5 mins with Ben Elton

5 mins with Ben Elton

Amid rehearsals for his major rewrite, Gasp!, Ben Elton took five with Jane Schon to talk about inspiration and his fantastic career.

By Jane Schon | 8th October 2014

How’s the Gasp! rehearsals going?

Very good, I mean it is a tremendous privilege for a writer to be able to revisit a play that was my first professional play, I wrote it 25 years ago, I always thought it was a good idea, I had thought about revisiting it a number of times but the way I did it 25 years a go was kind of simplistic. It was a farce on structure and style - it was very on the nose, almost like a cartoon. The idea is we can learn something about all the ways we treat our planetary riches and each other by imagining air as a resource that can be contained and sold. So it continues to have a social and satirical core but it also continues to be a full on comedy.

[The rewrite] came about because of Kate Cherry (Artistic Director of Black Swan Theatre, in Perth). She was always saying, “You’re Australian now, you live in Australia” - and I am a citizen now – “So when are you going to write an Australian play?” I kept coming back to Gasp! because for the last five years in Australia, all we ever talk about is the themes that are in Gasp! - the carbon tax, global warming, the resources industry, the mining tax - all the issues centered around exploiting our planet. So I’ve already written the play! I said to Kate, “Look would it be all right for me to rewrite my earliest work because it is so much better if I set it in Australia within the resources industry.” It’s a proper reimagining and a proper rewrite. I’d say it’s half a new play - that’s why I’ve taken one syllable off the title.

How much control do you have while it’s in production?

I have some control. But it’s not like that - it’s not about control. Wesley is a tremendous director, a great leader, he is wonderful with people, and it is a fantastic team. I am very fortunate that Kate chose to introduce me to Wesley, because obviously Queensland and Western Australia are the two resources states, the two mining states, so she thought it would be great for the play to be a dual production. I’ve got as much control as my verbosity and powers of persuasion allow me. And I am the one who is says, “I think I can do better with that line” and we talk about it and improve it. I have been having a lot of fun.

Where do your ideas come from? It seems like your mind must be working on overdrive with the amount of work you've produced…

I do have sort of a restless imagination. But I don’t think when I’m not working. It’s been a long time since ideas just dropped into my head. Perhaps that’s more when you’re young when your store of organic ideas is not yet exhausted. Now I have to look more, I have to sit down and think harder. I remember I wrote a play and a novel called Popcorn about 20 years ago, which was a very big hit at the time. I can remember the idea sort of dropping into my head - that doesn’t happen so much anymore. I tend to sort of fossick around and seek them out.

But I’m certainly a better writer now than I was then. I’ve written 15 novels since, and I know a lot more about plot development, story telling and character development. I’ve put that into the new version of Gasp!.

Often people think I’m a workaholic. But somebody who is an ‘aholic’ of any sort is rendered dysfunctional by whatever it is they’re consuming, be it drugs, booze, work, sex. It’s doing something bad to them. My energy, which is considerable I admit, hasn’t in any sense impacted badly on my life. I have plenty of time for my family, I love to drink, I love to socialise, and I have many friends. I spend more time not working than working by a long way. But when I do work I work quite hard. If I sit down for four hours at my desk, I’ll have a few pages to show for it at the end, but then I’ll go on my paddle board and I’ll start thinking about what I’ll cook the family for supper. So I’m not rendered dysfunctional. I’m very lucky! I enjoy doing what I do, I’m good at it and it doesn’t make me unhappy. Some people are apparently tortured by their needs or their desires. People always want their comedians to be deeply unhappy, but I’m not. I’m a boringly functional person.

So do you think luck as played a big role in your career?

Of course! But I have a real facility to do what I can do. I think nurture and nature have a lot to do with it. I mean some people can run a lot faster than I can because that’s the way they are born. I definitely have talent to write, I would be stupid to say that I didn’t.

I know that the fact that I was middle class meant I could come to London after university, and my parents could help me. I wasn’t broke long, but I knew that I could really go for it. I didn’t feel the deep need that I must start with a job in a bank or whatever. I felt confident that I could try to make my way in the arts and part of that was because of my secure family background. It’s much worse today. I don’t know what non-middle class kids are supposed to do because no-one’s prepared to pay anybody. [Internships] didn’t exist when I was young. Your first job was lowly pay but it was still paid. So I was lucky to be born when I was and I was lucky to have the chances I had. But I made the most of them.

You’ve written plays, television scripts, musicals, you’ve directed – what’s your favourite?

The work I like doing the most is in the theatre, with actors. I loved working on We Will Rock You. I directed that as well as wrote the story and the dialogue. And I’m loving this process here [with Gasp!]. I like to get out of my study and work with actors. I enjoy the company of actors and I enjoy directing. I’m not directing this but I’m working with the director and that’s fun too.

So what's next?

I have a new novel coming out, which I’m thinking a lot about. It’s about the cause of the first world war. I’m a gleeful reader of history. I am an amateur historian, I read history all the time. It’s my leisure reading. I’ve written more novels than I’ve read, but I’ve read immense amounts of history. So I’ve got that novel coming out and I’m working on developing a new sitcom with the BBC which is exciting, and of course I’ve got Gasp!, which I’m working very hard on at the moment.

Sounds like a full plate…

Yeah I’m very lucky. I mean you asked if I’m lucky, of course I am. But I certainly don’t squander my good fortune. I try to do the best work I can, I try to be a generous colleague to the people I work with, and try to act responsibly with the money I make.

See GASP! at the Playhouse Nov 17 - Dec 7
www.qpac.com.au

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Article by Jane Schon

Jane is a former Journalist of Style Magazines. She is addicted to theatre, travelling to far off places and developing her personal style (AKA shopping). Jane adores good food (and even better coffee) and is a self-confessed sleep enthusiast.