Ben Elton: ‘Even non-racists can be a bit antisemitic’

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Ben Elton: ‘Even non-racists can be a bit antisemitic’

INTERVIEW: The iconic comedian discusses his upcoming London shows, David Baddiel's take on antisemitism and his family's escape from Nazi persecution.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Ben Elton (Credit: Trevor Leighton)
Ben Elton (Credit: Trevor Leighton)

Comic legend Ben Elton has heaped praise on his good friend David Baddiel’s “obviously superb” book Jews Don’t Count – before admitting most ideas around the concept of Jewishness actually leave him baffled.

The 62-year-old, who shot to fame in the 1980s with the smash hit television sitcoms The Young Ones and Blackadder has subsequently published no less than 17 novels since then, written and directed several award-winning plays and sitcoms – and had a few flops along the way.

His 2012 novel Two Brothers was inspired by his Jewish father’s family experience escaping Nazi persecution, but the outspoken celebrity also previously raised questions as to why his mother’s Church of England background is rarely brought up for discussion.

Today, having flown into the UK from Western Australia – (prior to lockdown he and his wife Sophie Gare had split their time between the two countries) – is full of nothing but praise for his Jewish atheist pal Baddiel’s acclaimed book

Elton told Jewish News: “I am not going to subscribe to your appraisal of what that book is about – be careful of that. But if you would like my opinion of that book, it was obviously superb.

“His point that antisemitism is the one politically acceptable form of racism – he argues it very well, and I think he makes an extremely strong argument.

“It’s not everything about antisemitism, it’s a very niche part of antisemitism. But a crucially important part of it. He is not saying, even remotely, that antisemitism is ‘worse for us’.

David Baddiel

“It’s a peculiar issue, that most people who consider themselves non-racist, the one little bit of racism they allow themselves is antisemitism. It’s sort of jokey and it’s been around for 2,000 years.”

Elton – who is in the UK to do a 10 day long solo stand-up stint at the Pinter Theatre later this month and to continue directing Queen play We Will Rock You from February – then recalls his regular interactions with his “dear, dear, dear friend” Rik Mayall, who died aged 56 in 2014.

“I miss him so much,” he says, before revealing that on occasions Mayall, best known as the Young Ones’ madcap anarchist, sometimes used to greet Elton by saying “Hey, Jew!…. as a joke.”

Elton then adds: “Maybe I shouldn’t quote him because people will misunderstand it totally. The things one says as a kid. They word gay, you know “what are you gay?”

Ben Elton (Credit: Trevor Leighton)

“I learned a very big lesson the day the word ‘spasmo’ was used. After that I went away, I did what everyone claims to do, and I learned. I did. I wrote Gridlock, whose hero reclaims that word.”

We then attempt to discuss Elton’s thoughts on his own Jewishness – and this is where things become complicated.

His father was born Ludwig Ehrenberg in the German university town Tubingen.

He moved with his family to Prague in 1929, and from there to England in February 1939, to escape Nazi persecution.

Naturalised a British subject, Ludwig changed his name by deed poll in June 1947.

But Elton says that, mirroring his father’s life in many ways, he has subsequently grown up knowing Jewish people but without any real connection to the religious side of Jewishness.

Growing up in Catford, south east London, in what he describes as “ordinary” circumstances , Elton has said that in his early childhood, he actually knew more about Christianity than he did about Judaism and attended a Church of England primary school.

Meanwhile his father Lewis, a physicist and higher education researcher, adopted “atheist, socialist” values that would obviously influence his son.

“I don’t think I have Jewish side, and I know people will think I’m in denial,” he says. “But that’s because you are appropriating characteristics. I remember going to see Jackie Mason – he was hilarious.

Jackie Mason ‘The Millennium Show’

‘The Jew does this’, the Jew does that’. But what he was actually talking about was a certain type of splendidly not very practical but interesting type of person.

“Every culture has Jewish mamas. They are called Italian mamas, or Muslim mamas. What we are essentially talking about is mothers who want to cook for their kids – believe me every culture has the figure of the Jewish mother.

“Also, the person who is always worrying about the bill, or whatever.”

Elton says he is aware that good friends of his “who are Jewish” become irritated when he “declines the invitation to buy into their ideas” around Jewish excellence of arenas such as comedy.

Ben Elton (Credit: Trevor Leighton)

He adds:”I have good friends who identify as Jewish – I don’t know many of them who actually believe in God. They like the festivals because they like the parties. I don’t know many seriously faith driven Jews, but I know a f**k of a lot of culture driven Jews.”

Still a member of the Labour Party, Elton suggests Sir Keir Starmer was “handed a difficult pack of cards” when he took over from Jeremy Corbyn. But he suggests Starmer has now “started to put together some tricks.”

When we had previously spoken in September 2019, Elton said Corbyn had “let us down horribly.”

He is still of the opinion that part of Corbyn’s failure on antisemitism was because “he did not want to inflame a part of his base that conflates Israeli foreign policy with all Jews.”

But the former Labour leader is the last thing on Elton’s mind now. The day after we speak he will see his 92-year-old mother for the first time in 22 months.

An ultra-strict lockdown in Australia prevented Elton and his wife from leaving her native country. He returned to writing lengthy monthly letters to his mother to make up for the absence of contact.

Elton is excited about his nightly two-hour long stand up stints at the Pinter Theatre. And the return of We Will Rock You to UK theatres will see the resumption of an Elton directed show was abruptly halted in Sheffield when lockdown arrived.

When the Queen musical reopens in February, Elton will be reunited with his wife, he will remain in Australia looking after elderly family.

This month’s Pinter Theatre dates are an updated version of the 90 date solo tour he did in Britain back in 2019 and the further 60 he did in Australia last year when he was allowed to travel there.

One area he won’t be discussing is Brexit. “I spoke about that for f***ing 90 days in a row in 2019,” he fumes in a jokey fashion. But there is room for what some describe as “political correctness gone mad.”

Elton reasons that “what is being called mad now is something everybody will just accept 20 years from now.”

There’s just two lines on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of whom Elton has been a ferocious critic of in the past, in the shows.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his victory speech after winning the Uxbridge and Ruislip South constituency in the 2019 General Election. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Elton says the central theme is of a future he has never been so uncertain about.

“After 40 years of pontificating and mouthing off at people – now there is a greater confusion. But you realise that is where the comedy lies.

“You get to realise you are the older generation and there are whole bunches of ideas, be they politics, social, music, taste fashion.

“In many ways it’s dad comedy. But hopefully very interesting and original and linked to the fact I’ve got three kids in their 20s.

“I’m not cast adrift, but I’m definitely one of the older ones now.”

  • Ben Elton at the Pinter Theatre, 20 – 30 December, tickets:
  • ‘We Will Rock You’ tours the UK from 7 February – 10 September, tickets and venues:
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