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Benjamin Charles Elton (born 3 May 1959) is an English comedian, writer and director. He became a stand-up comedian and comedy writer shortly after leaving university in 1980, and was a central figure in the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s. More recently he has achieved success writing lyrics for and producing musicals, and as an author.

Personal life

Elton was born in Catford, London, the son of an English teacher mother and the physicist and educational researcher Lewis Elton. He is the nephew of the historian Sir G R Elton. Elton's father is of German Jewish descent and his mother is of English background.[1][2] He studied at Stillness Junior School and Godalming Grammar School in Surrey, and the University of Manchester. Elton is married and has three children. He lives in London and Fremantle, Western Australia. Elton has had dual citizenship with Australia since 2004.[3]

Work

Television

His first television appearance was a stand-up performance on the BBC2 youth and music programme The Oxford Roadshow. His first TV success though was at the age of 23 as co-writer of the television sitcom The Young Ones, in which he occasionally appeared.

In 1983/84 he wrote and appeared in Granada Television's sketch show Alfresco, which was also notable for early appearances by Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane. In 1985, Elton produced his first solo script for the BBC with his comedy-drama series Happy Families, starring Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson. Elton appeared in the fifth episode as a liberal prison governor. Shortly afterwards, he reunited Mayall and Edmondson with their Young Ones co-star Nigel Planer for the showbiz send-up sitcom Filthy Rich and Catflap.

In 1985 Elton began his successful writing partnership with Richard Curtis. Together they wrote Blackadder II, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth. Blackadder, starring Rowan Atkinson, was a worldwide hit, winning four BAFTAs and an Emmy. Elton and Curtis were inspired to write Blackadder Goes Forth upon finding the First World War to be a particularly apt subject for a situation comedy. This series, which dealt with greater, darker themes than prior Blackadder episodes, was widely praised for Curtis's and Elton's scripts, in particular the final episode. Before writing the series, the pair read a number of books about the war and found that

Actually, all the lead up to the first world war was very funny, all the people coming from communities where they'd never bumped into posh people...and all being so gung ho and optimistic...the first hundred pages of any book about the world war are hilarious, then of course everybody dies.[4]

Elton and Curtis also wrote Atkinson's 1986 hit stage show, The New Review, and Mr Bean's famous "exam" episode.

Elton became a stand-up comedian primarily to showcase his own writing, but became one of Britain's biggest selling live acts.[5] After a regular slot on Saturday Live later moved and renamed Friday Night Live which was seen as a UK version of the USA's Saturday Night Live, he became the host of the programme.

In 1990 he starred in his own stand-up comedy and sketch series entitled The Man from Auntie, which had a second series in 1994. (The title plays on The Man from UNCLE; "Auntie" is a nickname for the BBC). In 1991 Ben won the Royal Television Society Writers' Award.

The Ben Elton Show (1998) followed a format similar to that of The Man from Auntie and featured (somewhat incongruously) Ronnie Corbett, a comedian of the "old-guard" that the "alternative comedians" of the 1980s were the direct alternative to, as a regular guest. It was his last high-profile network programme in the UK as a stand-up comedian.

In April 2007, Get a Grip, a new show, began broadcasting on ITV1. Featuring a combination of "comic sketches" (similar to those seen on The Ben Elton Show) and staged studio discussion between Elton and 23-year-old Alexa Chung, the show's aim was to, "contrast Elton's middle-aged viewpoint with Chung's younger perspective," (although Elton is wholly responsible for the script).

In a 2008 interview with Third Way Magazine, Elton accused the BBC of allowing jokes about vicars, but not imams. "And I believe that part of it is due to the genuine fear that the authorities and the communities have about provoking the radical elements of Islam."[6]


Behind the camera

Elton also wrote and produced The Thin Blue Line, a studio-based sitcom set in a police station, also starring Rowan Atkinson, which ran for two series (in 1995 and 1996). A prime-time family show lacking the edge of his earlier work, its traditional format and characters won it the 1995 British Comedy Award and both the public and professional Jury Awards at Reims.

He also wrote the six-part sitcom Blessed, starring Ardal O'Hanlon, which aired on BBC1 in 2005.

Radio

Elton co-starred with Adrian Edmondson on a sitcom based on the song "Teenage Kicks" for BBC Radio 2. A television version of Teenage Kicks for ITV has been made, Elton appeared in the pilot but was replaced in the by Mark Arden when it went to series production.

Novels

He has published eleven novels since 1989 (all published by Black Swan (an imprint of Transworld), which are listed below (added: except Stark isn't in this list so the number of novels he's written should actually stand at TWELVE). His first novel, Stark, was made into an Australian TV film in 1993 in which Elton starred.

Gridlock (1991), UK No 1
This Other Eden (1993), UK No 1
Popcorn (1996), UK No 1 and Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain Gold Dagger Award for fiction
Blast from the Past (1998), UK Top 5
Inconceivable (1999), UK Top 5 (later made into a film, see below)
Dead Famous (2001), UK Top 5
High Society (2002), UK No 1 and WH Smith's People Choice Fiction Award
Past Mortem (2004), UK Top 5
The First Casualty (2005), UK Top 5
Chart Throb (2006)
Blind Faith (2007)

Films
Ben Elton had appeared in amateur dramatic productions as a youth, notably as The Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver!.[7]

While previously appearing in bit parts in his own TV series, he began his professional film acting career when he starred as CD in Stark, the Australian/BBC TV film adaptation of his novel, released in 1993. This ABC co-production was directed by Nadia Tass and filmed in Australia.

He played Verges to Michael Keaton's Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.


Behind the camera
Elton wrote and directed the film adaptation of his novel Inconceivable, which was released under the title Maybe Baby (2000) starring Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson. It was a moderate UK success and was distributed globally.[8] The film was also nominated for a prize at Germany's Emden Film Festival.


Musicals
Elton collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game in 2000, writing the book and lyrics (Lloyd Webber wrote the music). The Beautiful Game won the London Critics Circle Award for best new musical. Elton went on to write a number of compilation shows featuring popular songs taken from the back catalogues of pop/rock artists. The first of these was the musical We Will Rock You with music by the rock band Queen. This was successful in London and won the 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Award for Best New Musical. It has since opened in the US, Australia, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Canada. Tonight's the Night based on the songs of Rod Stewart opened in November 2003.


Stage
Elton studied Drama at the University of Manchester and has written three West End plays.

Gasping (1990) was first performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It starred Hugh Laurie and featured the voice of Stephen Fry.
Silly Cow (1991) again performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It was written for and starred Dawn French.
Popcorn (1996) was adapted for the stage and went on a UK-wide tour. It also toured Australia in a production starring Marcus Graham and Nadine Garner in its Eastern-States seasons. Popcorn won the TMA Barclays Theatre Award for best new play and the Olivier Award for best comedy. The Paris production of Popcorn ran for a year and was nominated for seven Moliere Awards.
Blast From the Past (1998) was also adapted for the stage and was produced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Stand-up comedy
In 1981, when his live act took off, Elton was hired by The Comedy Store in London as its compère.

In 2005 Elton did his first stand-up tour since 1997, touring the UK with "Get a Grip". He toured Australia and New Zealand with the same show in 2006.


Awards
In 2007, Ben Elton was awarded an Honorary Rose for lifetime achievement at the Rose d'Or festival. He was also made a Companion of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, in recognition of the work that he has carried out with students.


Criticism
Anne Robinson put Ben Elton into Room 101 in protest at his hosting the Royal Variety Performance. She argued that he should be sent to the room "for being a total and utter hypocrite and going back on everything he stood for in the 80s and 90s". He was put in for a second time (the only person ever to experience this dishonour) in 2007 by comedian Mark Steel.[9] In his 2005 show Stand-up Comedian, comic Stewart Lee remarked upon the fact that Ben Elton is more widely despised than Osama Bin Laden due to the fact that the latter has "at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles".

Toby Young summarises similar criticisms when he writes:

Ben Elton. Do you know this guy? He started out as an "alternative" comedian, railing against Thatcherism and the like, and now earns a fortune writing the librettos for truly awful West End musicals. I mean, his name has become a byword for shameless hackery. He's the biggest sell-out of his generation.[10]

Earlier, Young had said that criticism aimed at Elton is "down to sour grapes", and that "he may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Britain would surely be a poorer place without him."[11]

Elton has also been criticised for writing a musical with Conservative Party supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber. In his defence, Elton has said "if I were to refuse to talk to Tories, I would narrow my social and professional scope considerably. If you judge all your relationships on a person's voting intentions, I think you miss out on the varieties of life."[12]

Elton has also been criticised for co-writing a song that was performed at the inauguration of US President George W. Bush. When questioned on this, Elton remarked that he did not see it as a celebration of Bush, more a celebration of the presidency of the United States, and said that whilst he "despises" some of Bush's policies, he was "not sufficiently right-wing to invoke a South African-style boycott."[13]

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