Ben Elton profile

One of the main ringleaders of the "alternative comedy" boom of the 1980s, Ben Elton has had a hand in some of the most enduring and influential TV programmes ever made. But did you know his father is a well-known and hugely respected figure in his own right? And that Elton wasn't the family's original name?

Ben Elton on Parkinson

The eminent Eltons

Never mind the fact that he became famous as a deliriously rude, shouty and irreverent stand-up – Ben Elton actually hails from a rather eminent and scholarly family.

He's the son of Lewis Elton, one of the UK's most renowned academics. Born Ludwig Ehrenberg, he and his family lived in Prague until 1939, when the Nazi tyranny forced them to escape to Britain. Ehrenberg changed his name to Lewis Elton and has since lectured in physics and served as Professor of Higher Education at various universities across the UK. On top of that, his brother (and Ben Elton's uncle) was the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, one of the greatest classical historians of his generation. (He was also a vocal supporter of Margaret Thatcher, even as his nephew became famous for verbally bashing her on telly.)

The boy genius

Ben Elton may not have shared the academic drive of his daddy and uncle, but he certainly had no shortage of talent. Exuberant and charismatic even as a child, he had a tendency to steal every school show he was a part of. He even wrote some himself, penning his first complete play at the frankly smug age of 15.

Quite certain that his future lay in writing and performance, Elton studied drama at Manchester University – where he met fellow students Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, as well as future collaborator Lisa Mayer. Together they went onto assault London's comedy clubs, and by the age of 21 Elton was a regular at the world famous Comedy Store club. With so much success so young, Elton should really have burnt out. Instead, he was set to go supernova.

Foul, deranged and brilliant

While it was his stand-up that first got him noticed by the BBC, it was as a writer that Elton helped launch the alternative comedy revolution that utterly transformed television in the early 80s. And the project that changed everything was The Young Ones.

Elton was just 23 when he sat down with his Uni chums Rik Mayall and Lisa Mayer to create the completely unhinged, gleefully squalid sitcom. Actually, he didn't really sit down with them – in an unusual set up, Mayall and Mayer (who were a couple at the time) worked as a team while Elton wrote alone. Their work was then edited together to create the finished scripts, which – as Elton later said – is the reason why the show turned out so anarchic and unpredictable. It was an entirely new type of sitcom, a radical reaction to quaint favourites like The Good Life. But things soon got even bigger for Elton.

"A little bit of politics"

The Young Ones made Elton a comedy bigwig and led to him working with Richard Curtis on Blackadder. But Elton didn't become a real celebrity in his own right until 1986, when Saturday Live hit Britain's screens.

Like its US equivalent Saturday Night Live, it made household names of a new generation of comedians – from Stephen Fry to Chris Barrie. Elton became one of the most popular performers on the show, wearing a trademark sparkly suit and firing off satirical barbs with the rapid ferocity of a Gatling gun. His nemesis was Margaret Thatcher (or "the Thatch" as he called her), and his catchphrase "a little bit of politics" became the "Yes but no but" of its time.

Rocking the West End

Elton went onto soften his output after his rebellious 80s heyday – he left behind the shock tactics and political satire to come up with cosier fare like the mid-90s sitcom The Thin Blue Line.

His transformation into family-friendly entertainer was completed with the West End musical We Will Rock You – a project so un-Elton-like that many of his fans initially believed the whole thing was a hoax. In fact, Elton was directly invited to write the show by Robert De Niro, who had long wanted to produce a Queen musical. The original idea had been to simply have different Queen songs "re-interpreted" on stage, but Elton suggested incorporating the tunes into an over-arching sci-fi story. The finished musical was a smash, and has since played everywhere from Tokyo to Moscow to Las Vegas. Take that, sneery nay-sayers!