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Don’t stop me now – Ben Elton on 20 years of We Will Rock You

He’s no Nostradamus. Or, at least, he says he’s not. But the scantest examination of Ben Elton’s work suggests that if ever Mystic Meg hangs up her crystal ball, the UK’s best comedy writer ought to take the gig.

WE WILL ROCK YOU by Elton,        , Writer and Director - Ben Elton,  Set Designer - Mark Fisher, Costume Designer - Tim Goodchild, Lighting designer - Willie Williams, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson
WE WILL ROCK YOU by Elton, , Writer and Director - Ben Elton, Set Designer - Mark Fisher, Costume Designer - Tim Goodchild, Lighting designer - Willie Williams, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Take his debut novel, the brilliant Stark. The first of 15, it was set in a dystopian near-future and told the story of a group of billionaires who want to escape a world falling apart due to environmental catastrophe by building their own rockets and flying off to the moon. A sort-of updated Noah’s Ark, it’s never-sounded more prescient, following the adventures of such absurdly-polluting space travellers as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

It’s not just on the page that Elton provided a view into tomorrow’s world. In his award-winning and game-changing musical, with Queen, We Will Rock You, he looked towards the way the future might unfold. Much of the science fiction he envisaged has turned into science fact, in the small matter of 20 years.

Not that Elton considers himself the cultural world’s answer to Mystic Meg.

“I don’t know. People have been flattering in the past and said some things were very prescient. Certainly, with We Will Rock You, the thing was written long before streaming and iPhones. We had this idea being downloaded directly into the ideas of the general public by Killer Queen and lo and behold that happened with Sony and Microsoft. But when I’m doing something like Stark or Dead Famous or We Will Rock You where I’m seeming to look into the future, what I’m really doing is looking at the present. I’m looking at what’s happening now and just projecting, or exaggerating, a little bit.

“What’s happening now, at the present, is almost impossible to exaggerate. What’s happening in America, with climate chaos, with the resurgence of militarism and war in Europe… I don’t want to depress your readers but look. People ask me what I’ll make of Putin and Johnson and Trump and Global Warming. That dystopian drama isn’t in the future, it’s now, it’s current.

“So that’s why I went back on the road, with stand-up. In a way, I don’t have time to write a novel to comment on what’s happening today because it’s too urgent. I’m hoping that we’ll all have a future in which to imagine the future, but just now it’s all looking a bit dangerous.”

He’s talking on the 20th anniversary of We Will Rock You, the remarkable musical based around the music of Queen that redefined the musical theatre genre. It not only made musical theatre cool but it also opened the doors to a slew of other productions that capitalised on the brilliant catalogues of some of the world’s greatest bands.

We Will Rock You turned Ben Elton into an honorary (sort of) member of Queen, as he worked – and continues to work – with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor on the global phenomenon.

The musical has featured on six of the world’s continents with numerous productions still active and with Elton travelling the world to direct the Olivier Award-winning show.

Elton had famously stepped up to the plate after Robert De Niro’s production company expressed an interest in a Queen musical, before finding the idea too challenging. Elton’s genius was in changing the direction of the entire project, so that it captured the spirit of the band’s music and avoided being the sort of snapshot-bio project that 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody film became.

We Will Rock You is touring the UK and features at Birmingham Hippodrome throughout July.

It recently played Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre, with Elton in the audience to enjoy the production there.

“The tour’s been going for eight months. I directed it back in January in London. The last one I saw was in Wolverhampton. I am very thrilled with the way it’s going.

“Wolverhampton has such a beautiful theatre. One of the great joys of doing a tour is that you get to see these extraordinary theatres outside London. Wolverhampton was a real delight. There was a great Black Country crowd.

“As I pointed out to the cast, we were in a city that knows its rock music. I’m a big Slade fan from way, way back. The thing I find saddest about getting old is that everybody under 40 thinks Slade were some kind of Christmas band. They don’t realise that Slade were the biggest rock‘n’roll band in the country for three years.”

Elton turns up every now and then to do a little bit of work with the cast, to tune up the comedy and to make sure the cast carries the ethos that every night is like the first night of the show.

Not that he tries to reinvent the wheel. We Will Rock You is one of the classic hits of musical theatre of the past two decades and fans have high expectations for what they are about to see.

Unlike a gig by a band, the cast can’t change things around night by night, to keep themselves entertained. The show leaves the station at 7.30pm, like a Swiss train, and with all of the technology and moves locked in, fans know just what to expect.

Elton says: “You have to be careful putting changes in because it’s a great big machine, a behemoth that’s on the road. If you changed something, there’d be a huge knock-on effect because everything is digitised now.

“There’s a lot of video, a lot of sound queues. Every part of the technical life of a modern theatre show is the proverbial house of cards. If you took one card out, the whole thing would come down and you’d have to reprogramme for six hours.”

The show is in good shape and is now 20 years old. Elton feels happy that it’s in great shape for the current audiences.

“When I go out, it’s more a case of spreading a little bit of love and offering a few acting notes.

“I make little tweaks, but that’s it.

“Brian, Roger and myself have always been very close to every production. We don’t just say: ‘That’s how it is, reproduce it every night’. We see a We Will Rock You Show almost like a rock gig. It’s like a show and every night is unique.

“You have 20 people on stage and all sorts of bells and whistles. You have to be pretty good at keeping it tight but that doesn’t preclude the actors from great comic timing. They play the audience and I encourage them to listen to the audience and work with the rhythm of the evening. So, yeah, it’s a Swiss train – but there’s a helluva party going on inside.”

Elton had no idea that the show would be as successful as it has been when he wrote the book for it. Though, perhaps, that owes as much to his modesty and humility as it does to anything else. After all, Queen are one of the most successful rock bands of all time, with estimates of their record sales ranging between 170 million and 300 million. They soundtracked the lives of successive generations in becoming one of the most successful stadium rock bands there’s ever been.

Ben Elton, meanwhile, is a phenomena. The polymath is a comedian, actor, author, playwright, lyricist and director who was a leading light on the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s and went onto write the sitcoms The Young Ones and Blackadder before writing the musicals The Beautiful Game, We Will Rock You, Tonight’s The Night and Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera.

“I wouldn’t have dared to think I’d be talking to you about the 20th anniversary tour having done 12 years at the Dominion Theatre. The success of We Will Rock You was clearly something you couldn’t plan for. But I never think about where something is going when I write it, right back to the early days of The Young Ones and Blackadder.

“I think if you want to create something original you have to work instinctively. You can’t work to a plan, you can’t think about what the audience might like.

“The advice I always give to writers is that you have to be true to yourself. You have to write something that you think is funny and that you would want to see.

“When Queen came to me – and yes, they came to me, which was one of the great moments of my life – I told them I thought their idea was going in the wrong direction. They wanted to do something about Freddie. I wanted to do something about all of the band. It’s a great collective.

“So I followed my instincts and they were happy for me to do that. When we began, we didn’t realise how much it would become part of our lives. Brian, Roger and myself have spent so much time on it over the years, we can never let go.”

We Will Rock You is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until July 30. For tickets visit wewillrockyou.com

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