No one can be funny all the time, Ben

Ben Elton has bombed in Australia: cue mocking laughter and smug chortles. Australians, chippy at the best of times about Pom entertainers trying to make it in their country, will feel vindicated that the sketch show Ben Elton: Live From Planet Earth has been pulled after three episodes. Over here, there will be joy among the various groups of people who are happy to see Elton fail – those who feel he betrayed his lefty, alternative roots, those who found it unforgiveable that he worked with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, those simply irritated by his cheery grin and mockney accent.

Has there ever been a comedy writer and performer with such a confused, contradictory public persona? The very same people who believe that The Young Ones, Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line belong to a golden age of comedy still see the co-author behind them as an example of the terrible things that can happen to talent when it is seduced into the establishment. In fact, Elton has done nothing worse than keep working at a ferocious rate. Some of the work he produces is great, some not.

That was always the case. A little over two decades ago, I put together a book based on the characters and setting of the television hit The Young Ones. It was a happy experience, and although two of the co-writers, Rik Mayall and Lise Meyer, contributed significantly to the book, it was the output of the third, Ben Elton, which powered it forward.

Worried that Ben was producing far more than could possibly fit into the book, I asked the others’ advice. Mayall was entirely relaxed. A third of what Ben would produce would be brilliant, he said. A third would be good but need work, and a third would be crap and should be chucked away. Wouldn’t Ben mind? He wouldn’t even notice, Rik said. He was right.

Today, that astonishing creative energy and speed is still there, and so is the strange insecurity which accompanied it. Ben was not worried about his talent – he had a confidence which bordered on the irritating – but that what he wrote would offend, or be misunderstood in some way. His subsequent career reveals a lot about comedy. The need to be liked is a terrible drawback for all but the most amiable mainstream writers. It is closely connected to a generational insecurity which causes the middle-aged comedy writer to attempt, unwisely, to keep in touch with youth culture.

One of the saddest sketches in Live From Planet Earth is called “Flat Girls” and is based on the zany idea that Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen are sharing a flat. It is liking watching a slow-motion train crash. The references to pop culture are lame, the jokes are obvious, the references weirdly manage to be simultaneously nasty and ingratiating.

Worst of all, the sketch is a celebrity-based re-tread of the student flat in The Young Ones, with the same characters, the same use of music, the same situations, even the same poo jokes – only incomparably less funny.

Ben Elton’s impressive, mind-boggling career contains lessons for the next generation of comedy writers. Don’t worry about being liked. Don’t suck up to the young. Slow down. Take your eyes off the audience, the ratings and the cuttings, and let your talent speak for itself.

For peat’s sake, stop being so selfish

According to Prince Charles, gardeners are now “key players in addressing environmental issues”. Writing in Gardener’s World, the master of Highgrove invoked Gandhi’s advice that people should be the change they want to see in the world, and argued that those who garden organically “understand what is meant by balance and harmony”. By an unhappy accident of timing, a recent announcement from the Royal Horticultural Society has brought a less environmentally responsible message from the flowerbed. The RHS concedes that the extraction of peat from ancient bogs destroys habitats and releases greenhouse gases, but continues to insist that gardeners should be free to use it as they wish.

The voluntary approach has so far proved ineffective. Government guidelines were established in 1999 to reduce the use of peat by gardeners, and have been missed by a mile. Three million cubic metres of peat bog are lost to gardeners every year, causing a million tonnes of carbon dioxide to be emitted and destroying the ecosystems of plants, birds and insects. A suggestion by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that a tax of £1 a bag be put on peat is also being resisted by the RHS.

Gardeners’ rights comes first, it seems. As Gandhi might have put it, they are being the change they want to see in the world – just as long as it does not affect them personally.

These findings are enough to make you skip a beat

It is difficult to know quite what to do with new research findings into the cause of heart attacks, conducted by Hasselt University in Belgium.

Walking or cycling in a town are lethal, apparently, with 7.4 per cent of attacks caused by traffic fumes. Physical exertion comes in next, causing 6.2 per cent of heart attacks, followed by drinking booze and coffee (5 per cent each), with sexual activity limping in rather sadly at 2.2 per cent.

Those with a rich inner life are no better off, however. Negative emotions caused 3.9 per cent of attacks while positive emotions are at 2.4 per cent, narrowly edging out sex.

The scientists have called this “the final straw” research. Too right it is.

Independent, Friday, 25 February 2011