Exclusive Interview with Ben Elton!
Black Adder and The Young Ones. Upstart Crow, The Thin Blue Line and The Man From Auntie. We Will Rock You. 15 best selling novels with five being #1 chart toppers. A career as a leader politic satirist and stand-up comedian. Ben Elton has produced an endless stream of brilliant and thought provoking comedy over his career. His new film, Three Summers, is just hitting Australian cinemas.
When I was fifteen I read his then newest book Popcorn, an examination of the influence of violent, stylised movies on society and the relationship between audiences and the media. It played no small part in putting me onto the path that led to me being a film critic and teacher today. So, as you imagine, sitting down with the man himself for a coffee and a chat was a particularly special moment.
And now we have our exclusive interview with the writer and director of the new comedy Three Summers: Ben Elton. Enjoy the audio or transcribed versions below.
G-Funk: My name is Gareth and I’m from the House of Geekery website and we’re very (slightly nervous) honoured to be sitting with Ben Elton to take about his new film Three Summers. Hello, Ben, how are you?
Ben Elton: I’m very good, I’m very, very pleased to be here.
GF: To start us of I’d like to go on on my own journey with your work…
GF: My earliest memory of your work was the 1986 Comic Relief.
BE: Oh, right! Yeah! Did you see it live in London or on TV?
GF: On a VHS. We wore that VHS down to a nub. You were a bit of a…venomous beast about Ibiza and ‘double seat’, you spit on the audience at one point…
BE: Not deliberately, it just happens. I didn’t deliberately spit on the audience.
GF: Oh, that looked deliberate!
BE: No, absolutely not. You can’t help it, you’re just spluttering…oh my goodness, I’d never spit on an audience.
GF: It was a real (mimes) ‘ptew’!
BE: … Really?!
GF: Hey, it’s on YouTube.
BE: I’ll have to look at this because I’d never deliberately spit on anyone, I’m a terribly polite person. I used to do a routine about how much spittle there is in the spotlight when you’re kinda doing that, you know? (Mimes speaking into a microphone). Oh my gosh. Anyway, I’ll have to remember that. I’m always quite a polite person so I don’t know what that’s about, but alright.
GF: Caught up in the moment, I guess.
BE: Maybe, yeah.
GF: Going from that to your more recent work, Three Summers, it seems a much more…mellow? Is that the right word? It’s a more mellow piece. Do you feel like your routine has changed much over the years?
BE: Nooooo, I’ve always been passionate about my work. This spitting thing – that certainly doesn’t sound like me! I do remember the vague idea about that, an ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry I spat on you’. No, I’ve always been passionate about my stuff and Three Summers is full of passion. There’s a big story about a refugee, I feel very strongly about that, I feel strongly about middle-aged piss-heads missing the music because they want to have another bottle of wine. I don’t think I’ve changed at all. My politics have always been to the left, I’ve always believed in voting for higher taxes for higher earners like myself. Often I’m been accused – well, not accused, but it’s been suggested – that I’ve “mellowed”, but I’ve always thought of myself as a mellow person. When you’re a stand-up and you’re 25 years old and it’s the middle of Thatcher’s gut-wrenching change of society in Britain I guess I came across as very angry. It’s part fear, fear of standing up on stage. Stand-up comedy is a difficult game and I developed a very combative attitude and a very combative style when I was working the comedy store in the early 80s because half the audience were total bogans. They were pissed-up bogans, they were sexist…Jenny (Saunders) and Dawn (French) wouldn’t play the comedy store because they’d walk on stage and someone would say, “show us your tits”. It was different time, and it was combative, and I didn’t like that sort of thing so I was very happy to get quite famous because audiences got more pleased to see me. I’ve always been passionate about my work and you’ll see that Three Summers is filled with love and passion, as all my work is, I hope. All my novels, all my stand-up, all my TV.
GF: Sure, we saw Three Summers last night and we really loved it, gave it a very positive write-up, don’t worry about that…
BE: Oh, good! That’s very cool, excellent.
GF: We’re very keen to help promote the film, in part because it is so inherently West Australian. It’s seeped through with attitude and culture that is unique to this part of the world. How did you create that?
BE: You know what? It’s only become clear to me after the event that I do seem to…well, ‘we’, because a movie is made by a village, but a community of people. Between the actors, the director’s department, the camera department, we seem to have something quintessentially West Australian. That wasn’t deliberate, I didn’t set out thinking, “I know what I’ll do, I’ve been here a long time, I’ll sum it all up and get the feel of it!” It just happened. Everything I do is organic, everything I do is an improvisation. I never know what a story is going to be until it’s written. I’m with Ian Foster, who once said: “how can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’ve got to say”. I couldn’t tell you what this film would be like until I saw what we produced. And after the event it does seem that it has got under the skin a bit, in a good way, of Pinjarra and our little part of WA and our little part of Australia and the world. I showed it to Jennifer Saunders among a group of friends in England and afterwards she said, “gosh, Ben, you’ve really become an Aussie, haven’t you?” I felt that was a great compliment, I really loved what she said, and even more so a West Australian. It very much has a Pinjarra feel to it and I think that’s a great thing because it gives the film a real authenticity. How can it not have authenticity with the kind of cast like that?!
GF: Oh, what a great cast! How did you get them all together in one spot?
BE: I wrote a script they wanted to do, that’s the honest truth. It certainly wasn’t for the money, they get paid, obviously, but not very much. There’s no way Michael Caton or Magda Szubanski or Deb Mailman are going to do movies with stories they don’t want to tell. So clearly their agent tells them that Ben Elton’s got a script, he’d love you to read it, it’s an offer…of course it’s an offer, I’m going to ask them to audition…so it’s an offer, do you want to do it? And they go, “Oh, Ben Elton? I’ll read the script!” And at that point they either like it or not. I thought I’d get some polite no’s, but everyone said they wanted to do it. Which was, to me, a thrilling and deeply empowering testimony to the fact that it looked like I got the script right.
GF: I think you did. I love the idea that it’s revisiting the same location three times. It’s such a great set-up for the running gags throughout.
BE: Yeah, it’s a good story structure. I’m proud of that. I remember that the first thing I thought was that it’ll be great to set a story here at Fairbridge, it’s a funny little festival, it’s a quirky little festival filled with funny quirky people. And I also thought that’s terrific because so many people go to a festival, you can meet different people with different politics, different sexuality, whatever, they’re all clashing at a festival because they all like music and THEN the structure came to me…I won’t just do one year…because it always looks the same. People who go to a festival more than once, it always looks the same. Oh, there’s a kebab stall here or whatever…but it’s not the same. Everybody’s changed. Homogeneously it’s the same but each individual is different, everybody’s learned an grown during the year, and maybe they’ve been affected by what happened to them at the festival. So I thought it’ll be a terrific 3-act story to say “let’s meet them at the festival, and only at the festival”. I do break that rule just once with Kavee’s audition…
GF: Holds up two fingers.
BE: Oh, and Roland’s dog washing. Two moments, put together between the first and second year, but basically the movie happens at the festival.
GF: I think that makes it very relatable because anyone who goes to any annual event will have a basis of understanding of that. You could apply it to the Comic-Cons, the Big Day Out, anything like that.
BE: Yeah, I think so. And the the wonderful thing about a folky festival is that it’s very non-specific. Everybody knows these days that a folk festival means anything: you’re going to see a rap artist, you’re going to see a steam-punk jazz band…folk doesn’t mean ‘fiddly fiddly’. People tend to go to Fairbridge as a weekend away, it’s very family orientated, there’s a lot of kids, there’s groovy young people as well. It’s a great back-drop to say, “hey, this is West Australia, this is all sorts of people coming here”, and I’m very pleased with the whole affair! It’s become a real labour of love for all involved!
GF: It comes across that way, you can feel that, you can feel the commitment that engages the audience so well. How do you think it’s going to be perceived in, like, England? Are they going to click with it, do you think?
BE: I don’t know…I’d very much love for people to see it, particularly in Britain, because I’d love people to see what I’ve been getting up to. I was pretty famous in Britain when I…well, I didn’t turn my back on it. I’ve got a sitcom on the BBC right now but I live in Australia…
GF: I started watching it today! Research!
BE: Oh good! I’d love people to know this other life I have. Most people in Britain who take an interest in me know that I married an Australian and I live over there a lot of the time and I’d love them to see this, that I don’t just sit on the beach, that I’ve immersed myself in a different culture and become Australia. And British, I’ll always be British, of course. So I’d love them to see it and I think they’d enjoy it, but I don’t honestly think anywhere but…I think it’s principle appeal will be Australia. It’s not parochial but it is culturally embedded and I think it’s lovely that we’ve got a cinema – look, it’s a multiplex cinema, it’s a beautiful cinema and it’s got so many great movies and I love it – but every single one of them is an international movie. They’re not even American any more. They’re a global thing, they’re made to feel…I mean, Thor hits in Singapore and Baghdad and New York and Perth all at the same time. It’s a weekend culture assault and next week it’s Spider-Man. And that’s cool, that’s alright, there’s no problem with that. But let’s not let all that noise drown out the idea that there’s Australia stories to be told and they can be equally or maybe more rewarding because they’re specific whereas these big multiplex opening global franchisey movies tend to be general in their appeal.
GF: You know, most of my audience are over in America, about 90% of my readers…
BE: Ah, right…oh god, I’m talking to the wrong people! WHY ARE WE DOING THIS INTERVIEW!
GF: Oh, it’s alright, I’ve got locals, I’ve got plenty of locals. But Americans like me, they like my attitude. I don’t know why.
BE: (Laughs) I’m kidding, I hope it gets shown in America and I hope the people in America will embrace a film like this like we do a Coen Brother’s film, you know, where we go and see Fargo or whatever and we’re fascinated to see a quirky stroke of American life, and they still do, believe it or not, most American movies aren’t part of the Marvel Universe and frankly they’re the ones I’d rather go and see. I’d hope the people in America go see Three Summers…I mean, it’s not as dark as a Coen Brother’s movie…but perhaps a bit more like a Christopher Guest movie like Best in Show or whatever, and go and see some foreign comedy. To them it is a foreign comedy but we’re all human, it’s all universal and I love to see great indie American movies and I would hope your American readers, listeners, whatever would love to see a great Australian indie movie, because that’s what this is, even though it’s very funny and I hope very popular.
GF: I have a signature final question but I asked it during the Q&A last night…
BE: (Laughs) What did you ask?
GF: It was if there’s any project you want people to be more aware of and you were very happy with how things have been received.
BE: Yeah, yeah…I guess it’s always the thing you’re promoting at the moment but I have to say, with a small film it’s harder than anything. I’ve got a sitcom on the BBC, that, in a way, is going to do some business, you know what I mean? It’s on the BBC.
GF: That’s Upstart Crow?
BE: Yeah, Upstart Crow, my Shakespeare sitcom, but to be a small movie in a world of Thor – and no disrespect to Thor, it was great.
GF: It was a great film!
BE: They brought it back, they got a great new director, nonetheless in a world of ‘universes’ to be a small movie that says “our little universe is a local quirky story set not in a universe but in a little place”, you know? It’s quite hard to be cool. I guess this is the thing I want people to hear about.
GF: Well we’re going to tell them, and we gave the film 9 out of 10, we thought it was…
BE: Oh, mate!
GF: We thought it was an absolutely craic, we loved it.
BE: Well that’s fantastic!
GF: Thank you so much for your time today, we really appreciate it and we hope we can get more people out to see Three Summers.
BE: Well I appreciate the time, thank you very much indeed.
And then I asked him to sign my 21 year old first edition of Popcorn, the book that kick started this journey!
Now if you can excuse me, I’m going to geek out.