Alternative angle

The originator of alternative comedy, Alexei Sayle talks to Kevin Gopal about Liverpool, his comic craft and politics

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Alexei Sayle’s first volume of memoirs covered his exotic upbringing as the only child of a Jewish atheist communist family in Anfield, Liverpool – an eccentric one at that. One of the founders of alternative comedy in the 1980s, Sayle’s second volume, just published, picks up his story just before leaving his hometown for art school in London in 1971.

He finds that acting suits him more than the politics of the organised far-left, learns how to be a stand-up – and finds fame and reputation through the Comedy Store, Comic Strip and The Young Ones.

Married to Linda Rawsthorn since 1974, he writes that his comedy led to them becoming “joint owners of a family business, except that, rather than being an unfriendly corner shop or a remote hill farm our business was a man who travelled up and down the country in a van shouting at between two hundred and fifty and two thousand people”. And although he drifts away from the Maoists, he retains a keen political perspective.

Early in the book you leave Liverpool. Do you go back much now and, if so, what do you find?
Since my mum died in 2012 I don’t go back as much as I thought. It’s also a great sadness that when I went back to comedy for a hundred or so dates in 2012-2013 we never managed to find a Liverpool venue. I’m doing three bookreading/literary things in the city in the next couple of months but I hope to do another stand-up tour and I’ll make sure I play Liverpool this time. I recall doing the Empire in 1995 and it was epic.

What was it about the city that made it a “bastion of mountain strongholdism” full of Descartes-quoting auto-didacts?
Many have theorised about why Liverpool was as it was or is as it is. Partly I think it’s both the Irish influence and the strong connection with the United Sates but there is a history of certain ports becoming what somebody called outsider cities – Hamburg, Marseilles, Gdansk. Strongly independent with an educated politicised workforce. Plus I think Liverpool became a city of entertainers just as Edinburgh was a city of people involved in finance or Birmingham was a city dedicated to engineering. Thus the locals on the characteristics of entertainers themselves.

You say you felt more comfortable with the actors of Threepenny Theatre than the Maoists you’d previously hung about with. How come?
Being in an acting troupe was the first time that I felt I was part of something that I understood the purpose of and where I could excel. There was always a large part of me that never agreed with Maoism even though I was oddly in a Maoist group.

Were you seeking to sweep away an old form of comedy based on tired mother-in-law jokes or was it more about finding your own comedic voice?
Both, but one was dependent on doing the other. The alternative comedy movement wanted to show people there was a better, more intelligent way of doing things, though on the surface, yelling at the audience and throwing things at them seemed an odd way to go about it.

Your mum Molly never held back when it came to shouting at passing motorists and saying exactly what she thought. Did she influence your style of comedy?
What I got from my mother was the ability to go from normality to screaming rage in a split second with no intervening working up through the gears.

How real was the “threat of genuine violence” you say you brought to comedy?
Well, it’s complex. Obviously what I did was an act. There was the suggestion of violence but it was hardly ever realised. I hit a punter over the head with a microphone once and a couple of early gigs ended in riots but that soon settled down.

Show business does not encourage level-headedness but there are things you can do to stay fairly sane

There are few tears of a clown in the book. Are you the least neurotic comedian of your generation?
I don’t think anybody who knew me would describe me as “un-neurotic”. Show business does not encourage level-headedness but there are things you can do to stay fairly sane. Surround yourself with people who bring you down to earth (often quite cruelly) when you get above yourself, don’t hang around with too many other celebrities, hang onto an idea of who you are, visit an all-you-can -eat buffet at least twice a year.

Has the Comedy Store generation of comedians retained its radical edge?
Not really. It’s just me now and I’m pretty fat and complacent.

You’ve never been keen on subsidised arts. Can we expect a new wave of artistic creativity to come out of this age of austerity?
It’s one possible outcome – nothing’s ever entirely bad. After all the Black Death led to better wage rates and greater workers’ rights amongst those who survived. State sponsorship of the arts can be a narcotic that dulls the senses of the artist. You are not entitled to an outlet for your art – you need to struggle to sell it to people, to find a way to make it relevant to them.

Is homelessness as visible again as it was in the 1980s?
I don’t know but I imagine it must be harder than ever to find accommodation in the south of England.

You played a lot of benefit gigs for the miners strike. What effect did the strike have on you?
Well, I wanted to more or less end the book with the Miners Strike and my small part in it but it has taken me five or six years to write the whole book and a lot of that time was spent struggling with that one chapter. In the end what I feel about the strike is hopefully contained within that sequence and I can’t improve on it here.

Journalists are compelled to ask a question about Jeremy Corbyn in all interviews. What question about Jeremy Corbyn would you like to answer?
I would like to answer the question: “Have you ever been in a cupboard with Jeremy Corbyn?” To which I would answer: “Yes.” Jeremy gave me a conducted tour of the House of Commons a few years ago and he was particularly keen to show me the broom cupboard where Suffragette Emily Davison hid in the Palace of Westminster during the 1911 Census. Asked for her address on that day, she replied: “The House of Commons.”

You briefly sold drugs at less than cost price to win friends. Do you deserve credit for inventing the gift economy?
I never told anybody it was a gift. I pretended I had connections with the Armenian mafia and that’s why I could sell my drugs cheaper than anybody else. The only thing I invented was a lie.

Thatcher Stole My Trousers is published by Bloomsbury (hardback £16.99, ebook £14.99). He’s appears, in conversation with Dave Haslam, at Home, Manchester on 10 April. The first part of the memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, is available on Audible read by the author

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