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Ben Elton: “I was never able to say goodbye to Rik Mayall”

The author, comedian and playwright on the surprise that came with the death of his friend Rik Mayall

left home when I was 16. With the blessing of my parents. I’d already written a couple of plays and done an awful lot of am dram. My parents found out that at South Warwickshire College you could actually study theatre studies as an A-level, which was very unusual then. I moved there on my own and lived in digs, and it was really horrible and lonely. There was very little food and no heating. I ended up living in a caravan in a field on a farm. Quite a funny thing to do when you’re that young. But I was able to write plays and put a few on at the college and my parents were right behind me. They thought I should follow my dream, as the cliche goes.

I was quite unpopular at college at first but I didn’t really notice. My wife Sophie thinks I’m sometimes a bit insensitive and I don’t always realise what people are thinking. I talk too much at dinner parties and she’s always kicking me under the table. I put a sign up on the college noticeboard saying I was looking for actors and I think they thought, “Who’s this cocky bugger?” But I wasn’t that cocky, I was just enthusiastic. I used to think I was like Mickey Rooney – “let’s do the show right here”. I never thought of myself as driven but I was always trying to get my work out.

I’d tell my younger self to give up on that friendship you built on unrequited love. Basically I fell in love with this girl who wasn’t in love with me. We were very close but she knew I wanted more and she told me many, many times it was never going to happen. So there was always this essential imbalance in our relationship which caused me an immense amount of unhappiness. I’d tell my younger self, stay friends if you can but actually, stop hoping. If someone doesn’t love you back you have to read the signs and walk away. Maybe if I’d done that I wouldn’t have had those years of adolescent agony; I’d have dodged that bullet.

I knew from about the age of 11 that I wanted to be an entertainer. I don’t like obscure art. I don’t like Harold Pinter. For me the definition of a critic is someone who claims Harold Pinter was a comic writer. He wasn’t. I’m sure I’m an idiot or a philistine for saying it but… When I did drama at Manchester University, where I first met Rik and Ade [Mayall and Edmondson], I think my tutors kind of liked me but there was a bit of a clash. I thought Morecambe and Wise were more interesting surrealists than Vladimir and Estragon. Eric and Ernie in bed together, pointlessly wasting time, reflecting on their unfulfilled lives, was more interesting and a lot more entertaining than Waiting for Godot. I like ideas to be clear. Same with abstract art. I like a splash of colour the same as everyone else but I’d rather a picture told a story. My wife says I have granny taste, but I know a lot of nice grannies.

Apparently I’m a hypocrite because I’ve always voted Labour yet I’ve also earned a good living

I’ve never looked back at my career. I’m a completely non-reflective person. I do remember it was thrilling when we started on The Young Ones, to be walking into Television Centre where they’d made Dad’s Army. But I don’t think I experience career highs and lows the way other people do. Sometimes I’m reminded of something and I’m astonished. In 1987 I held the record for sell-outs at Hammersmith Odeon. I was literally the hottest stand-up in the country. But I wasn’t really aware of it. I hosted the Brits in 1996 and 1997, and that’s so weird. I was never hip or cool. So although The Young Ones was a monumental break, all I was thinking then was about getting it right. People say you must have got a lot of girls but I was never more than moderately confident with girls. The idea of myself as a celebrity never crossed my mind. But I clearly was one.

Right from the start I was irritating a lot of people. I don’t really know why. I’m glad I didn’t focus on it and I wasn’t as aware of it as I might have been. But it does get to you. Imagine hearing someone on a bus say, “Well, he’s not as good as he used to be, and he’s a hypocrite too because he said he was one thing and now he’s another.” And you think, “That’s not true, that’s not me!” Imagine that being printed as if it was a fact, and millions of people reading it. Apparently I’m a hypocrite because I’ve always voted Labour yet I’ve also earned a good living. I read that and I think, “Well, who the fuck are you?” Constantly having people wanting you to have feet of clay can be dispiriting. The one good thing about social media though is everyone gets trolled now; you don’t have to be a celebrity. Suddenly it’s a universal experience to be called a complete wanker.

In 1975 the year Ben Elton turns 16…

  • Spanish military dictator General Franco dies and Juan Carlos is declared King of Spain
  • Charlie Chaplin receives a knighthood
  • Bohemian Rhapsody is released

I don’t think I’m a workaholic. I take a lot of time off to eat and drink with the family. I don’t have a drink on my own. I enjoy life, we go on holidays. When we had kids I stopped touring. That’s why I wrote novels, so I could spend time at home with my kids. I have a passion for my work, but it’s not
dysfunctional. I don’t work in the evenings and if my kids want to talk to me I’ll stop what I’m doing and talk to them. I’ve never been properly depressed. I’m generally a very happy person. Oh dear, I’m smugly happy. I can imagine what the British media will make of that.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would have to be Rik. Rik died very suddenly and took us all by surprise, as he had done many times in his life. He had an enormous heart, and it suddenly just gave out. We’d remained very, very good friends and we’d been trying to work together again for the first time in 20 years. But I was never able to say goodbye to him, and we never got to pick up our professional relationship, which we both always saw as unfinished business. We’d had this intense period from when we first met at university in 1977, when he was third year and I was a first year, right through to 1986 when we made Filthy Rich & Catflap. And we toured together many times – Rik was standing next to me when I met my wife. We were so close. Then, you know, the years rolled by. But we remained friends and I think we would have done something. I wish I could have that last conversation with him, so I could tell him what he meant to me. I wish we could have had another gig. But the bastard went and died.

Ben Elton’s new film Three Summers screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival.