Ben Elton's revenge Back   
Posted 05 December 2004
British author Ben Elton has been travelling to some dark places of the imagination lately.

The British comedian, TV, screenplay and musical writer and novelist began his latest work by innocently checking out the internet’s latest contribution to pop culture: the reunion of old high school classmates.

Friends Reunited is a website that operates in several countries, including Britain and Australia. For a subscriber fee, people who want to remember – or be remembered and compare their career status, perhaps – can get in touch with and even arrange to meet their old alumni.

Recycling the past is emotionally intriguing, potentially funny, but possibly dangerous. Old scores are revisited, decades-old pecking orders resurrected. The result is Ben Elton novel number nine, Past Mortem (Bantam), set against the recent fad of recycled ’80s pop stars staging reunion concerts for an army of thirtysomethings curiously keen to remember the high school disco.

Elton, 45, who is married to an Australian, saxophonist Sophie Gare, with whom he has three children, is no stranger to these shores, travelling here regularly to promote his books and his pop musical We Will Rock You, based on the Queen catalogue (massively successful but trashed by British critics. The Guardian said the musical was "traumatising").

The punishing interview schedule indicates big interest in Elton’s books, too, which tend to get much better reviews than his musicals. On a late Tuesday afternoon he walks into the executive suite of Sydney’s Sheraton on the Park wearing a long black leather jacket over a dark purple collared shirt.

Back in black, indeed. Past Mortem’s reunion theme unleashes characters traumatised by, variously, low self-esteem, self-harm, and sexual abuse. The main character, Detective Edward Newson, an unlikely hero – short, 35, and diffident – must track a serial killer, whose victims include Newson’s old classmates. The killer wants the victims conscious to witness their own slow deaths.

Some characters in the book have clearly been brutalised by their childhoods but, Elton insists, their damaged psyches are the product of his imagination, rather than experience. Not that he’s tackling weighty issues without a great deal of thought. The one-time stand up comedian’s voice is softer than expected. Even when he commonly drops "you know what I mean?" at the end of sentences, he’s not sounding vaudeville or nudge-nudge cockney. His tone is measured and serious.

"I came up with this story about crimes of the past suddenly re-emerging in the present," he says. "Because the mystery of the novel is why these crimes are so specific. They’re all so grimly spectacular, and clearly the method of killing is the central issue for the killer.

"It had to be very grim and macabre. But I mean, it’s no worse than Agatha Christie. Well, it’s a bit worse than Agatha Christie, but certainly no worse than Hannibal Lecter’s suits made out of women’s skin."

The first victim is stabbed 347 times, including in the eyes. This scene setter feels more Bret Easton Ellis than Ben Elton. The reader might however be tempted to nervously laugh when the murders are committed to the strains of pop songs. Somehow, Dannii Minogue’s Love and Kisses and Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go seem good music to die grimly by.

The new book is not so much a departure as an evolution of the writer who brought us his first novel, Stark, in 1989. Elton favours one-liners much less these days, in favour of tight plotting and, if you care to interpret them, moral messages. His last work, High Society, can be read as a plea to stop making criminals of drug addicts.

In Past Mortem, Elton winds up exploring the psyche of the schoolyard bully, and society’s contribution to his (and her) ubiquitous and ongoing presence. There are shades of gray in the victims and perpetrators of bullying, but the mood of the novel regularly verges on pitch black. There is always the possibility some readers might enjoy this book as a revenge fantasy.

Elton says he was never bullied at school. But he was deeply despised by the cool people during his first term at drama college after high school, when he rocked up full of confidence on the first day asking anyone who would listen if they’d like to be in a play he’d written. "Looking back, there was an awful lot of unpleasant things said. Like, ‘What a shit, who does he think he is?’, that sort of thing. But you know what, I didn’t notice. Not at the time."

Elton once went to a college reunion. Jealousy was on one former classmate’s mind. "We’d had a very happy time all together, so there were no old scores to be settled really, we’d been a pretty happy bunch," he says. "And yet one person, who’d been a bit of a golden boy – he certainly went out with a girl I was besotted and unrequitedly in love with – he came up and he said, ‘Why did you come? Was it to show off?’.

"That really surprised me, that anyone would think that … he came kind of carrying my agenda. It was weird. I hasten to add I didn’t think my life to be more successful than anybody else’s. If you’re happy and honest and fulfilled in what you do, then you’re having a successful life."

I suggest to Elton he tends to portray several characters in Past Mortem who were victims of bullying in childhood as remaining victims in adulthood, and that this sends a fairly depressing message. Elton disagrees, citing a gay character in the book, Gary Whitfield, traumatised in gym class in school but who by the time of the school reunion has come through his troubles. (This is true, but Whitfield is a nervous adult.)

"I’m not trying to draw any real conclusions (about bullying)," says Elton. "I don’t have any real experience at this. And people are people. The problem with classrooms is it is an arbitrary group of people thrown together, and nobody has any choice in the matter. You can leave work if you really hate it, you can leave your job. It’s very hard to leave school, to change schools."

Elton is, after all, writing a novel, not a text book or polemic on bullying. But he undoubtedly has interesting issues to raise, such as his satire of media coverage of the death of another character in the book, Tiffany Mellors, a class beauty queen whose loss is more acutely felt because she was a looker. The reader can draw their own conclusions, perhaps: the beautiful are sometimes elevated to a position in society they don’t necessarily deserve.

"We care more about beautiful people, and we also imbue beauty with moral worth," says Elton. "[For instance] Princess Anne’s done more for charity than Princess Diana did. But if she died, you know, ‘this is the nine o’clock news, ugly one dies, nobody gives a fuck’. I mean, that’s the truth."

The main characters in Past Mortem (Newson and Detective Sergeant Natasha Wilkie) seem strong enough to warrant another book, which the author is considering. Indeed, the next couple of years could yield Ben Elton sequels all round.

He’s planning a follow-up to the smash hit Queen musical, too, shrugging off the critical pejoratives. There’s another 17 Queen chart hits not used the first time around. Now, that would be a revenge fantasy.

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