Thursday, December 22, 2005

Everybody loathes Elton

Ben Elton is often mentioned by British comedians as the most-hated man in the business. It's a bit hard to see why, exactly, it's just that he is rich, successful and mainstream, and makes musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber (which is at least three strikes in most people's eyes, I suppose). His career has been odd, though: starting as a political firebrand and anarchist Young Ones writer, then moving to the high wit of Blackadder, before blanding out in his Man for Auntie sketch show and The Thin Blue Line anaemic police comedy, underusing Rowan Atkinson as almost a straight-main. From here it's easy to see his early radical days as a careerist stunt: that was where the buzz was at the time. I'm not sure that's right, though- his novels continue to reflect his passionate intensity, and even the Thin Blue Line was quite advanced in its philosophy considering its positioning: there were a lot of jokes about sex (that's not quite true: of the jokes there were, a lot were about sex), but the characters' sexual orientation and colour was never exploited, as it would have been in most comparable sitcoms. Given the widespread wish for Elton to fail, it's surprising how little anyone has had to say about his latest masterpiece, the couple-with-young children sitcom Blessed. Now, this may come as a revelation, but young children cry, and need feeding, and make a mess. Sometimes the parents get tetchy as a result. With hilarious consequences. Or not. Actually it's not entirely laugh-free. But what amuses is the plotting and the frustrated rants of the lead character, rather than verbal agility. One problem is the inaccuracy of the cultural references. The record producer hero has to deal with a manufactured Spice Girls grrl group, with the moral issues that raises about whether he should insist on his rights to his creative work or let them steal it in return for lots of money. The trouble with this is that he is starting from the view that groups should be talented and creative, not manufactured. It's hard to believe this when for a start, he works as a jobbing music producer churning out advertising jingles and backing tracks, and is hardly therefore at the 'art for art's sake' end of the business, but more importantly, his views are anachronistic: after all the Idols and X Factors, nobody seems to mind that stars and groups are designed by marketing consultants, publicised by publicists, and sold to the media in bite-size chunks from 'wow I won' to 'ex-singer in drug shame' to 'who?'. After Darius lost out to much laughter in the first Pop Idol, or whatever, and dismissed as a talentless poser, I thought I'd heard the last of him; I hardly expected him to crop up in 2005 as a credible and successful artist with fans and No. 1s and everything. So Elton here is being misled by what he thinks and feels, which is not believable as what his character thinks. The characterisation has another major flaw: the ageing rocker guitarist. With his wrinkled, twitching face and leathers, he models himself on Keith Richard. But Elton tries to have it both ways: sometimes, he is clearly a delusional loser whose pose is just that, masking an empty and tragically wasted life; but sometimes he really is a star, able to charm groupies and acquaintances. In general, I would think that the series owes its origins to Elton's life experiences, and would have been better if it had accepted the fact rather than mask it by, say, changing the father's job from comedian novelist living in London with his young family, to something totally different, like, record producer living...

What I don't understand, after all this, is the eerie silence. Shouldn't the airwaves be jammed with pundits queueing up to say it's terrible and Elton is finished? I can only suppose they have realised it's more cutting, in the long run, tosay nothing, just walk away.

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