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Ben Elton Recounts His Guildford Childhood As He Helps Celebrate Institute’s Refurbishment

Published on: 24 Oct, 2013
Updated on: 5 Jun, 2020

Ben Elton, comedian,  writer (including co-writing Blackadder), actor and director, described his local connections and memories in some detail when he spoke at the celebration of the Guildford Institute’s refurbishment project this evening (October 24, 2013) in Ward Street. This is what he said to the invited audience…

Ben Elton reflecting on his Guildford childhood.

Ben Elton reflecting on his Guildford childhood.

This is such a lovely event to be part of, such a splendid Institute. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure what I was here for, apart to testify in support. Somebody said, “Well we are very proud of our new lift.” It is said of celebrities that they would go to the opening of an envelope. Now it can be said of me that, “He will even go to the opening of a lift.”

But I am very honoured to be here, and I am not quite sure what to say. I don’t think this is the place for my stand up routine, mainly because my mother is sitting there. Even at 54 I still don’t think so.

Actually, my mum gave me a great lesson in stand up comedy. She was an English teacher, she taught for many years at Park Barn. She said, “You know Benjy the F word can be very useful as an exclamation mark, but it is very little use as a comma.”

A great lesson, and I do try now to swear less on stage and I certainly don’t intend to swear tonight.

We are Guildford people. My mum and dad came here in 1968. They have been here for 45 years. They are part of this town. My mum has belonged to the Institute since the 80s.

Ben Elton's Parents

Ben Elton’s parents Lewis and Mary who came to Guildford with their children in 1968

We first came here because dad used to teach at Battersea College of Technology and then took the Chair in Physics at the new Surrey University and, like mum, was part of life in the town.

I am very proud that, although a physicist, and later an educationalist, dad also took a great interest in the arts. In fact, the gallery at the university is named after him, “The Lewis Elton Gallery,” something I am very proud of… but I am also slightly resentful of it because he is the only Elton with anything named after him in Guildford. I have not got so much as a little plaque, anywhere, despite all the Gales ales I drunk here in the early 70s…  It would be nice.

So mum and dad have been here 45 years. I only spent eight full years here but, of course, incredibly formative years. They shaped me those childhood and teenage years, just what my kids are going through, right now.

They are actually in Guildford but Guildford, Western Australia. But we all know of the great connections between Guildford here and the one in Western Australia. The first governor came from here and it is so curious that I should end up marrying someone who is a Western Australian. We currently live there to give our children that part of their life with their Australian family.

And since I have been away, working here, and in the States, my mum said, “Oh you must miss the children terribly,” and I do… but… on the other hand… when you have got three teenagers you do sometimes miss the soft gentle hum of the hotel mini-bar. But I am looking forward to getting home.

I would like to reflect briefly on my childhood in Guildford. It was great. A very happy childhood in the 70s whatever Mrs Thatcher said, sorry Anne (to Anne Milton MP standing close by) a very happy childhood. But I worry for young children quite seriously it is such an astonishingly different world for them, far more different than my world was to that of my parents.

Ben Elton talks to David Rose of The Guildford Dragon News about his Guildford childhood.

Ben Elton talks to David Rose of The Guildford Dragon News about his Guildford childhood.

When I was growing up in the 70s, on Farnham Road, we had one television that had three channels. But even then my parents would say, “You are boggling too much. Your brain is getting fried!”

These days my children, many children, carry a television in their pocket with access to every channel on Earth. This is terrifying.

My wife and I see the whole family watching one television together as a genuine cultural and social triumph. It is almost as if we have been to see a play. We have been watching the same thing in the same room and we can talk about it afterwards.

It is a terrifying time for young people. We have these endless discussions about it and I wonder what it is going to do to their imagination.

I used to go from Guildford to Farnham on the bus, because my mum’s parents moved there to be close to us and had wonderful happy retirement years in Dene Lane in Farnham.  I used to go and visit them on the bus. I can remember staring out of the window, enjoying the beautiful countryside.

Once, I even wrote a poem about it. It was crap, I have got to tell you … but at least I wrote it. Now the kids today just stare into their phones. It is not their fault I would do. But no one is even looking out of a window and I am wondering, if no one ever looks out of a window will any poems ever be written again, or any plays and books?

I think it is easy to blame young people for the fact that they are staring, “Stop staring at your phone” my wife and I say, but goodness knows I would be if I were them.

In the 70s we dreamt of distraction. On a Sunday afternoon there was nothing to do. But wasn’t that wonderful: an empty town. A town where the shops were closed. Christmas day was silent. Beautiful. But now it has all gone, there is endless distraction. For us on Sunday afternoon there was only Songs of Praise. Even your homework was preferable.

But kids today have to face so many distractions and I think we should all sympathise and I think we should all enter into an ongoing debate. Many of us, including me, wish the internet hadn’t come but it has. And we should worry about how our children will develop their imaginations with these endless distractions at their fingertips. It is something I think about all the time. How will they engage in natural conversations?

Anyway, I had a wonderful childhood here. And Guildford meant for me, principally, AmDram. I was intensely involved in amateur drama in Guildford and then, as now, there were many opportunities. I am a proud president of the Godalming Theatre Group.

I was all over the area like a rash. I started with the Curtain Raisers in Onslow Village. Yes, we did Peter Pan in 1969 and mum persuaded me to go along to the audition. For me it was literally an Epiphany. My road to Damascus was Friar’s Gate.

I had an absolute revelation. I loved the theatre and I knew I wanted to be involved in story telling and the public arts. From that moment onwards I was completely hooked.

I was a member of the Herald Players. We did Merchant of Venice at the castle. It was so beautiful, so wonderful. We went right up to the top of the keep and we had it to ourselves. I had a changing room right up in the parapet.  I am probably the only person who has regularly been in his underpants up there.

And then there are some less happy memories. I remember in 1974 we were rehearsing Man for All Seasons. I was The Common Man and I remember I left the rehearsal at 8.30 and there was this crump in the air… and then a silence. I will never forget the silence. And then suddenly the air filled with sirens and, of course, I am referring to the dreadful bombings.

I recalled them years later when, with Andrew Lloyd Webber, I wrote a musical about terrorism. Not too surprisingly it wasn’t a commercial hit but it was an effort to understand what leads people to this kind of evil. You can’t just hate: you have to try and understand.  I remember that my only connection to such events was here.

But also there was such happiness. I was at Godalming Theatre Group.  Did the Artful Dodger twice, once at school and once with the Theatre Group. In fact the Surrey Advertiser were kind enough to say that I showed great promise for the future. That was just about the last decent review I have had.

I was in the 1972 production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin, I know some people here remember that. Wonderful, wonderful times. I owe so much to a happy childhood and most of all, of course, to my parents. Guildford was a lovely place to grow up and I am sure it still is.

It is important we treasure the memory of what has gone before because, as ever, if you don’t treasure the past then the future looks a very bleak place. That is why this Institute is so important.

I will finish on one slightly sad note.  I am currently part of the campaign to save the Fenton War Memorial. It is a magnificent tiled memorial and part of a Town Hall, a beautiful Town Hall that is set for demolition. Not only will we lose the Town Hall but also this extraordinary war memorial commemorating the death of 498 men who made the ultimate sacrifice in perhaps the most catastrophic war in history, the First World War that bequeathed us the terrible twentieth century.

If we forget that and forget what the First World War was and what drove men to make such sacrifice, without questioning, as perhaps they might today, and not to honour their bravery but also ask the question, ‘Why was the bravery called upon?’ then the future is bleak.

Next year all over the country we will repeat those wonderful lines: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” And yet in Fenton, Staffordshire, it appears, only as long as it is profitable to do so.

So I say an Institute like this that keeps an eye on the past, welcomes the present and looks to the future is clearly a fabulous thing for any town to be blessed with. You must all be very proud of it and I know you cherish and nurture it.

I look forward to returning to it many times when I bring my children back to Guildford as I will. We will unquestionably visit this Guildford Institute to celebrate the past and look to the future of a wonderful town.

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test 2 Responses to Ben Elton Recounts His Guildford Childhood As He Helps Celebrate Institute’s Refurbishment

  1. Gordon Bridger Reply

    October 25, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Congratulations on such a good report on Ben Elton’s Guildford Institute speech. Very competent and accurate.

  2. Bernard Parke Reply

    October 26, 2013 at 10:20 am

    I was very interested to read the comments attributed to Ben Elton when he referred to Guildford in Western Australia.

    This part of that continent would have probably been occupied by the French, or even the fledgling USA, if it had not been for Admiral Stirling and the Mangles family.

    It is rather sad that this relationship with our former dominions had been allowed to almost fade away into past memories.

    Perhaps, we should now consider renewing this particular relationship by forming an affinity with daughter Guildford down under?

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