It's a funny old game, theatre
by William Leith
from This is London
I know," says Ben Elton, who has just co-written a musical called The Beautiful Game with Andrew Lloyd Webber, "that I've always been seen as a bit of a fart, a bit of a git. And I think Andrew gets seen as a bit of a sort of git as well, because he's up for it, he loves it, he wants to do it again, and it's going to be great, and everything's going to be great, and the next show's going to be better than this one, and this one's gonna be great."
Lord Lloyd-Webber remains momentarily silent. On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Lloyd Webber, for instance, would never refer to himself as a fart or a git. He speaks in shy, fluted tones and has a slight stammer. He is an understated presence. Elton, on the other hand, is a grandiloquent tornado of Mockney. "I'm terrible," he says. "So do just tell me to shut up." We are in an old school building in Kennington where The Beautiful Game is in rehearsal. Lloyd Webber is dressed in a pale-blue striped shirt and tan slacks; he wears exquisitely stitched loafers with a tiny buckle. Elton wears a ribbed T-shirt, black jeans and chunky shoes. The two men had known of each other and seen each other at parties for years before they talked about working together. Strangely, they found themselves laughing at the same things.
Lloyd Webber says: "I'd known Richard Curtis for a long time. Rowan I'd known for ever. In fact, funnily enough, Ben was one of the few people I didn't know."
"The first time we had dinner," says Elton, "I said, 'Why have I never been bloody well invited to all these glamorous events like Rowan and Richard and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie?' I said it might be something to do with the old Party. But he said no. Anyway, we share a sense of humour."
Lloyd Webber: "I was very intrigued when I had one of my first meetings with Ben, and we talked about everything, and he said that PG Wodehouse was one of the greatest writers of all time."
Elton: "I think he's the greatest comedy writer of English letters that I've experienced. And you love your Wodehouse, don't you?" "Yes," says Lloyd Webber.
They are an interesting couple. Lloyd Webber is deferential, but wields the real power; Elton is talkative, a flurry of compliments. He is like a former trade union leader who has married a princess.
They both tell me, on a number of occasions, that they have more in common than might have been expected.
"Whenever I'm in Britain I always listen to Top of the Pops and The Chart Show," says Lloyd Webber. Elton says of popular music: "I live it and I love it." And of his relationship with Lloyd Webber: "We have a good time. We have a laugh. We both like to have a drink. Not to excess, but we both like to have a glass at the end of a work session."
Elton has short black hair, sprinkled with grey, and wears dark-rimmed glasses. His expression is steely. Lloyd Webber's fine, fly-away hair blows in the breeze from a nearby fan. His face is soft, sensitive. Elton says: "It's no secret that I've always liked stage musicals, but it turned out Andrew liked my stuff as well. This will be the first Lloyd Webber musical to rhyme affection with erection."
"I've always thought he's very, very clever," says Lloyd Webber. "And it always struck me that he's an obvious dramatist. There's a very humanitarian point of view in this piece."
The Beautiful Game is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; it's about a youth football team, and how the players deal with the violence and terrorism that become their world. Words that keep cropping up to describe the musical are: gritty, contemporary, stripped-down. There will be a nine-piece orchestra, rather than, as Lloyd Webber says, "a big orchestra and big sweeping tunes as in Phantom of the Opera". He took the idea from a TV documentary about a group of kids in 1969 who played football together. Some were Catholic, some Protestant. The story had everything: loss of innocence, poignance, tragedy.
Elton says: "It's about young people on the threshold of life with all the hopes and enthusiasms, and football really is a metaphor for enthusiasm, for passion. I'm not passionate about football, but I'm passionate about a lot of things and I can write about passion." Lloyd Webber says: "I think I probably like football more than Ben. My brother and I support Leyton Orient. Mind you, I haven't been to see the Orient for years."
Elton: "I like a community activity. It's good to be in a crowd of people who are enjoying something." Lloyd Webber: "I'd much prefer to see the Orient than Manchester United."
At first, Elton wanted to set The Beautiful Game in war zones all over the world. "The characters go home, and suddenly they're in the West Bank, and they're Arabs," he says. "And then they say, let's go to the pub, and they're in a pub, but it's in Belgrade. Clearly it's a crap idea."
"Well," says Lloyd Webber, "it obviously wouldn't have worked theatrically." Elton: "I'm an Arab now, I'm a Jew now, d'you know what I mean?" He goes on: "The self-evident clichéd truism that basically love corrupted to bigotry will in the end diminish and demean people's lives is relevant anywhere, any time, and of course the knob gags are just as good in any language, so I'd like to think it could be set in Kosovo at some point."
We can hear some of the songs being rehearsed. They sound like Lloyd Webber songs; periods of jauntiness supplanted by periods of sweeping emotion. Lloyd Webber says: "Meeting Ben was a breath of fresh air. One evening when Tim Rice and I had dinner, we were saying to each other, actually, no one really has come along in musical theatre since we started over 30 years ago. Strange, but you're working in a kind of vacuum. Nothing to bounce off. Of course, Elton's come into it." Elton: "Elton John, that is."
Lloyd Webber: "When Ben said, I'd like to have a crack at writing the lyrics, that was exciting to me. Very exciting." Elton: "I said, 'If they're shit, fine.' He didn't think they were shit. I loved doing them. It's probably the most happy kind of writing. I love to rhyme, I love language, and tangling it up in as many ways as I can, it's one of my great regrets that I only speak English. Of course, they don't all rhyme. It's not clever if they all rhyme. There have to be some that don't. Very important that. Terribly important."
Lloyd Webber says: "The music is the servant of the drama. It has to be that way round." Elton: "I'm not saying that I gave him the plot fully formed. Because he would say it feels very long and muddy here, what you need is a big belting number." Lloyd Webber: "But equally so, I have to say Ben has been very, very open with me when he feels maybe the music has not taken the right direction."
Elton: "I love his stuff, but, yes, if I think it might be reminiscent of another tune ... once I thought it sounded a bit Aspects. But he happily changed it because it was bothering me. He's had tunes tumbling out of him." Lloyd Webber says: "Once I get a plot, once I get a collaborator, and it's really firing, I find melodies reasonably easy to write." Elton: "But you chucked a few out. You chucked one of my big numbers out. The boys-and-girls number. They don't close the loo door, they pee on the floor, their manners are poor." Lloyd Webber: "We did it in the workshop. I didn't think it was ... quite up to the level." Elton: "They sit on their shoes in lavatory queues."
For a while, the two men discuss their similarities and differences. They are both entertainers. Lloyd Webber enjoys the anticipation of a good show; for Elton, the best moment is "the drink afterwards".
What about politics? "We don't really discuss politics," says Elton. "We've been too busy. We're driven by enthusiasm. He says, 'You've got to listen to this! You've got to listen to this! Come upstairs, I've got a new tune, it's going to be great!' Oh, it's probably crap, but let's listen to it anyway!"
Lloyd Webber: "I always think I'm the luckiest person alive, really. I love doing musical theatre, and collecting art."
Elton: "When it comes to art, I think I'm more conservative than him. I like art that tells a story." He talks, for a while, about his own cultural conservatism. Then he says: "I'm not a confrontationalist. I've been in rooms with Mrs Thatcher. It's always the same. People say, 'Oh, have you been up and said something?' No. Because I don't confront people.
"I'm not that arrogant. If I found myself in conversation with Mrs Thatcher and it was the right time to do so, I would certainly, you know, speak my mind. But not in an aggressive way. I'm not a statue dauber, and I never have been. I believe in a certain amount of good manners in your dealings with people."
Lloyd Webber: "Well, I liked Neil Kinnock when I met him." Elton: "Neil is one of the finest men it's ever been my good fortune to be associated with. He's a magnificent individual." Lloyd Webber: "Well, I only met him once. We had a cup of coffee. I was very impressed by him."
Soon it will be time to go home. Lloyd Webber points out that he didn't say he'd leave the country if Labour got in, and that he got involved with the Tories because of the punitive super-taxes of the Seventies. Elton says: "One thing I know about Andrew is that he pays every penny of his tax." He concedes that "the idea of taxing someone at 90 per cent must inevitably be a disincentive". The odd couple move towards a taxi. "Here's my taxi," says Lloyd Webber. Elton: "You booked a taxi?" Lloyd Webber: "No, it's my taxi." In the taxi, Elton says: "Well, Stephen Fry's got one. Drives it all the time. Great turning circle."
The taxi stops outside Lloyd Webber's house in Chester Square. There is work to be done. Scenes need to be stitched together. The man in the T-shirt and the lord walk up the steps towards the front door. Lloyd Webber waves goodbye. "See you, mate," he says.