Elton was born at University College Hospital in Fitzrovia, London, the son of Mary (née Foster), an English teacher from Cheshire, and physicist and educational researcher Professor Lewis Elton. He is descended from Martin Luther, is a nephew of the historian G. R. Elton (Sir Geoffrey Elton) and a third cousin of singer Olivia Newton-John. Elton's father is from a German Jewish family and Elton's mother, who was raised in the Church of England, is of English background.
Elton grew up in Catford, south London, before moving with his family to Guildford, Surrey in 1968. Raised in a non-religious home he is an atheist.
Elton studied at Stillness Junior School and Godalming Grammar School in Surrey, South Warwickshire College in Stratford-upon-Avon and the University of Manchester.
His first television appearance was a stand-up performance on the BBC1 youth and music program, The Oxford Road Show. His first TV success though was at 23 as co-writer of the television sitcom, The Young Ones, in which he occasionally appeared.
In 1983/84 he wrote and appeared in Granada Television's sketch show Alfresco, which was also notable for early appearances by Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane. In 1985, Elton produced his first solo script for the BBC with his comedy-drama series Happy Families, starring Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson. Elton appeared in the fifth episode as a liberal prison governor. Shortly afterwards, he reunited Rik Mayall and Edmondson with their Young Ones co-star Nigel Planer for the showbiz send-up sitcom Filthy Rich and Catflap.
In 1985 Elton began his writing partnership with Richard Curtis. Together they wrote Blackadder II, Blackadder the Third (in one episode, Elton appeared as a bomb-wielding anarchist), Blackadder Goes Forth and a failed sitcom pilot for Madness. Blackadder, starring Rowan Atkinson, was a worldwide hit, winning four BAFTAs and an Emmy.
Elton and Curtis were inspired to write Blackadder Goes Forth upon finding World War I to be apt for a situation comedy. This series, which dealt with greater, darker themes than prior Blackadder episodes, was praised for Curtis's and Elton's scripts, in particular the final episode. Before writing the series, the pair read about the war and found that:
All the lead up to the first World War was very funny. All the people coming from communities where they'd never bumped into posh people and all being so gung ho and optimistic. The first hundred pages of any book about the world war are hilarious, then of course everybody dies.
Elton and Curtis also wrote Atkinson's 1986 stage show, The New Review, and Mr. Bean's "exam" episode.
Elton became a stand-up comedian primarily to showcase his own writing, but became one of Britain's biggest live acts. After a regular slot on Saturday Live – later moved and renamed Friday Night Live – which was seen as a UK version of the US's Saturday Night Live, he became the host of the programme.
In 1990 he starred in his own stand-up comedy and sketch series, The Man from Auntie, which had a second series in 1994. (The title plays on The Man from UNCLE; "Auntie" is a nickname for the BBC). In 1989 Elton won the Royal Television Society Writers' Award.
The Ben Elton Show (1998) followed a format similar to The Man from Auntie and featured Ronnie Corbett, a comedian of the old guard that the "alternative comedians" of the 1980s were the direct alternative to, as a regular guest. It was Elton's last high-profile network programme in the UK as a stand-up comedian.
In April 2007, Get a Grip, a new show, began on ITV1. Featuring comic sketches similar to those on The Ben Elton Show and staged studio discussion between Elton and 23-year-old Alexa Chung, the show's aim was to "contrast Elton's middle-aged viewpoint with Chung's younger perspective" (although Elton was responsible for the scripts).
In Third Way Magazine, Elton accused the BBC of allowing jokes about vicars but not imams. "And I believe that part of it is due to the genuine fear that the authorities and the communities have about provoking the radical elements of Islam".
On 10 October 2010, Elton headlined the first episode of Dave's One Night Stand.
Elton worked on Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth, a live one-hour variety show which debuted on 8 February 2011 on the Nine Network in Australia. Live from Planet Earth was axed by the Nine Network on Wednesday 23 February 2011 after three episodes, despite having six commissioned. The show's final airing rated 200,000 viewers.
Elton wrote and produced The Thin Blue Line, a studio-based sitcom set in a police station, also starring Rowan Atkinson, which ran for two series in 1995 and 1996. A prime-time family show, its traditional format and characters won it the 1995 British Comedy Award and both the public and professional Jury Awards at Reims.
He also wrote the six-part sitcom Blessed, starring Ardal O'Hanlon, on BBC1 in 2005. No further series was commissioned.
In 2012 a new sitcom for BBC1 was commissioned written and produced by Elton starring David Haig. Filming for a full six-part series of the sitcom, The Wright Way (formerly known as Slings and Arrows) was completed in late February 2013. It debuted in April 2013 to negative reviews.
In 2016 Elton wrote the Tudor sitcom Upstart Crow, parodying the writing and family life of William Shakespeare, and starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare. This programme ran for a second series in 2017.
Elton starred with Adrian Edmondson in a sitcom based on the song "Teenage Kicks" for BBC Radio 2. A television version of Teenage Kicks for ITV has been made; Elton appeared in the pilot but was replaced by Mark Arden when it went to series production.
He has published 15 novels since 1989, published by Simon and Schuster (the first four) and the rest by Transworld.Stark (1989), UK No 1Gridlock (1991), UK No 1This Other Eden (1993), UK No 1Popcorn (1996), UK No 1 and Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain Gold Dagger Award for fictionBlast from the Past (1998), UK Top 5Inconceivable (1999), UK Top 5 (later made into a film, see below)Dead Famous (2001), UK Top 1High Society (2002), UK No 1 and WH Smith's People Choice Fiction AwardPast Mortem (2004), UK Top 5The First Casualty (2005), UK Top 5Chart Throb (2006), UK Top 5Blind Faith (2007), UK Top 10Meltdown (2010) UK Top 10Two Brothers (2012), UK Top 10Time and Time Again (2014)
On a publicity tour for Past Mortem in 2004, Elton mused on the high school reunion theme and his own drama college reunion:
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. 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.
Ben Elton appeared in amateur dramatic productions as a youth, notably as The Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver!
While in bit parts in his own TV series, he began professional film acting as CD in Stark, the Australian/BBC TV series adaptation of his novel, in 1993. This was directed by Nadia Tass and filmed in Australia.
Elton played Verges in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, also in 1993.
Elton wrote and directed the film adaptation of his novel Inconceivable, under the title Maybe Baby (2000) starring Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson. It was a moderate UK success and distributed globally. The film was also nominated for a prize at Germany's Emden Film Festival.
In 2014, Elton wrote the script for The Wiggles' feature film: Pandamonium!, although he didn't direct it. He also wrote a Wiggles song for the Wiggle Town DVD and CD: The Wonder of Wiggle Town.
In September 2016, filming began in Western Australia on Three Summers, a romantic comedy film written and directed by Elton, which is due for release in 2017.
Elton collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game in 2000, writing the book and lyrics (Lloyd Webber wrote the music). The Beautiful Game won the London Critics Circle Award for best new musical. Elton went on to write compilation shows featuring popular songs from the catalogues of pop/rock artists. The first was the musical We Will Rock You with music by Queen. Despite unfavourable early reaction, this was successful in London and won the 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Award for Best New Musical. It has since opened in the US, Australia, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, and The Netherlands. Elton also directed the 10th Anniversary Arena tour, in 2013. The musical ran for 12 years in London.
Tonight's the Night, based on the songs of Rod Stewart, opened in November 2003.
Elton worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the sequel to his 1986 The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies.
Elton studied drama at the University of Manchester and has written three West End plays.Gasping (1990) was first performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It starred Hugh Laurie and featured the voice of Stephen Fry.Silly Cow (1991) again at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. It was written for and starred Dawn French.Popcorn (1996) was adapted for the stage and went on a UK tour. It also toured Australia in a production starring Marcus Graham and Nadine Garner in its Eastern-States seasons. Popcorn won the TMA Barclays Theatre Award for new play and the Olivier Award for comedy. The Paris production of Popcorn ran for a year and was nominated for seven Molière awards.Blast From the Past (1998) was also adapted for the stage and was produced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In 1981, when his live act took off, Elton was hired by The Comedy Store as compère.
He made two albums of stand-up comedy, Motormouth (1987) and Motorvation (1988).
In 2005 Elton did his first stand-up tour since 1997, touring the UK with Get a Grip. He toured Australia and New Zealand with the same show in 2006.
Ben Elton has been awarded an Honorary Rose for lifetime achievement at the Rose d'Or festival. He was also made a Companion of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, in recognition of his work with students, and has an honorary doctorate from The University of Manchester. He has won 3 BAFTAs for Best Comedy Series for The Young Ones, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth. Popcorn and We Will Rock You each won an Olivier Award and The Beautiful Game was awarded the Best Musical at the Critics Circle Awards. The Man From Auntie won him a Royal Television Society Writer's Award and The Thin Blue Line picked up a British Comedy Award as well as Jury Award at Reims. His books are also award-winning. Awards include the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award for Crime Fiction (Popcorn), the Swedish Kaliber Award (Popcorn), WH Smiths People's Choice Fiction Award (High Society) and Prix Polar International Crime Writer Award (Amitiès Mortelles for Past Mortem, French edition).
Elton married Australian bass player Sophia Gare, whom he met in 1987, in 1994 and has three children, twins Lottie and Bert, who were born in 1999 and younger son Fred, who was born in 2001. He has lived in Fremantle, Australia and in East Sussex. Since 2009, Elton and his family have lived in Fremantle. Elton has held dual British/Australian citizenship since 2004. He said he would like to move back to London when his children have finished school.
Elton champions left-wing political positions. Prior to the 1987 UK general election, Elton supported Red Wedge by participating in a comedy tour organised by the campaign.
He was a Labour Party supporter and was named in a list of the biggest private financial donors to the party. However, Elton distanced himself with the Party under Tony Blair and New Labour, instead donating and voting for the Green Party, although in April 2015, he stated that he was "back with Labour" for the 2015 general election.
Stewart Lee devoted about 10 minutes to his dislike of Elton's later work in his 2005 act, "Stand-Up Comedian," and provides a transcript with footnotes further specifying his complaints in his 2010 book How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Lee expresses his disappointment at Elton's abandonment of political ideology in favour of commercial work and his dislike of Elton's work on the musical We Will Rock You. The live set included an extended back-and-forth with the audience in which Lee brings them to the comical conclusion that Elton is less liked than Osama bin Laden, joking that bin Laden appeared to have lived his life according to a more consistent set of 'ethical principles'.
Elton has been criticised for writing a musical with Conservative Party supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber. In his defence, Elton said "If I were to refuse to talk to Tories, I would narrow my social and professional scope considerably. If you judge all your relationships on a person's voting intentions, I think you miss out on the varieties of life." He is also one of the few items to have been put into Room 101 twice: first by Anne Robinson in 2001 and then by Mark Steel.
Elton says of his criticism "I would have loved a honeymoon period, but I've been irritating journos from the beginning. Originally I was knocked for being too left-wing, and now apparently I've sold out and I'm too right-wing, but all the time I've been being me, and that certainly isn't the person I recognise in anything that's written about me." He denies being anti-establishment though, "I wrote a sitcom for the BBC when I was 21! How the fuck can I be anti-establishment? From the first interview I ever did, I talked about Morecambe and Wise, and every time they wanted me to talk about Lenny Bruce I'd say, 'Yeah, he's fine, but he doesn't make me laugh the way Eric 'n' Ernie do." He also points out he was a socialist at a time when "the media was on the whole slavishly worshipping of Thatcher". He said of his political views "I believe in the politics of Clement Attlee. I'm a Welfare State Labour voter."
He parodied himself though in the sketch 'Benny Elton' for Harry Enfield and Chums in 1994, sending up his 'right on' socialist image as a politically correct spoilsport chasing Page Three models around a park to chastise them and tricking heterosexual couples into becoming gay.