Ben Elton: ‘Corbyn has let us down’

The 1980s stand-up is back on the road again - and for the first time he's happy to talk about his Jewish roots


We meet in the office of Ben Elton’s publicist in Regent Street, central London, to conduct what both of us believe to be the comic, author and sitcom writer’s first interview with the JC.

Seven years ago, Elton wrote Two Brothers a novel inspired by his father’s experience as a refugee from Nazi Germany. But he didn’t agree to a JC interview (we had to make do with a profile). A “committed atheist” , in the past he declined most invitations to talk about his Jewish roots. His mother once joked: “Why does no one ever ask about my Church of England background?”

But now Elton, 60, is happy to chat, and is quite blunt. “I am well aware there are some aspects of me that are Jewish and that some people identify me as Jewish,” he reasons. “I don’t mind.”

“I don’t know any Jewish holidays,” he says. “I know a lot about Jewish history but that’s because I’m interested in history in general. The cultural thing is incredibly important.”

Elton first rose to prominence on the ’80s comedy circuit, and later went on to co-write classic 1980s alternative comedy TV series including The Young Ones, and Blackadder. He collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen on West End musicals, and has written a string of best-selling novels. Now he’s returning to stand-up with an exhaustive UK tour, visiting dozens of venues.

As we talk, it soon becomes clear just how much genuine emotional feeling he has when talking about his family history — and how much detail he knows.

I expected discussion about his Jewish roots and related issues, such as the rise of antisemitism, to take up a fraction of our conversation. But he has so much to say that it dominates our 40-minute conversation.

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

His mother Mary, a teacher, was brought up C of E, while his Jewish father Lewis, a physicist and higher education researcher, adopted “atheist, socialist” values that would obviously influence his son.

Until around the age of 11, Elton says, he was “unaware” of the full extent of his father’s Jewish past.

“He was someone who had very good reason to be tired of the definitions of the past,” he says. “He was a Jewish refugee — a number of members of his family died in the Holocaust.

“His family got out — his mother, his father, his brother.”

Of course, when he decided to write Two Brothers the questions about his Jewish roots were inevitable. “I obviously have a Jewish heritage,” he says, with a father whose “parents were part of hundreds of years of ghettoised Judaism, slowly but surely assimilating and becoming more middle class.

“This is hundreds of years of culture. Somewhere back, five or six generations, one of my direct relatives was the first person to be knighted, in the German equivalent of the word, the first Jew to become a judge. There’s a bit of that in my history.”

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.

Ben 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. Remembering his leftie routines of the past, I am keen to hear his assessment of the antisemitism crisis that has raged under its current leader Jeremy Corbyn.

He is still a member of the Labour Party and, in the past, he famously annoyed right-wing Tories with his routines and outspoken interviews, but it’s clear he’s also not worried about offending those who hold views further to the left than his own.

“Never did I believe I would be living in a Britain in which there is so much talk about antisemitism,” he says.

He has lived in Australia as well as London for quite a long time after meeting his wife Sophie Gare, mother of their three children, while on tour in Fremantle in 1987 and marrying her seven years later. Maybe that’s why he looks fitter and healthier than he did 30 years ago.

But he has lost none of his passionate interest in British politics, and his anger hasn’t dissipated over the decades. It’s just that now it’s aimed at a Labour target. ”I believe Corbyn has let us down horribly,” he says.

“He needed to get a grip. But either because he is incapable or because, incorrectly in my view, he did not want to inflame a part of his base that conflates Israeli foreign policy with all Jews.

“For whatever reason, he has allowed what is clearly a fringe problem to become a cancerous poison. In the Labour Party I don’t believe there’s as much as we fear there is — but there clearly is a problem with tankies and with Stalinists. There’s a long history of antisemitism in communism but Labour is a welfare state party, partly founded by Jews.” Tankies, in case you were wondering, was the word coined to describe members of the Communist Party of Great Britain who supported the Soviet Union’s policy of crushing revolts in Hungary in the 1950s and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s by sending in army tanks.

Elton says there are aspects of the Labour leader he admires but “there is much that makes me physically despair.

“His inability to show moral leadership and firm guidance on what is and in my view remains a serious issue and one which has been allowed to get out of hand.”

He is just as staunch in his criticism of those who take their animosity towards the state of Israel into problematic areas, although that doesn’t mean that he supports everything the Israel government does.

He says that during the 1967 Six Day War the view from within his own family was that Israel “had the right to defend itself.

“I believe in a two-state solution, but I also believe in the rights of Palestinians. Israel has had many enlightened administrations —unfortunately not recently.

“There is much that is beautiful about the state of Israel — but there are also things that aren’t. I see Israel/Palestine as a human problem in the same way that I see the sectarian violence in Ireland.

“Israel for me is another terribly sad circumstance. We all know it was born of agony in so many ways. Certainly of Jewish agony, but then also of Palestinian agony.

He stresses his support for Israel’s existence, but adds that, as a people “that have known brutality in an unimaginable scale”, the Israeli government should avoid “using that to justify further brutality.” Instead, they “should say, ‘this is why we won’t do this’.

“At the moment, they are singularly not doing that.”

I suggest to Elton that today’s political climate is perfect for his type of satire — especially with his comedy tour about to kick off.

It is 15 years such he last did stand-up comedy and I wonder if he believes there are similarities with the days of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, subject of so many of his rants in the past?

Boris Johnson is, he claims, worse than Margaret Thatcher. “She was a serious woman of principle,” he adds. “I always treated her as such. She was in politics for what she believed.

“I loathed her principles but I admired her for sticking to them. Nothing could be more opposite than Boris Johnson.

“This is a man whose sense of self-entitlement is so encompassing that words don’t describe him. It’s post-shame. As a satirist, dealing with Johnson and Trump — it’s very hard.”

Despite these gloomy circumstances, Elton is excited to get back on the road with the tour, and is also revelling in the success of his latest novel, Identity Crisis — a satire of the world fracturing around us, in which an old-school policeman investigating a series of murders is drawn into the troll-filled world of online identity politics.

“There are good things that have changed,” he muses, as we wrap up or interview:

“The departing leader of the Scottish Conservatives is a married lesbian with a child by her female partner.

“Who the f**k knew — the last time I was on tour, the Scottish Conservatives were still burning lesbians as witches.

“Things are truly changing. The world is in a spin.”


Ben Elton tours the UK from September 28 to December 20; His novel, ‘Identity Crisis’, is published by Transworld


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