For comedy snobs, pissing into Benjamin C. Elton’s open mouth has been in fashion ever since the turn of the century. But for me, I’ve often wondered why he, out of everyone else, deserves such opprobrium. Perhaps it’s because when he arrived on the scene in the mid ‘80s, he portrayed himself as an estuary English-spouting working-class angry man of the people, railing against the political right in sharp relief to his childhood as the well-spoken, privately educated son of Professor Lewis Elton. But that’s hardly a crime unique to Elton, after all Mick Jagger was the son of Tory activists who had originally aspired to go into politics. Merely “not being as perfect as we’d hoped he was” seems to be a lesser crime than, say, Jimmy Carr’s tax evasion or Justin Lee Collins’ alleged misdeeds, and yet neither have been hounded out of television with pitchforks — at least not yet in the case of the latter.
Then there are the accusations of being a “sellout,” which is all well and good, but why do we not slam Mark Watson or Chris Addison or any of the other jobbing comedians and comic actors who regularly advertise products and services for money? Then there’s We Will Rock You, the 2002 jukebox musical that Elton was invited to work on with the surviving members of Queen, which saw him painted as a hate figure worse than most war criminals. While I’d hope until my dying breath that Radiohead never plumped to produce their own jukebox musical, as a fan of their work, I’d prefer to have a go than let someone else ruin it.
Then there’s his television pedigree. While revisionist historians are trying to forget his various successes, Elton was a powerhouse of mainstream ‘80s and ‘90s comedy. Blackadder only became the world-famous sitcom it’s so fondly remembered for being when Elton replaced Rowan Atkinson as Richard Curtis’ writing partner, and the Thin Blue Line still holds up today as a BBC 1 sitcom that wasn’t terrible. I remember watching The Man from Auntie religiously when it aired in the early ‘90s, and even though I didn’t get Ronnie Corbett’s weekly tall tale during The Ben Elton Show that replaced it, it was still a permanent fixture for the pre multi-channel world of comedy being a rare thing for TV.
Then there are Elton’s novels and dramatic work. You can watch either the sumptuous miniseries of Stark or the novel, both are breathtaking in their scope and the level of spot-on prophesying, I remember the dystopic view of a world on the brink of an environmental collapse gave me nightmares in a world where “climate change” wasn’t discussed as a minor inconvenience.
So, again I ask, why the hate? You can’t loathe a man for a few bad sitcoms, nor for not writing a perfect musical under difficult pressures. But at some point, Ben Elton became a punchline, drawn out to its own logical conclusion. Someone like James Blunt and Jamie Oliver that it’s merely cool to hate — in fact, your default is set to “loathe” or “wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire” because society has painted you into that corner. My concern, you see, is that after a while living inside that sort of bubble, I guess you must actually start to hate yourself.
Let’s take a look at Elton’s latest sitcom, for example, The Wright Way, which seems to be written by a man who is incandescant with rage for no particular reason, and is loathed as a consequence (Do. You. See. Where. I’m. Going?). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Elton hates himself to such a degree that he has poured that self-loathing into a lead character that it becomes beyond sympathy, which is why the show has received so much hate in the papers. But I thought I’d break it down, and see what went wrong with The Wright Way, show why we’re to blame for its failure and try to understand what, if anything, could have fixed.
Let’s start with the premise. It’s almost so thin as to be one of Richard Herring’s “Ian” gags (take it away, Richard…)
“Ian Roll is a driving instructor, Ian Reversal is a baker. Due to some kind of accident they are forced to swap jobs. With hilarious consequences.”
“Ian and Iain Bent are brothers who are policemen. One is corrupt and the other is homosexual. They both suffer from curvature of the spine, and they’re made of copper – they’re robots in the future.”
and The Wright Way suffers thanks to its similarly conceived idea:
“Gerald Wright is a health and safety inspector who insists on things being done his (‘the right’) way… with hilarious consequences.”
So, what could have been done differently? Well let’s say that Gerald Wright is a health and safety inspector who insists on things being done his “right” way, but that he’s actually terrible at his job? Or perhaps his idealised notions of how to do things is so out of touch, that he’s always using a 10lb hammer to fix 1lb problem. The Gerald in Elton’s sitcom, however, is a frazzled yet ultimately competent man. Yes, he may have problems with acronyms and he’s a bit angry (more on that later) but in the end, he does his job to the best of his ability. This isn’t a stable situation for any sitcom, because sitcoms thrive on conflict beyond “man who is often right doesn’t get his own way” In fact, I can almost imagine “man who is often right doesn’t get his own way” as the sort of dopey premise Kelsey Grammer would have commissioned for that dreadful right-wing Obama-hatin’ network he tried to found a few years ago.
Let’s now move to our hero, Mr. Wright himself. One of the things that is key to any successful narrative is that you should love, like, respect or at least identify with your lead character. That doesn’t mean every novel has to feature a blonde-haired boy who cares for animals down at the sanctuary — after all, we consider gold-standard bastard James Bond to be a national treasure. Characters should have flaws, possibly even be truly evil (paging Dr. Tod Friendly) and yet with decent writing, an audience will gasp in horror and yet be unable to take their eyes from the screen by someone as ruthlessly evil as Francis Urquhart. When Michael Dobbs was so angry at Thatcher, he created the memorable FU and with it, one of television’s most memorable antiheroes — thanks, in part to Ian Richardson, who shouldn’t go unmentioned here (or anywhere).
Ben Elton, however, hates Gerald Wright. He has seen fit to give him not a single redeeming characteristic, and if Elton hates his lead character, why should we care for him? Such a gaping hole in the heart of a sitcom is always its death, because you need that character to hold the emotional core of the show together, and even Larry David’s shows feature a lead that is vain and egotistical, and yet we can understand his flaws.
That’s why Gerald Wright should have been modeled on Marlin from Finding Nemo — who lost his wife and all but one child in a barracuda attack that leaves him fussy, overprotective and mistrustful of journeying beyond the safety of his reef. Imagine a Gerald Wright, who, distraught over the loss of his wife to a minor public accident (let’s say she tripped on some mismatched paving) has sent grieving husband Gerald onto a quest to make the world safer for everyone. Desperate to cling onto his adult daughter, he constantly smothers her with too much love and care, driving her to work and supervising her new work spaces, going to the council office and fighting against the laziness / general indifference of the public.
The template for the council employees seem to have been grafted wholesale from The Thin Blue Line, Elton’s last success. There’s the Spiky Asian one (Mina Anwar, delivering material beneath her pay grade with all the effort of Robert De Niro phoning in his last decade or so of films), the cuddly camp manchild (Luke Gell, who is described by Wikipedia as a “young Peter Kay,” need I say more?) and the wise-cracking loser (Toby Longworth, replacing Mark Addy, since the latter’s now gone Hollywood).
Despite Elton’s right-on stance / posturing, people from other groups have never had a great time in his shows, with the pilot showcasing a West Indian toilet attendant who seems to have been cribbed from Bernard Manning’s notes on racial harmony, the aforementioned camp manchild and, of course, Wright’s gay daughter, who is only there to be someone for Gerald to shout at various points during the show. If a character is lingering around with nothing to do, then you should probably excise them from the draft — but the daughter’s inclusion here (and her utterly phoned-in relationship) seems like a cynical ploy to appear inclusive* when actually the couple is portrayed as the butt of several jokes. As much as I love David Haig, and I really do love him. I love every minute tic and sneer, every bellowed epithet, every moment of barely-controlled rage. Villians, sidekicks, comic relief, you name it, Haig can do it. Leading man? No, at least not with this material.
So what could have been fixed here? Well, on the basis of the first episode, you could have ditched Susan, Victoria, Clive and Bernard and still been left with the same basic script. That tells us that there were too many characters, several of which should have been chopped (or even just held off until a later episode, if they’re going to stand around in a line staring at David Haig, then just introduce them down the line.
One of the nice touches about The Thin Blue Line was that the office environment meant people could interact from their desks. Having your characters stand around in a semicircle watching the lead character discuss things seems to be page ten of the “what not to do” booklet of directing sitcoms. And yet, characters line up in this artificial manner all of the time. Whoever directed it needs a lesson it breaking up the scene a little. This is no indictment of Studio Sitcoms (the purest form of TV comedy), since they’re set up to resemble comic theatre, but come on — a little dynamism would have been great.
What do do now
So, what do we do now? There are five more episodes of this show, and I’m almost considering watching them all in a perverse desire to see if something improves. I doubt it will, but one must try, eh? What we should do, however, is try to stop hating Ben Elton for the perceived slights and instead, concentrate on what we can do to help him. Because The Wright Way seems like the world’s most ill-conceived suicide note.
* Cynical ploy to appear inclusive? I think I’ve just worked out Ben Elton
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