The Wright Way is undeniably a special thing. The reaction to it has been off-the-chart vicious; it’s like the hysterical woman in Airplane!, with every corner of the media lining up to take a bash at it, and, at first glance, that would seem about right. The mugging, the pauses for punchlines to fit into, the generic theme music, the middle-aged-manliness of it all. But look again and it’s possible we’re missing something. Something good. For I come here not to bury The Wright Way, but to praise it.
It’s possible that the venom for The Wright Way is actually aimed at Ben Elton and is hitting the show due to Elton’s impermeable shield of absolute self-satisfaction. It’s true that, for the most part, criticisms seem mostly to be founded on a basis of ‘Wait, this was written by the man who wrote Blackadder and The Young Ones? And, to a lesser-known but funnier extent, Filthy, Rich and Catflap?’, and simply worked up from there. It’s fair to attack him, because he is palpably a terrible human being. We Will Rock You is evidence enough of that, but there’s so much more. The Thin Blue Line, Girl Flat, his novels… Frankly, the cracks were showing by The Man From Auntie. Terrible, sub-Jasper Carrott observational comedy that points the way directly to The Wright Way, with its rants against modern life replacing his earlier, sharper standup fuelled by political discontent… which, to be fair, also included a lot of material that Rhod Gilbert would now reject as ‘a bit cheesy’, but it was a different time back then, when we didn’t really understand comedy.
So in terms of it being an example of Ben Elton ‘losing it’, well, it’s a non-starter. He lost it long, long ago and it’s possible he never even had it when working solo – his greatest achievements were always collaborations. So he’s an accomplished wielder of script polish, maybe, and not an ideas man? Sounds plausible. And thus we can dismiss him and The Wright Way, and this whole article finishes here.
This is where most of the critiques I’ve read have ended, anyway. Trashing the show and its creator as if there’s an inherent, objective measure of worthlessness and oh boy do they meet it. Does it make you laugh? No, not really, although if you aren’t in some way moved to a subdued half-smile by the acronym GREAT BIG COCK, you’re dead inside. I laughed, because I was alone in the house, I was feeling charitable and because it’s a knob gag. That’s what knob gags are for. Guilty sniggering. Maybe I laughed at other things. But as Richie Rich declared “I do a lot of smile humour, people aren’t supposed to laugh out loud”. Ben Elton wrote that line (or possibly Rik Mayall did, but he would have approved it), for a washed-up light entertainer to utter in justification of his own failure.
Perhaps he’s kept that idea to one side and now he’s living it.
Stick with me on this idea, because it seems to me that The Wright Way is the culmination of Ben Elton’s career trajectory. A cultural exorcism masquerading as a featherweight situation comedy. It brings together many elements of his previous work and turns them inside-out to become a sort of meta commentary on, well, everything from the career of Ben Elton to the state of light entertainment, taking in midlife angst and modern Britain on the way.
Big claims. Great big claims. if proven, it would mean that the worst sitcom ever – a sitcom whose genre is given in Wikipedia as ‘anti-comedy’, and no-one cares enough to amend it – is actually a work of genius. An achievement that towers over such straightforwardly funny stuff as Blackadder or the ostensibly genre-busting The Young Ones, principally because Elton has put it out in the face of overwhelming negativity and in such a brilliant disguise.
GREAT BIG COCK
This realisation came to me as I was watching an episode of series two of The Man From Auntie on YouTube. In it, Elton (sporting that horrible 90s brushed-forward haircut and a baffling orange sports jacket) railed against a powerful, hidden force he named The Ministry of Bad Design. Such a thing must exist, he posited, in order to explain the poor functionality of service station teapots and toilet roll dispensers (this entire routine is recycled like so much bog roll for the Wright Way). Mugs with handles too small to get your fingers through? Not evidence of cost-cutting and lazy contempt for the consumer, no – it’s a fucking conspiracy against fat-fingered farties.
Oh god, yes, farty. Remember that? It was the insult coined by Ben Elton himself to avoid giving offence to anyone, on the basis that everyone farts. This shows two things – one that the self-policing of language amongst the more introspective members of the Left is nothing new and two that Ben Elton doesn’t understand what gives insults their power. Or, that is to say, he might understand it but chooses to negate that power. Farty is the least insulting insult possible and thus is not even an insult. He frames is as one, but it’s actually an inclusive term, he intends it to unify us in our gaseous commonality.
Except for those with an imperforate anus. Fuck those guys.
It’s a telling move – eschewing the humorous cruelty of a well-aimed insult, Elton twists and bucks to transform comedy into something so desperately unfunny it no longer exists as a device for causing laughter. It’s now a comment on the hurtful nature of so many of our jokes. Where there is laughter, there is a target. Like The Wright Way’s Gerald Wright, Ben Elton sees the damage something seemingly innocent (a conker, a playground swing, an overfull bin) can cause. Instead of simply ignoring it or assuming people can deal with it on their own, he takes steps – sometimes ludicrous, unbelievable steps – to insulate the world against harm.
But not all the world. For there is a foe, a force bearing down on the farties of The Elton Protectorate. It is nameless, it is faceless, it is everywhere and it wants to make the world a worse place. In the 80s, it was obvious to a man like Ben Elton exactly who the enemy was; it was Thatcher. Who else could it be? She was the personification of evil and she ran the country, you’d have to be pretty stupid to miss it. That all changed in the 90s, when Thatcher was ousted and replaced by a sequence of men with varying levels of charisma but one common factor – middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness was their aim. Yes, yes, Blair was a warmongering lunatic but that wasn’t his persona. That was just his policy. To those middle-class, middle-aged men with a bit of power and a bit of influence, it must have seemed as though, with one of their own running the place again, the world would be theirs, fashioned in their image. Somehow, it wasn’t.
Instead, the threat to their lifestyle became diffuse, unfathomable. Things weren’t like they used to be. The edge was being taken off the world, people and thought was getting soft. You couldn’t just do as you pleased, you couldn’t be the sparky, angry young man you once were. There were… rules everywhere. A rich, comfortable man who seems genuinely to believe he is at the mercy of middle class, middle management bureaucracy, like a shit Kafka. Such sentiment manifested itself in others, too. Rick Stein, for instance, actually appears to believe there is such an entity as ‘The Salt Police’, a dedicated condiment wing of the Met, ready to swoop on over-salters.
For the greatest ever example of this, witness Noel Edmonds’s staggering mental breakdown on Noel’s HQ, railing on air against a mid-ranking council officer not because of whatever pettifogging obstacles he placed between a disabled soldier and his home – no, because he dismisses Noel as mere… entertainment. The enemy do not respect the power of these men.
TOTAL TOSS POT
So is Gerald Wright an avatar for his creator, or a voodoo doll? The working title for The Wright Way was Slings and Arrows, a term more appropriately applied to Gerald’s health and safety division than the misfortunes visited upon him. After all, at the end of each episode so far we see that his team has come through – warning signs nailed to horse chestnuts, chains securing swings and the like are out there. We are not meant to wince sympathetically when he is discovered humping a bin by his cleaning lady, when he is ritually humiliated by gobby working-class women in the supermarket, when his trousers are humorously soaked yet again. We are to cheer the universe on as it batters this agent of the Enemy to a disgraced pulp. When his hand is caught inside a toilet roll dispenser it is not a moment of comic pathos, it is a moment of cosmic justice because people like him put it there in the first place. The themes of the rants earlier in his career are finally paying off.
When we fail to laugh at The Wright Way, it is not because it is bad comedy. It’s because we are looking at it from the wrong direction. Comedy usually gives us a faintly sympathetic protagonist, even if they are hapless or scheming or possess any number of other character flaws, someone through whom we view the action and share the experience of the situation. The Wright Way gives us no such sympathetic point of view; we follow the antagonist in our own lives, as Ben Elton sees it. And he has wrapped this up in something as inoffensive as a BBC One light entertainment show. Remind me, what was the ultimate dream of Richie Rich in Filthy, Rich and Catflap?