AFTER a 17-year break from stand-up, Alexei Sayle is back. Age may have seen off the tight suits but it hasn’t blunted his edge, writes Claire Smith
I happen to meet Alexei Sayle in London in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. His phone has been ringing “off the hook”. “They should throw me a party,” he says.
On the night Thatcher died Sayle was on stage at the Soho Theatre. It was one of his first appearances as a stand-up in almost two decades. “I felt privileged to be performing that night, “ he says. “I just stood on stage and laughed for 20 minutes.”
But his sense of jubilation may have been tempered by the loss, in the same week, of his mother – an unrepentent Liverpudlian Stalinist – whose only acknowledgement of Soviet tyranny was to say, quietly “Mistakes were made.” In his memoir Stalin Ate My Homework Sayle describes a childhood spent at union meetings and on holiday behind the Iron Curtain. His affectionate but bizarre upbringing nurtured his sense of humour.
In the 1980s, Sayle, who was the original compere at The Comedy Store, became the epitome of the angry comic. The cartoon rage, against Margaret Thatcher and other enemies, would build and build until Sayle seemed to boil over in his tight suit – erupting into an absurd Chaplinesque dance.
But he got tired of his comic persona.
“I thought that was me – the guy in the tight suit. He was very funny but he had a limited range of expression,” he says. “He was good at dealing with hecklers. I talk about that in the show.”
He didn’t realise it at the time but his show in Perth in Australia in 1996 was his last for 17 years.
Sayle says he didn’t miss it. He became a writer, an actor and even a broadsheet motoring correspondent but kept up his performance skills by speaking at literary festivals and bookshops.
“People ask me about stand up compared to literature. Stand up is very black and white. It’s I hate this, I hate that. There is no room for nuance.”
So has he mellowed? Yes and no. Sayle has a lot of fun in his new show contrasting his angry young Marxist persona with the more measured presence he is today.
The tight shiny suit and pork pie hat have gone – replaced by a casual top and comfortable trousers. There’s a bit of shouting, a bit of dancing, even a burst of singing. But there is definitely nuance – reflections on class and social mobility – delivered in the beautifully kaleidescopic language of the working class intellectual.
Sayle still knows how to command a room – although now, at 60, the energy it takes is extraordinary: “I’ve just been spending every day in a coma.”
So what inspired him to come back? He was invited to take part in At Last the 1981 Show in 2011 by comedian Stewart Lee. At the show I see in Soho Stewart Lee is also in the audience, giggling at the back like an uberfan. Sayle may have thought stand up was behind him but he started to develop a sense of curiosity about the business which had been so much a part of his life.
“There are several things that led me to come back to it. I had several meetings with the TV people who made what became Show Me The Funny. “I realised, in the course of that, that this was a business I’d invented – that I’d been at the start of and that I didn’t know anything about it. The first thing I did when I thought about doing it was not thinking about material but going around watching people. I spent nine months going around comedy clubs.”
Sayle’s guide was stand up Josh Howie, son of PR Lynne Franks, who was the original inspiration for Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous. “We’d go into these basements and there would be a guy at the back talking about masturbation. Some of them would be in strange places, like the eighth floor of an office building.”
A lack of political comedy is something Sayle picked up on during his tour of the current scene.
“It has become uncomfortable – not when a guy is talking about masturbation but when he gets political. The system tends to eradicate anything that has the potential to unsettle it. The situtationists were good with cultural phenomena. They talk about recuperation – that the tropes, things like graphic style, things people have created – capitalism takes these things and makes them slaves to the economic process.”
A similar thing happens, he says, when you find yourself becoming famous. “If you take a charity gig like Comic Relief you find yourself being drawn into a world of celebrity. You end up meeting people like Simon Cowell and thinking: actually he is OK.”
Sayle’s use of language is still steeped in left wing thought – and he is involved in politics but he is not, he says, one of those comics who are also activists.
“I think it is important to say I’m quite flawed. I’m not some kind of example. People like Mark Steel and Mark Thomas live the life more than I do and Stewart Lee is never going to be on Miss Marple [Sayle was in an episode of the ITV drama in 2008].”
Yet sometimes the old rage bursts through. There is an absolutely electric bit in the show where he erupts into a world class rant about Alastair Campbell and his touchy feely attempts to rebrand himself. Even when we meet in his favourite cafe the thought of the New Labour spin doctor makes his blood rise.
“That stuff really does make me crazy. And it is something I had never seen before. Alastair Campbell in Have I Got News For You. That makes me angry.”
He says there has been a lot of interest in what he is doing – perhaps because people want to see political stand-up making a return. Saying the unsayable, he thinks, is a big part of what stand up is about. “People who speak their minds in social situations are horrible really. So you can’t do that and it’s not right to do that – so the performer is the person who can say: “This is what I really think”.
He says his parents’ totalitarian views left him with a mistrust of unshakeable belief and a need to question things. “I’ve always had an irreverent sense of humour. It is about what we are being told. There is something weird going on here.” Sayle tells me he had to rewrite a five minute section of the show which talked about his mother. Helping him oversee the process has been Linda, his wife of many years who has been at almost every show since the start.
“I’m very, very, lucky. I’m incredibly lucky to have her. She’s always there, she’s been to almost every gig. She’s the best director I could have.” And he has enjoyed the process of crafting the show – now the nervous energy of the early years has burned away.
“I think now there is a recognition between me and the audience. That I really love. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel it before. Let’s allow ourselves that I’m nice and you’re nice.”
Being less competitive has given him more chance to enjoy himself. “The thing I did with Stewart. If I had done that 20 years ago I would have wanted to be number one. I would have done anything to do that. Now I just think I’ll do the best I can. I probably thought I had the answers and I don’t think that any more. And I’m not angry with other performers any more.”
He’s particularly relishing a series of anecdotes in which a parade of historic figures speak with squeaky scouse accents. “One of the things I love about it is how stuff grows. Charles Dickens is getting longer and longer. I love doing that.” I ask him if he thinks alternative comedy changed anything. “I think it changed showbusiness” he says. But he never really believed a bunch of comedians would change the political landscape. “I’d been in politics too long. I was 28 when I started.”
Despite his founding role in alternative comedy Sayle says he always acknowledged what had gone before.
“I have always seen myself as part of a tradition. When I was doing OTT Chris Tarrant was always finding these old comedians to put on the show. I was in a taxi with one one day and he said what do you do? I said: “I talk about politics, drugs and sex and he said: “Oh I see, a patter merchant.”
• Alexei Sayle plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 4-5 July, and the Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh, 13-25 August; www.alexeisayle.me