During the holidays I used some some Amazon gift tokens to treat myself to, amongst other things, a box set(*) of Ben Elton concerts to make up for getting rid of my old VHS of his.
I wasn’t sure what I would make of them but with nearly seven hours of stand-up for just over a tenner I hoped I couldn’t go wrong.
This is a strange one. You know how bands now do concerts where they play an old album in its entirety? It is that sort of thing but for stand up. It was filmed in 1991 but was more or less his entire set from when I saw him at the Lewisham Theatre in the early 80s without the topical political stuff but with all the knob gags and toilet humour left in. He even wore the famous sparkly suit.
For a 23-year-old recording of >30-year-old material it actually held up rather well. I didn’t laugh as much as I did in Lewisham, but still found myself in tears a few times.
Filmed in 1993 this was of similar vintage to the 1991 show but with newer material which is only slightly less familiar. Again I thought this held up fairly well.
A 1997 show with a few digs at the impending New Labour government. This is about the time that he had just done a couple of series of The Thin Blue Line which I couldn’t stand so I wasn’t looking forward to it, but fortunately it has a lot more in common with his earlier stand up than with his later sitcoms.
The one I was really dreading. I had seen some YouTube clips of shows from the last year or two and they were terrible and this concert was only filmed about 6 years ago. By this point he had become incredibly well-off thanks to We Will Rock You, is more grumpy old man than angry young man, and has material about coping with children straying into the set.
It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but somehow the ingredients came together in a way that worked. I can’t say I was creased up with laughter the way I was when I saw him live, but I did enjoy it.
Overall the set was a bit of a bargain. Putting it in terms of his own TV output I think the older material has dated a lot better than The Young Ones but not as well as Blackadder. I actually enjoyed it more than the Eddie Izzard Force Majeure which I also picked up in the sales and had been looking forward to immensely.
I know that Ben Elton comes in for a lot of stick for his work on musicals (which I have never seen and don’t intend to) and his later sitcoms (about which the least said the better) and the attempts to reconcile his presumed great wealth with his left-wing opinions, (I don’t know why. If I won the Euromillions I would like to think I wouldn’t become a Tory overnight) but on his day he still puts on one of the best stand-up shows.
If he has gone off the boil a bit now there is every chance he will get his mojo back again. I know I’m a bit biased. I loved The Young Ones at the time, and Blackadder, and The Man From Auntie. I even enjoyed the dozen books of his that I have read, so I wanted to enjoy all these discs and I’m glad that I actually did.
If you can’t stand the idea of We Will Rock You and cringed at The Wright Way, then don’t let that put you off this set because it reminds of what the Motormouth is capable of.
Which reminds me… I had the Motormouth LP on vinyl and had taped it for a friend in Australia. He subsequently became a funeral director and told me that he used to play the tape on the stereo in the hearse on the way to funerals. Bereaved families were often impressed to see that when the coffin arrived the driver had tears in his eyes, and weren’t to know it was because of a string of knob gags.
* Very old-school. It was actually four DVDs that are otherwise available individually, in their own cases and all in an actual box.