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Interview with Ben Elton 2009

Chris High and Ben Elton in Manchester 2009

“We Will Rock You is more than just a show, it’s a promise.” Ben Elton explains why he’s so looking forward to his smash hit Queen musical going on the road.

“I have a particular affinity with Manchester,” Ben Elton explained during a somewhat hurried interview prior to the hugely successful We Will Rock You going on tour that sets out in Manchester on a twelve week run from March 21st. “I studied in the city and my first work was with Granada television and BBC Manchester on the Oxford Road Show, so its brilliant to come back with a hit musical. Of course, we’re delighted to be going to all the places we are, but its nice to be starting the tour in Manchester on a personal level. There are a lot of great theatre’s here, so to be kicking off at The Palace is a real privilege.”

The show stars Jonathan Wilkes, X-Factor’s Brenda Edwards and former Coronation Street star Kevin Kennedy, although it might come as something of a surprise that the it’s going on the road at all. A consistent best seller at the box office, taking over £100 million, We Will Rock You has been at The Dominion Theatre in London for seven years and has played before an audience exceeding 4 million so far here and over two million in places such as Las Vegas, Tokyo and Moscow. Telling the story of a future society intent on suppressing the people’s individuality and their love of real music over the disposable rubbish that is being produced by the government, a young loner, Galileo, keeps the dream alive through the music of legendary rock band – and world’s biggest sellers – Queen. “After Rock You became a hit, though possibly not envisaging the size of the hit it has become, the idea was that we’d close and then take the show out. As with everything Queen do, it was only ever going to happen if it could be on as grand a scale as the original, so to some extent we’ve been victims of our own success in that respect. Phil McIntyre, the producer, feels that the time is now right, despite the show’s size and it still being enormously popular night after night after night at The Dominion. Yes, you can get tickets for The West End production, like you can with any big show, and you’ll still struggle to get in on Friday’s and Saturdays, but one of the main reasons for taking it out is that we’re constantly being asked by fans of the show when will people see it without having to traipse all the way down to London. Somebody did some maths and found it was viable under the standards we’ve set ourselves and decided to do it now, before we close in London, because we hope we never do close in London.”

Ben, Brian and Roger at the We Will Rock You launch 2009With original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor as musical supervisors, and with a cast and band reflecting the majesty of some of Queen’s immense catalogue of hits, you’d be right to expect the show to rock as much as any of their gigs. “When Queen very kindly asked if I’d consider doing something narrativly with their vast songbook, they stipulated two things; that it had to be like a rock gig and it had to be a comedy. The scale on which they did things was always spectacular and within the confines of a musical we pay great dues to that. As far as the comedy aspect is concerned, I think they were right. They were always a band who never took themselves too seriously and there’s a great deal of wit in everything they ever did. I think that Rock You is probably the only out-and-out comedy musical playing at the moment and although there are humorous moments in shows such as Blood Brothers and Mama Mia, to take two hugely different shows as examples, I don’t think if you read the book of either one anybody would say they were comedies. This is and that was always the intention and I’m very fortunate that Brian and Roger came to me with it.”

Making a name for himself as a somewhat anarchic, Thatcher-baiting, so-called “alternative” comedian at a time when Queen were at their zenith, Elton does have one regret. “I never saw them perform live with Freddie Mercury or John Deacon. I was into punk, watching Talking Heads in a pub when they were packing out Wembley Stadium and Knebworth so at the time it didn’t have felt quite right, despite my liking their music enormously. I did see Freddie at a party once, though, and he nodded and raised his glass to me and it was incredibly flattering to even be recognised by the man, but my real connection with Queen came through meeting Brian and Roger since when we’ve become like brothers. Its really significant, theatrically, that Brian, Roger and I still cast every production of Rock You ourselves. I direct each production and Brian and Roger both musically direct and audition each band and cast member, mainly because Rock You is a show that’s constantly evolving. There is no bible or hard and fast rules to this show. The lines change when there’s a reason, such as when Britney got sad and we changed her character to Victoria Beckham, and its constantly being updated. We do it, ostensibly, because we love it and love being involved with it.”
And to underline this enthusiasm, there are reports of a sequel in the offing. “Brian’s really excited about this and can’t not talk about it. I’ve not managed to fit all the Queen songs into Rock You and there are some mammoth hits still to be used so I have written a story because there’s the opportunity at the end of Rock You to discover what happens next. Now that our heroes have found Rock and have become famous, what do all rock stars do with their good fortune, they screw it up, so I started there, but while Brian, Roger and I firmly believe it’d be a success, everyone else is dubious for some reason or another, not least of which is that the financial risk involved is enormous. We have a sequel ready and we’re going to bloody well do it one day but, at the moment, We Will Rock You is our baby.”

Brian May greets fans in Manchester 2009With mega TV hits like Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line under his belt, as well as hugely successful novels such as Popcorn and Dead Famous, writing something like We Will Rock came as an unexpectedly pleasant change. “It’s a lot more fun. Writing is an intensely private process whereby you try to tease what’s in your imagination out onto the page. In having this wonderful music to turn to, even now, eight years on, I remember the fun I had writing the original script. Writing a novel can be a very dry experience that’s eminently forgettable in many respects, whereas this wasn’t at all. I listened to all the albums over and over, knowing damn well I wasn’t ever going to be able to use all the material, but still had the most fabulous time. I really wanted the spirit of the band to come through and I’ve genuinely had more fun writing and directing We Will Rock You than I have working on any other project. I love musical theatre and always have. I wrote two musicals as a student, I was involved in amateur dramatics and played the Artful Dodger twice. Noel Coward was my hero. I never dreamed of being a novelist but I did dream of being Noel Coward and although never claiming to be of his status, there will only ever be one Noel Coward after all, I have written a hit musical and I’ve been very lucky to have been given the chance. Working with such wonderful artists is just a dream come true and to be able to help bring the best out of so many talented people, both in Britain and across the world, is a truly great experience.”

So with a sequel already penned and a new book on the way, what’s next for Ben Elton? “Things are exciting. We keep going. Currently, we have a production of Rock You running in Toronto, so we’re heavily involved with that. I’ve pitched an idea to NBC in Los Angeles and they’re excited enough about it to have commissioned a pilot episode, which is a lot further than a lot of people get so that’s pleasing, and my novel, First Casualty, is in development for a movie as well, so things are currently very exciting and very, very busy. At the moment, though, the UK tour of We Will Rock You is the thing and I guarantee those who come to see this production will not go away disappointed. To coin a phrase, we will rock you across the country and that’s a promise.”

Chris High.

We Will Rock You is at:
Manchester Palace Theatre: March 21st – June 6th
Sunderland Empire: June 10th – June 27th
Birmingham Hippodrome: July 1st – September 5th
Bristol Hippodrome: September 16th – October 31st
Edinburgh Playhouse: November 4th – January 9th, 2010
Official We Will Rock You Website: www.wewillrockyou.co.uk

Read Chris High's review of We Will Rock You Tour 2009 at Manchester

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

 

  
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If you would like to comment on this interview with Ben Elton in March 2009, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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