Brian Beacom

HAS the world been waiting for Ben Elton to return? A 1980s comedy superhero who can see through lead-lined doors of nonsense, into the future and has the comedic strength to free us from the evil of mis-truth?

We once smiled gratefully when the stand-up/writer/novelist tore into “Mrs Thatch”, when he dug deep for the miners. And wasn’t he Avenger-bold when he fought for feminism, performing routines, for example, about how television couldn’t cope with the subject of menstruation?

Now, Elton is back with an 80-night stand-up tour to help us cope with the chaos. But wait a minute, 60-year-old Elton’s superpowers seem to have waned. Sitting in a quiet corner of a plush Glasgow hotel, the man who created the anarchic Young Ones and co-wrote Blackadder is looking tanned, slim and self-assured in soft blue shirt – but he admits he doesn’t have the answers any more.

“I don’t even get what I once got,” he says with a wry smile. “Not only am I confused looking forward, I’m confused looking back. In fact I’m getting stupider as I get older.”

He pauses (which is unusual for Elton) to add: “Let me give you an example: I’m fascinated by the modern idea that a woman can have a penis – and I appreciate this is a complicated, sensitive issue worthy of civilised, careful debate – but we’re not getting it partly because no one is acknowledging the confusion of changing times. But the debate is that gender has nothing to do with biology. The very idea that people can have a choice over gender is new to me.”

He adds: “And if you use phrases such as, ‘I’m a man’s man.’ Or 'I’m a trans man.’ What does that mean? Is that about biology? If not, what is it?”

These are confused times, Ben. What of MeToo? Is he caught up with the feeling, held by some men, that they don’t know the rules of engagement anymore?

“We need to listen to and think about patriarchal entitlement,” he says, before grinning and adding, “Having said that, there is a lot of comedy to be had in a bloke who’s read The Guardian all his life, supported Greenham Common and bought Julie Covington’s Only Women Bleed in 1978 – and suddenly thinking he’s responsible for Harvey Weinstein.”

He adds: “There is a greater complexity that’s for sure. And clearly, #MeToo has produced a generation of men who are fearful of intimacy, concerned for being accused.”

He grins: “I make a joke about how a man can’t even give a junior female employee a hug anymore – what’s wrong with the world?

“The problem isn’t so much that we have different opinions, but we’re not prepared to listen to anyone’s problems but our own. Trump will happily stoke male paranoia. My novel Identity Crises is about how the Right is fuelling outrage. We have to regain control of the argument. So I would say to trans people to allow me to express my confusion in the hope I’ll understand this difficulty you are facing.”

He’s still got it. He writes nice colour. Elton may be bamboozled but he hasn’t lost his voice. When he goes on to expound on the problems with the internet, for example, he turns into a south London version of the Hulk. (He’ll hate the comparison given Boris Johnson has seized it).

“I don’t know how Sir Tim Berners-Lee sleeps at night! If I knew I’d destroyed the world I would f****** kill myself.”

Elton refuses to connect to social media. “I can see why my publisher would want me to get a million followers and sell my latest book. I can see why Hugh Laurie set up a Facebook page to promote his band. But I see social media as a forum for those to vent jealousy and prejudice. And here’s the thing, I’ve been getting trolled since before the name was invented, so why would I put my head above the parapet in another form and say, ‘Here is my head, kick it here.’”

His voice picks up speed. “And isn’t curating your Twitter feed a way to entirely f*** up your life?’ I’d face an essay crisis. I’d need to think about what I write and I’d spend all day on it. I’d never get out the house. And in any case, I don’t want to bleed my ideas onto the internet. I want to keep them for novels and stand-up routines and plays.”

Elton says he has no interest in the diary aspect of social media telling people what plane he’s about to get. “Then you have to count the likes every time you Tweet. No, I don’t want to be part of it and it’s a sacrifice I’m prepared to make because I know social media would f*** me up. It’s bad for your mental health.”

The writer, who lives half the year in western Australia (his wife, Sophie Gare, is an Australian musician; they met when he toured Oz and appeared on the same bill) firmly believes the internet to be Kryptonite to truth. “I know it’s a truism to say we live in a post-truth society but really that is the case. If you want to deny that vaccinations, which self-evidently have changed the world for the better and saved millions of lives there are a million sites to prove it. Or that 9/11 was carried out by the CIA – or the local greengrocer.”

He’s aware he’ll be accused of double standards. “There will be people saying to me, ‘You hate the internet, but I bet you use Google Maps.’ Or ‘You want to save the environment but I saw you getting on a train last week.’ Well, f*** you, because we still have to operate within the society we live in. All you can do is do your best to change it.”

The rage swells a little more. “Within 15 years we’ve ruined 400 years of the Enlightenment. We’ve run our laws, our science and debate based on facts. Once more Galileo is facing the Inquisition, charged with telling them that indeed the sun does go around the Earth, despite all the evidence.”

There’s a paradox, he points out, that the internet tells us everything, but prevents us learning anything. “Nobody knows what’s going on anymore. The national focus evaporated with the internet.” He sighs. “I’ve just had a three-series run of a sitcom [Upstart Crow] but 80 per cent of people don’t know I wrote it. Adverts don't work and no one fly posts. And nobody reads fly posters because they’re all too busy looking at their phones and getting knocked over as they cross the road.”

Elton’s return to stand-up after more than a decade is a little surprising. It’s certainly not about the money. He could live happily on the royalties for his musical theatre efforts such as Queen-backed We Will Rock You and Rod Stewart songbook Tonight’s The Night.

But he does need to go back to basics, to test himself? “Yes.” Was he trepidatious of getting back up there? “Very. There is a lot of expectation on me to be funny and thought provoking every night on my 80 gigs. I know I can do good lines, but the challenge is to make my ideas work. In the 1980s it was easier to make comic conclusions. The targets were more definable. But now? If I did my 1987 routine – ‘I can’t imagine a world where men can menstruate’ about the untold story of menstruation that could be seen to be transphobic because some people who identify as men have the biology and can actually menstruate.”

What of politics, Ben? Are you still prepared to rip off your shirt and fight to defend the Labour Party, given its opaqueness and anti-Semitic travails?

“I don’t think I have any choice. I think the party is in a state of flux but I think Corbyn made the only sensible contribution to the Brexit debate when he said I am 60-40 Remain. There are good reasons to leave – but not good enough to leave it. He was castigated, yet he feels it’s impossible to organise labour when you have free movement of labour. And you can’t call people racist because they have fears for their workplace.”

He takes a breath. “But the Labour Party is eating itself up over anti-Semitism. Who saw that one coming? That is a surreal nightmare. Yes, I think we could have a better leader. But I don’t think we could have a worse leader than the Tories have. Yet, the self-preservation of an Old Etonian has to be seen. They are the cockroaches of the world.” He grins. “Not all of them. George Orwell was an Old Etonian.”

What of the Scottish dilemma? Divided over both Brexit and independence? “I can understand why Scots want to get away from the madness but I don’t think geographical nationalism ends well. My grandfather (the historian Victor Ehrenberg; Elton’s father changed the surname when he came to England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution) won an Iron Cross in the First World War and within 20 years he was running from soldiers wearing the same uniform.

“I know the SNP contains people of goodwill but when you let the nationalist genie out of the bottle you’re taking a big risk. And as for culture? I think the people of Glasgow share far more culturally with the people of Liverpool than they do a landowner up the road from Edinburgh."

He produces a wicked laugh. “But I will say that all nationalists are welcome at my gigs.”

He says: “For me it’s always been about class. I came up to Scotland during the miners' strike and I wish it was still about brothers and sisters in solidarity protecting jobs.”

There’s no denying the former Manchester University student – he met Rik Mayall there) still believes passionately in fighting the fight for fairness. Time and success haven’t dulled the edge.

“We’re living in really, really dangerous times. When you have a Prime Minister defying the law what’s to stop a bunch of lads on Sauchiehall Street saying ‘We’ll defy the law too’? And referendums are madness. The Germans ban them in their Constitution because they are infinitely manipulable.”

He adds a final thought on Brexit. “If we’re leaving, we’re leaving. But it’s got to be done properly. And three years isn’t long enough to debate it because it’s life-changing.”

There’s no doubt Elton’s political worries will prompt and provoke. But what of television and comedy? Is there capital to be made, for example, in the changing sensibility of sitcom? Could he have imagined the BBC would screen a series such as Fleabag in which the opening scene features a woman having anal sex? “No, and I’m doing a whole riff about this very thing,” he says in a voice as pleased as a Captain America who has just saved the planet. “Can you imagine Judi Dench in A Fine Romance being shagged up the a*** by Michael Williams while speaking to the camera?”

He offers a wicked smile: “Or maybe we shouldn’t, given she’s a national treasure. But yes, people used to complain about too much sex. Now, it’s letters to the BBC. ‘Dear BBC, you showed a costume drama last week that featured no lesbian sex. Dear-oh-dear-oh-dear.’”

The father-of-three adds: “In some ways it’s good [the changing sensibility]. But it’s all different. I can remember doing knob gags and routines about that, but you couldn’t mention the word ‘vagina’. Nowadays, you can’t not mention it.”

The confused, bewildered, conflicted Elton is clearly a force for funny. And he’s still saving us in a sense by revealing he’s wearing his underpants on the inside of his trousers like the rest of it.

“I hope that by expressing the confusion in an empowering and comedic manner I will arrive at some answers,” he says with a beaming, optimistic smile. From Confusion to Conclusion.

The writer who once played the Artful Dodger in a school production loves to craft the artful thought. “For me, comedy is a beautiful way to explore ideas, and to feel better about those ideas.”

But is optimistic about the future? “Let’s say I’m less sure than I used to be. I’m worried about a new Dark Ages.”

Our Captain Marvel with the soft tan and soft pastel shirt clearly hopes to make a difference. Even a little difference. “I think real comedy is a small act of rebellion; so long as it’s not relying on prejudices to get a weak laugh.”

He offers a hopeful smile. “And we need some rebellion right now.”

Ben Elton, The Pavilion Theatre Glasgow, October 1.