Ben Elton understands the power of words as well as anyone.
The UK comedy legend — in town for the Brisbane run of his play, Gasp!, and to promote his new novel, Time and Time Again — is also something of a history aficionado. So when the writer of series like Blackadder and The Young Ones, musicals like We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies, and 14 best-selling novels is asked to place today’s society in a historical context — how will history judge us? — he knows exactly what he wants to say.
“Self-evidently, history will judge our generations as being absolutely evil,” says Elton, who has lived with his family in Fremantle since 2009. “We were completely and utterly unable to consider the prospects of the children that we bear and the children that they’ll bear. I think we will be judged deeply harshly.
“In this country, we have a Prime Minister who says the only important date he’s going to talk about is tomorrow. We all want lower taxes and we all want cheaper fuel, but we look to leaders to consider the broader picture. It’s inexplicable that a father of three daughters who has the power of the land can stand up and say, ‘I want to talk about energy and I want to talk about growth, but I don’t want to talk about the environmental impact of those things’. So I think we’ll be judged terribly.
“And we deregulated capitalism! Everybody has always known that capitalism, unregulated, will lead to the most rapacious beast in the jungle consuming everything, and that’s what’s happening. When Thatcher and Reagan deregulated the banks, all hell broke loose. Now we have a situation where social mobility has collapsed in this country and Australia’s got its own class system. Well, there you go. Years of telling the Poms they were class-ridden, and now we’ve invented it here in Australia.”
Elton has thought long and hard about this, in fact, and he’s pretty sure he knows where it all went wrong — World War I. Time and Time Again, his latest novel, is a time travel story of sorts. It’s set in 1914 and tells the story of Hugh Stanton, a man who has seen the future and knows that a great and terrible war is coming; a war that will destroy European civilisation and set the world on a path to misery. It’s up to Stanton to change that history by preventing that war.
“Well, there’s no question, and it’s the reason I wrote the book — World War I was the fork in the road for Western civilisation,” Elton explains. “World War I was when it all could have been so much better. I really do believe that Western society genuinely was maturing at a very, very fast rate. We hadn’t been to war, a proper war, for two or three generations. The Imperial impetus was dying. Already, people knew that Empire was unsustainable.
“There were moves towards self-determination, not just among the white colonies, but there was an Indian national movement that everyone knew would eventually succeed. Universal suffrage was coming; Irish self-determination, trend unions. Germany had the biggest trade union movement in Europe. Everything was moving towards a more civilised, democratic society.
“And then… cataclysm. The utter and total destruction of people’s lives and people’s societies. Of course, the result that followed was the dreadful 20th century. Genocide and despotism on an unimagined scale. So, yeah, I think 1914 could be argued to have been the most disastrous year for European civilisation ever. If you ask the Indigenous population of Australia, of course, they’d probably say the most disastrous year was 1788. We all have our views on what the big one was.”
Of course, 100 years have passed since 1914, and in all that time there’s been plenty of opportunity to correct our course. But Elton believes things are as bad as they’ve ever been right now.
“I think things were turning around for 25 or 30 years after the Second World War,” he qualifies, “when there was a general realisation that humanity had got things fundamentally and absolutely wrong, and that we needed to build fairer societies and better societies and we all were part of the same community. I’m afraid, with years of peace and prosperity, those lessons have been unlearned. Unregulated capitalism is creating such a divisive society that it’s a race between whether there’ll be a revolution first or environmental armageddon.”
Elton has held dual British/Australian citizenship since 2004, but until recently, he hasn’t been a particularly vocal part of the Australian political landscape. That’s starting to change — Gasp!, his new take on his first play, 1990’s Gasping, relocates the satire to an Australia grown drunk on the resources boom, and takes direct aim at Aussie mining magnates like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. Then there was last week’s appearance on Q&A, when he went head-to-head with Malcolm Turnbull over the Prime Minister (Turnbull called it a “Tony Abbott hate-fest”).
“There’s been far more reaction to that than I ever would have dreamt,” he laughs. “It just goes to show how hungry everyone is for a bit of passion, for people to talk about principles and real beliefs, rather than trying to score points on the minutia of economic regulation! I think it’s almost exclusively the fault of Murdoch’s press, but I have to say that the level of political debate in this country has been reduced to such pathetic name-calling and bullying that whenever anybody actually talks from the heart, there’s an enormous desire for that.”
So if the desire is there from the electorate, woud Ben Elton ever consider running for office in Australia?
“No. I don’t want to stand for office, because I’m an artist, and I like doing what I do. But I will always speak out, and I’m prepared to take the shit I get for it, which is a lot. 30 years of being a successful man who wants to pay his tax has caused me a lot of grief in the media. They hit me hard, because they don’t want you to stand up for principles. They don’t want you to say, ‘Alright, I’m wealthy, but I’m happy to pay my tax because I think it’s my duty to make a contribution that’s reflective of my good fortune’. That’s anathema to Murdoch, and he sets the entire agenda, as far as I can see, and the ABC scuttles after it and then gets accused of being left wing…
“So, no, I’m not thinking of running for office but I’ll always say what I think.”
When Elton says that he gets grief from the media, he’s not kidding. Though his work has always been popular, Elton has often attracted particularly nasty criticism — both from, well, critics, and occasionally from other comics.
“I’ve given up second-guessing it,” he sighs. “I think if you’re successful you’ll always provoke some jealousy. I think if you’re successful and prone to talking about principles and morals, that makes people irritated. They say, ‘Oh, well it’s all very well for you‘. I don’t know. I’ve certainly received more personal abuse in the media than any other popular artist I know — on my level, at least. Poor old Paul and Linda McCartney had it for 10 years!
“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not going to discuss the motives of other people, but it seems strange to me.”
One of the more recent attacks on Elton came at the start of the year, when British Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised Blackadder for misrepresenting World War I as “a misbegotten shambles — a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetuated by an out-of-touch elite”. Elton stayed out of the fray at the time, but has a few choice words for Gove now.
“I think it was completely beneath him and without merit,” Elton sneers. “He sought to score pathetic political points on the corpses of millions of servicemen. By pretending to be patriotic or whatever it was he was pretending to be, he actually abused the memory of the men who died. Clearly, self-evidently, Blackadder is a very pertinent and reasonable reflection on a piece of shared history. Both my grandfathers fought in the war and I’m sure his did too. He went about it in a really witless and puerile manner to score some… really, some impossibly obscure point. I really can’t tell what he was trying to say, because it was so witless.
“The idea that we should celebrate the first World War in a different way to the manner in which we do because we’re not being ‘positive’ enough about it is just fucking stupid. It’s almost impossible to debate it. I didn’t debate it, actually. I’m commenting now, but I never commented at the time. It didn’t require comment. Everyone could see it was nonsense, and that was the end of that. [Blackadder star] Tony Robinson commented, but then Tony always will.”
Funnily enough, Elton hadn’t realised that Time and Time Again was actually his second stab at World War I fiction until Gove’s outburst reminded him.
“You know, when I wrote it, I hardly even remembered that Blackadder was also set in World War I. It was only when the whole thing came up because [Gove] was saying that Blackadder misrepresented the heroism of World War I or whatever… then I thought, ‘Oh, of course, of course, I bloody wrote about World War I already in that series!’ I never look back on my work, so I never really think about what I’ve done in the past.”
Elton’s not fond of thinking about the work that lies in his past, but he doesn’t like to look too far into the future, either. That said, he doesn’t think he’ll ever write another book like Time and Time Again — if only because he doesn’t actually like time travel stories.
“The time travel element was a surprise, even to me. I started off thinking about the cause of the first World War and the immense personal frustration I feel even now, 100 years later, about how insane that conflict was, and the damage it did to European and global civilisation, let alone the tragedy of the actual events. As I began to write my story, I realised the protagonist was going to have to be from the future, and suddenly I was confronted with writing some time travel fiction for the first time in my life.
“My wife said, ‘Don’t do it, it never works, it’s frustrating, and every possible nuance of every time conundrum and paradox has already been investigated’. She was against the idea. I knew that if you take on time travel, you’ve really got to think hard about it, because it’s been so comprehensively covered. So I thought and thought and thought and came up with this very interesting solution, which is that it’s not time travel at all, it’s just a quantum loop. It’s the ability of a particle to be in two places at the same time. Which, of course, is absolute nonsense, but it’s vaguely convincing, and I certainly spent a lot of time trying to make the ‘time shift’ aspect convincing.
“This loop in time, this time switch that I used, it’s very different from wandering around in a TARDIS and cherrypicking where you want to go. That’s fine, That’s great, but it’s not what I do. I’m with my wife, on the whole; I feel like time travel has been so massively covered that it’s almost impossible to do something original with it.
“I think with my story, I did do something original, and I take satisfaction that I found something new in the genre. But I’d be astonished if I ever tried to do it again.”
Time and Time Again is available now through Random House. Gasp! plays at QPAC until Sunday December 7; click here to access a special offer for bmag readers.