I first met Andrew in December 1998, he and Madeleine Lloyd Webber having invited my wife and me out to dinner. It was one of those great nights. I spent the evening getting as much rock and pop gossip out of Andrew as possible, you know the sort of thing ….which boy bands actually sing on their records? Is Cliff Richard as nice as he seems and how many times did Mrs Thatcher see Evita? I came away admiring his Lordship even more than I had done before, it’s difficult not to admire a man who wrote the last song that Elvis ever recorded, I mean how cool is that? Unless of course it was the song that killed him!
Andrew had wanted to meet me because he was thinking of putting a few new gags into Starlight and wanted to know if I was interested in writing them. Well, quite frankly, I had no ambitions to be the man who risked screwing up one of the most successful stage musicals in history. So I reminded Andrew of the old adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and declined the offer. I did, however, very nervously enquire whether he might be attracted to the idea of doing something new. Perhaps it was the wine, but, to my delight, Andrew was as enthusiastic as I was and the result, 18 months later, is The Beautiful Game. Set in Belfast between 1969 and 1972, it concerns the fortunes of a group of young men and women centred around a local youth football team. These young people have the misfortune to come of age at the beginning of a time of terrible trouble in Northern Ireland and the drama follows their efforts to live their lives against a backdrop of ever increasing sectarian division and violence. Some of the characters are drawn into the conflict, others stand aside wanting only to be allowed to get on with their lives in peace.
Although this is an Irish story, taking place in Belfast – a brave big-hearted city that I know well, having performed there many times – I hope that the themes and sentiments of The Beautiful Game are universal. All over the world communities are challenged by violence and hatred. This musical is dedicated to all those innocent and defenceless people who every day are forced to struggle simply to be left alone. Simply to be allowed to live and love in peace.
Ben Elton, from the original production programme for The Beautiful Game September 2000