It was while I was in high school that a production of the play ‘Popcorn’ was on stage in Cape Town. It caused a bit of controversy due to its subject matter being the highly topical influence of violence in media. This was the time when Quentin Tarantino was rocketing to the height of his powers as a film auteur with fans acclaiming his then latest picture Pulp Fiction as game changing and maverick, but critics slammed its gratuitous and multi-faceted violence.
This debate about the impact of so-called normalisation of extreme violence in film (and video games) was piquing in the mid-nineties, and Popcorn the play, based on a novel of the same name by Ben Elton, had woven a comedic narrative around violent characters reflecting the societal debate around morals and responsibility. This discussion mostly passed over my head since I was too young to have seen any of Tarantino’s films yet, and the chances of me going to see Popcorn were slim to none. It did however begin to fascinate me that it must be taboo in nature and therefore something the Stephen King obsessed portion of my brain was interested in.
Elton’s name was batted about quite a lot as a result, and it sounded familiar to me. It was when I was watching a taped episode of Blackadder for the 70th time that I saw his name in the credits as well as spotting it in the credits for the Thin Blue Line; both utterly hilarious and forming the benchmark for good comedy in my teenage mind.
Decades later I am still quoting silly lines from both programmes and finding them funny. I also own a copy of Popcorn, which I read so long ago the details have dissipated. What’s refreshed my memory of this though is Elton revisiting his comedy routes and touring the UK for the first time in 15 years with a new stand up show.
After being directed to what felt a little like the servants entrance to the Lyceum and ascending what turned out to be 83 steps I was still excitedly quoting Blackadder to myself and managing to keep my chuckles inside my head. Once in my seat I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent view and amused to see the instruments used in the theatres resident production The Lion King stored in balconies either side of the stage. I thought it was time I saw the tear jerking musical again.
Introducing himself, Elton took to an empty stage to a warm welcome; we were clearly all very delighted to see him. Elton’s writing roots were on the edge, and his new show didn’t shy away from it. He began by thanking us all for coming out, admitting to wondering if anyone would be interested in coming to see him after all this time away from performing. He then categorically stated he would not be tackling Brexit as a topic, which received a cheer from the almost 2000 strong audience, but then proceeded to tear into the Prime Minster, brutally destroying Johnson verbally for his arrogance, self-serving motivation and outright entitlement. Many of the audience applauded his outrage so I would assume the Conservative supporters were in a minority.
Elton then explained his theme for the evening as: “I don’t get what I got”; breaking down how at 60 he realises he has become ‘out of touch’ and his acceptance thereof. Taking aim at familiar targets like the music his children listen to did feel a little like a grumpy dad rant with jokes. It was not depressing though; Elton was making statements without courting controversy or bitterness. He commented on how he supported the way in which society was changing and becoming more inclusive in general, but felt exacerbated by the lightning pace.
He mentioned that his wife suggested he began the show with an apology. He said he realised that his middle aged white man perspective was tired but he wouldn’t outright apologise for that, since it was the perspective he was afforded. This was either refreshingly ‘woke’ or a mild mannered attempt to curry favour, but looking at Elton’s history I would like to think it’s the former.
He mentioned how many years ago a particularly ‘woke’ routine of his about what the world would be like if men also had periods, which he said instigated a social conversation leading to the eventual overturning of a total ban on any sanitary product advertising on television. Describing this may sound like his routine was an exercise in vanity, it did not feel that way at all. His self-referencing is almost to be expected with such a long and successful career and did not come across as conceit.
He segued into how gender was classed as purely anatomical when he was younger but now it was much more fluid and seen as a social construct. He suggested a new system of defining gender with behavioural characteristics like the ability multi-tasking and whether or not you thought you are the best driver on the road; stereotypical references, but familiar and relatable.
He even made a heartfelt case for assisted dying by opening up about his father’s passing from dementia and his severe deterioration in his final years. A warm reference to the late Rik Mayall also elicited an applause from the audience. He insisted heading into the interval that we support the theatre by buying lots of drinks at the bar. His motivation for us was even though moderate drinking could still take two years off your life, it would be the last two years which would be awful so we may as well drink.
His second act was even more passionate than the first. He mentioned how his dad had come to England as a 15 year old refugee from Germany fleeing for his life, and how difficult younger generations are finding life in general for example getting a foot on the property ladder. He did turn political in support of Labour and the left, extolling the greatness of the UK’s parliamentary democracy. In a message to Tory supporters in attendance, he said they were very welcome at his shows but to please stay home come the 12th December general election.
I wouldn’t say that Elton’s show was ground breaking or necessarily surprising. There seems to be an over-saturation of shock and awe in media in general these days which leaves us all a little over exposed, but he was heartfelt, honest and hilarious fun. He may have been in the business for decades, getting dirty jokes around the censors at “Aunty BBC” but the vim, vigour and passion in his delivery remains unchanged. He still has plenty to say, he will rant it and we will love it.
I was becoming increasingly infuriated, on my way home, with other theatre goers spilling out of Mamma Mia wandering into the road oblivious to the traffic chaos they were causing. I stood on the curb as they pushed passed me, walked into me and ignored the Prius rolling in slow motion towards them indicator flashing. I looked right for a gap in traffic – human and vehicular – and I saw him. Casually strolling up the pavement, probably out of the Elton’s show too, was Hugh Laurie.
I saw Hugh Laurie, I recognised Hugh Laurie and then shouted at myself “Don’t stare at Hugh Laurie! For God’s sake you’re both British ignore him and adore him quietly, internally.” Except my head hadn’t moved, and now I was contemplating creepily rubber necking the man as he walked behind me and up into the crowd. Gliding blissfully like a normal person, because he is a normal person, albeit very talented and well known for it.
There was the faintest moment of eye contact, quick enough for me to have imagined it, but also for a message of ‘don’t draw attention’ to be conveyed. I shall do your bidding Mr Laurie for I have loved you as delightfully dim witted George, as the grieving jingle writer friend to Stephen Fry’s Peter and all your jazz coolness. I’ve watched you for years so I’m going to take this second to pretend that for a moment, you saw me too.