Interview: Alexei Sayle on returning to stand-up and performing at 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The alternative comedy pioneer in why he’s happier now that he can just be himself
This article is from 2013.
After being away from the stand-up stage for almost two decades, Alexei Sayle is back, bolder, brasher and bolshier than ever before. The alternative comedy pioneer tells Brian Donaldson he’s happier now that he can just be himself
For a man who was famous for singing about a car (‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?’) and who surprised everyone when he became motoring correspondent for a right-wing broadsheet (The Torygraph, as it would have politely been called by his far-left parents), it’s enjoyable to see Alexei Sayle end our interview by cycling off into the sunset. Doing things his way and not how anyone expects has been a big part of the Liverpudlian’s showbusiness career.
He quit comedy when it could have made him world-famous and instead went off to write a series of acclaimed short-story collections, novels and a memoir (Stalin Ate My Homework) while also doing the odd bit of acting in such diverse curios as Miss Marple and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. And now, when everyone least expected it, he’s back doing month-long stand-up runs in London, a couple of weeks at the Fringe and possibly even going on tour in the autumn. Linda, his wife and, to all intents and purposes, the director of Sayle’s stage work, was less than enamoured by that decision to return. She was worried possibly about his health but definitely concerned about ‘diluting the legacy’ as he called it during warm-up shows in Scotland last October.
‘I don’t think I was ever in love with comedy,’ he softly tells me in an Italian café in central London. ‘I was always too wound up about it. It’s a complex relationship that we comedians have with our art; people like Stewart [Lee] and Robin [Ince] have that love for it, but it just made me crazy. I was angry with anybody who did better than me and also I was trapped by a character who became a persona.’ He has a name for this constricting presence. ‘Coco was very negative. I used to say comedy is black or white and you couldn’t do subtle stuff, but it turned out that was just me talking through this character. Now there’s more of a coherence to the narrative. I’m talking about myself as myself. It is clearer for both the critics and for myself.’
When Stewart Lee approached him to take part in a celebration of 1981 at the Royal Festival Hall, he may have had more than a second thought about dragging himself back in front of a comedy crowd. But he was heartened and inspired by how well it went. ‘I remember walking out and I knew the lines would work because I’d done them at book readings, but there seemed to be this reverence from the audience. For all they knew, I’d been in cryogenic suspension for 17 years, but everything worked. It was like dying: all your friends are there and there was this bright light. I felt serene.’
But not everything went quite so smoothly on his comeback. A long run doing his high-energy show at the Soho Theatre left him drained while on the press night he was so nervous that he lost his voice. When he takes to The Stand stage in Edinburgh, he’s hoping to be more relaxed. There’s certainly not the pressure on him that younger comics will be feeling during August: this is hardly make-or-break time for Sayle’s career. ‘I hope that I’ll be able to kick back a little,’ he notes. ‘It’ll still be a high-energy show because I can’t really do any other, but I’ll be trying to do bigger chunks of new stuff every night. But, you know, I’m not doing this to get on a panel show.’
That, of course, is the career path that many comics take these days, ideally on their way to playing the O2 in front of thousands of people who can just about make you out as a tiny dot with a tinier microphone somewhere in the distance. It’s difficult not to chat to Sayle about the ‘old days’ of alternative comedy taking its first baby steps into the smoky bearpits of The Comedy Store and how it compares to this period of stadium-friendly stand-ups. The two eras are quite simply planets apart. ‘Back then, you could just shout “Thatcher’s a bastard” for 20 minutes and get huge rounds of applause. You have to be more complex now and it’s certainly a bit of a challenge to do political stuff. Audiences now are fine if you want to tell jokes about masturbation, but if you start on politics, they get a bit antsy. There seemed to be a clarity in the 80s: Thatcher was this monster, but now party politics is all this mushy centre ground.’
When Sayle was starting out, there were generally two types of stand-up comedy: the racism, homophobia and misogyny perpetrated by ITV’s The Comedians and the funny folk singers such as Billy Connolly and Mike Harding. Like punk with punchlines, alternative comedy attempted to sweep all those dinosaurs away and offer something different. If Sayle and his early 80s cohorts, Rik ‘n’ Ade, Dawn ‘n’ Jen, Peter Richardson and Ben Elton (whose more recent work seems like a deliberate attempt at making everyone forget he was instrumental in some of the finest sitcoms of that era) have any kind of legacy, it’s that in most major British cities you can go out on any night of the week and see a wide variety of comedy styles.
‘There’s still a dividing line although it is a bit more bendy. You’ve got your John Bishops and Michael McIntyres, and then there’s your Stewarts and Robins and Josie Longs and Kitsons, so there’s still a dichotomy. The John Bishops are obviously infinitely less offensive than those fuckers from before, all those bastards. But I think you still choose your side.’
Alexei Sayle, The Stand III & IV, York Place, 0131 558 7272, 13–25 Aug (not 19), 6pm, £12.