maybe Baby in August 2000. Photo / NZH / Martin Sykes
Ben Elton talks about his movie Maybe Baby in August 2000. Photo / NZH / Martin Sykes

2000s

• Collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game, which won the London Critics' Circle Award for best new musical

• Wrote and directed Maybe Baby, starring Hugh Laurie, based on his book Inconceivable

• Wrote We Will Rock You, a musical based on Queen's hit songs. It ran for 12 years in London

• Toured as a stand-up for the first time since 1997 with his show Get A Grip

2010s
• Wrote the sequel to Phantom of the Opera called Love Never Dies
• Created and wrote new BBC sitcom about William Shakespeare, Upstart Crow
• Wrote romantic comedy Three Summers, which was filmed in Western Australia
• Wrote Shakespeare biopic All Is True, starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen
• Returns to stand-up with three-month UK tour