COMMENT: Ben Elton Knows The Truth
First published December 2000
Ben Elton Knows The Truth
Ben Elton's sixth novel Inconceivable was published in 2000. It is, as most of us know, about a couple attempting to have a child - it is narrated in a two-handed, alternating diary format by both partners, and the plot concerns the male character's clandestine decision to write a film script based on their experiences. It is autobiographical, and Elton has made no secret of this. It also revisits a lot of Elton's recent stand-up material, including the infamous 'sperm test' routine - a criticism often levelled against his novels, but which is actually quite endearing when it comes down to it. In an inevitable postmodern twist, the book was later filmed as Maybe Baby starring Hugh Laurie in the lead role.

But this is all a front. For Inconceivable is not simply a romantic comedy about IVF treatment peppered with a few millennial knob gags. Amusing though the novel's main plot is (and it's bloody amusing, actually), there is a sub-plot of even greater interest to Some Of The Corpses Are Amusing. For it seems that Ben Elton, no matter how out of touch and embarrassing some twat-snobs may believe him to be, knows full well what is going on, apropos the comedy industry.

So see if you can spot anyone familiar among this little lot...

Sam Bell, 'one of the BBC's most senior and experienced lunch eaters', dines at a restaurant called One Nine Oh, so-called because it's situated at 190 Ladbroke Park Gate. He is there to meet a couple of 'post-modern comedians' called Dog and Fish, who claim to 'do for the joke what Techno did for the tune'. Sam saw their act in Edinburgh and thought they were 'truly and deeply awful in a very real sense', but Time Out says that they are 'important and mould-breaking' ('No mention of funny,', muses Sam. 'But that would be selling out.'). He is meeting with them because 'the BBC must beat a path to their door, otherwise Channel 4 will get them and look more hip than us'. Dog and Fish plan to do a four-hour docusoap comedy which 'cuts out all that false crap that TV comedy normally gets bogged down in, like scripts and jokes and acting in an amusing manner, and get straight to the raw improvisational bones of their genius'. The duo laugh in a 'grunty, cynical, fag-ashy kind of a way'.

Dog and Fish's manager is called Aiden Fumet. He is in charge of comedy acts which The Guardian and Time Out have 'sequentially announced as 'quite simply the best in Britain today''. He is not just aggressive, but self-righteous - he 'sees any failure on the part of the BBC to grant a series to any of his acts as evidence of a vicious conspiracy to deny the young people of Britain the comedic nourishment for which their souls are clearly crying out'. As Sam adds, 'the idea that the BBC might think some of his acts less than good does not cross his mind'.

Sam reads a script - a comic play by a playwright who's already had 'a one-act piece put on at the Royal Court or some other gruesome, up-its-own-arse, over-subsidised London centre of theatrical wankdom'. The new play is called Fucking and Fucking. 'I told him we'd have to change the title,' says Sam, 'and he looked at me as if I was some kind of fascist.'

Another lunch, and Sam and his BBC colleagues talk shop. Sam concludes that telling people in showbusiness not to talk about showbusiness would be 'like telling the Pope to lay off the religious stuff'. This time they dine in a restaurant called Quark, where Sam makes a faux pas with a prawn appetiser and feels 'every type of turd'. The meal is spent with the three men trying to remember what their job titles are.

Sam considers a move into the independent sector. 'Honestly,' he says. 'I see children making five times what I make, and all because they've rented three square feet of carpet in Dean Street, a secretary with a nice belly button, and commissioned a witty documentary about chalet girls on the piss.'

Sam decides to contact his old friend, Simon 'Tosser' Tomkins, who has 'done very well of late, having practically cornered the market in supplying the BBC with programmes fronted by posh smart alecs'. These have all been pretty good, Sam remarks, 'not least because the BBC itself pioneered most of the formats on radio'.

Sam gets a major coup - he manages to book the Prime Minister for an appearance on the kids' Saturday morning show Livin' Large. His boss Nigel, currently ligging at a television festival in Barcelona, gives Sam the brief - the PM must be seen by the kids as someone who plays the electric guitar, enjoys comedy with proper swearing in it, and wears fashionable trousers. The idea comes from the BBC's PR people, itself indicative of changes at the corporation: 'BBC press and public relations used to consist of an office with a large enthusiastic woman in it whom everyone ignored,' says Sam. 'Now it's a huge and entirely separate company called something like BBC Communications, or Beeb COM, whose services I have to hire.' There is then much palaver as Sam tries to get his tie ironed on BBC expenses - the BBC will only do this if he can prove that he has sought the most competitive tender for the job. Further problems arise due to Livin' Large being made by an independent production company called Choose Groove Productions. 'This does not mean they make the show in any practical sense - oh no, the BBC make it, with BBC staff in a BBC studio, paid for by BBC money, the only difference being that some bloke with a ponytail in Soho takes a three-grand-an-episode production fee and gets to stick his company logo on the end.'

Later, Sam is reading a treatment for a new game show vehicle for one of Aiden Fumet's acts. The show features gay and lesbian couples, its authors feeling that 'this alone makes the idea important, alternative and at the cutting edge'.

Sam can remember when the BBC was a friendly place. 'A family in which every member was a jolly uncle or an aunt. A family of fat, boozy old time-servers who earned little and drank much. Men and women who went through their entire lives without once wearing a stylish garment or having a fashionable haircut. Who worked their way up the system, serving the public faithfully (if slightly unsteadily), from floor manager to producer to sad old git in the corner of the bar who was too old and pissed to find his way out of the circle*. Well those faggy, boozy days are long-gone and it's probably for the best. None of those jolly old boys would last a second in a climate where there's 500 channels competing for the audience and the money's all going to cable and satellite. Still, I can't deny that, as I stood there trembling before my channel controller (who, I must say again, is two years fucking younger than me) I found myself wishing that he was a fifteen-stone, red-nosed old bastard who would just tell me to bugger off and forget about it before commissioning another series of Terry and June.' As he looks at the controller, Sam leans on a Golden Rose of Montreux for support.

[*The shape of the office building at Television Centre. The building is notoriously difficult to leave.]

As Sam leaves, he concludes that the BBC is still a family - 'a modern, dysfunctional family in which everyone buggers off at the first chance they get'.

A meeting at the BBC, featuring lots of execs, sycophants and a woman with pink hair ('she'll probably be my next boss,' thinks Sam). They all agree that the BBC should be making movies.

Aiden Fumet is insistent that his acts must unconditionally be given their own sitcoms. When Sam's colleague asks to see an actual script, Aiden calls him a 'pointless, time-serving cunt' and says any more 'artistic interference by the BB-fucking-C' and his acts will no longer be available to the Corporation.

Sam notices how much more arrogant artists are nowadays. 'There was a time when there was only one channel and everybody, no matter how talented, who wanted to be on telly, did so by the grace of the BBC. That was how we used to get those incredible long runs of things - people did what they were told, and if that meant doing sixty episodes of the same sitcom then that's what they did.'

Sam's colleague blames the Montreal Comedy Festival, where 'US non-executives swan around the place being bought drinks by British agents and pretending to be important'. The Americans butter the British up by promising they can turn them into 'the next Eddie Murphy', but ultimately cannot hire them because they swear so much; so the Brits come home, having drunkenly 'abused the sexual trust of some poor little nineteen year old Canadian publicist', bragging about the non-existent commissions. These stories then get written up in the media ('Eric and Ernie couldn't do it, but Dog and Fish just might!') and the industry starts to believe its own bullshit. The upshot of all this is that the likes of Aiden Fumet think they can push the BBC around.

Sam is turned down by Tosser Tomkins in the independent sector. 'The BBC is just another team-player,' he argues. Sam thinks this is ridiculous considering the BBC is the largest broadcaster in the world and all Tosser Tomkins has are some pretty researchers with tattoos of scorpions on their shoulders.

A meeting with trendy new independent production company, Above The Line Films. In attendance is a hot young Scottish director called Ewan Proclaimer. 'Weird meeting. Like a summit between people from different planets - the BBC being vaguely located on earth, and Above The Line Films being located somewhere far beyond the galaxy of Barkingtonto. The extraordinary thing is that they think they are the ones who live in the real world. This is because the BBC is publicly funded and is hence some dusty old pampered 1940s welfare state relic which thinks the Eighties never happened. Amazing how these days it's hip to assume that the money supplied by vast, multi-national media conglomerates (writing off their tax losses) is somehow more tough and real and proper than that raised by the public for the purposes of their own entertainment.'

Ewan Proclaimer has just made a film called Sick Junkie, which had been 'hugely successful' (ie, some American critics had quite liked it), although 'it was actually seen by less people than watch the weather on Grampian'. His new script is called AIDS and Heroin.

Sam is having none of it. 'For heaven's sake, I know that life is tough out there but not exclusively so. There are more adolescents in the Girl Guides and the Sea Scouts than there are teenage junkies, bit nobody ever makes a film about them.'

The PM appears on Livin' Large. Sam takes his twelve year old niece Kylie (who last year had 'laid on her tummy in front of the fire reading the complete Narnia saga', but is now a pierced, sarcastic, fashion junkie of a teenage nightmare) along to the recording. The show is presented by a bright and bubbly, 'something for the dads' presenter called Tazz ('the kids themselves would probably be just as happy to watch an enthusiastic old granny, but the bleary, beery students who haven't gone to bed yet want something sexier'), and the guest band are a 'post-post-Spice Girls' outfit called Grrrl Gang, fronted by lead singer Muffy. Sam hasn't heard anything so fatuous since he 'last attended a BBC strategy meeting'.

The Prime Minster is refused entry because, due to an admin cock-up, his name is not on the gate list. The guard, believing this to be a test of his obedience of the letter of the BBC law, won't budge. Sam concludes that this is because no one trusts anyone in television any more. 'Nobody is safe. Impressionists ring up celebrities pretending to be other celebrities. Hoax current affairs programme researchers fool naive politicians into commenting on non-existent issues so as to make them look like complete idiots. Only last week there was a huge scandal at TV centre when a left-wing comic from Channel Four managed to blag his way onto Newsnight and get himself interviewed as the Secretary of State for Wales'.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, 'a boy band (called Boy Band) are singing a song about being in love (called 'Bein' In Love')'.

Kylie stumps the Prime Minister by asking him a serious question about the environment and homelessness. The Prime Minister, who was only expecting questions about electric guitars, sweary comedy and fashionable trousers, is made to look a fool. The BBC panics - the Corporation cannot look like it set the government up, since they hold the future of public service broadcasting in their hands.

Sam is moved to a new post in radio - sacking him would have involved too many problems with the unions. His principal responsibility is a laddish Breakfast Show presenter called Charlie Stone. Sam soon realises that he has no money to commission any shows with - all of it has been spent on Stone's wages. 'Your number one occupation,' warns controller Matt Crowley, 'is to stop him getting poached by Virgin or Capital.'

Another meeting at the BBC. A man called Tom decides that the BBC needs more accents, even if they are just their Oxbridge friends pretending. Everyone wonders who Tom is, and what his job is exactly.

Sam organises a Prince's Trust concert. The headline band are called Mirage, fronted by two brothers called Manky and Bushy. There is support from a sexy new Loaded-friendly female singer called Brenda. Her two big hits are 'Sex Me Again Sexy Baby' and 'Sex Me Sex Me Sex Me'. Charlie Stone is backstage, collating interview snippets which can be dropped into the broadcasts whenever any of the rockers get into a long guitar solo.

Nigel commissions Sam's script, primarily so that he can 'make his mark' quickly before being moved on. 'These days the scramble to be successful is becoming ever more urgent. People move on so quickly, it seems that - thank you, God - I am to be the beneficiary of Nigel's haste.' Ewan Proclaimer is brought in as director. Hypocrite Sam immediately concludes that neither him nor Nigel are so bad after all.

Ewan Proclaimer tells Sam that all the IVF injection scenes in the film will have thrash metal music played over them. 'It's a personal motif,' he explains. 'Have you heard of a Boston grunge band called One-Eyed Trouser Snake? They'd be perfect.'

[NOTE After Inconceivable was published, Mrs Elton gave birth to twins - Charlotte and Albert. Rumour has it that Ben has built them a specially-constructed double seat.]