Alexei Sayle has never had what you might call a normal life. Growing up in Anfield, Liverpool, the future godfather of alternative comedy was well aware his family was a bit… unusual, not least because his parents were both active members of The Communist Party of Great Britain.
‘I think we reveled in being different, really,’ reflects Sayle. ‘My mother used to boast about how we used to eat salad.’
In his new book, Thatcher Stole My Trousers – the brilliantly funny follow-up to his 2010 memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework – Sayle makes no bones about the fact his parents’ Communist philosophy ‘was based on an authoritarian view of the world in which people’s opinions had to be kept in line via the widespread use of terror, propaganda and repression’.
Despite this, the young Alexei remained, broadly speaking, a Marxist himself. ‘I still am, in a way,’ he tells Weekend. ‘But I’m aware of its many, many flaws. It’s a love-hate relationship I have with the left, really.’
Sayle’s mother, Molly, is a gift for any writer. Of Lithuanian Jewish descent, she was a fiery scrapper who would happily have picked an argument with her own shadow. In Thatcher Stole My Trousers, Sayle recounts how she took a job as a lollipop lady, simply as ‘an opportunity to conduct her own private war on motorists’, adopting a roving brief in order to terrorise any driver within half a mile.
Though she died a couple of years ago, Molly was still alive when Sayle’s first memoir was published. What did she make of her portrayal? ‘She came along to a reading and heckled me,’ he recalls. ‘She said, “It’s all lies!” But I think she liked it, really.’
The second volume opens with our hero leaving Liverpool for the Chelsea College of Art Design, where he harboured vague ideas about becoming an avant-garde filmmaker. On graduating, he worked as everything from a cleaner to a dinner lady (there wasn’t a more gender-appropriate job title available), before deciding, almost on a whim, to try his hand at stand-up comedy.
After answering an ad in Private Eye, he was as surprised as anyone to find himself being hired as the compere of The Comedy Store, a new venture offering a bracing counterblast to the tired, racist and sexist routines of the working men’s club circuit. On stage, Sayle adopted the persona of ‘a demented, fat old mod’ – a ranting, shaven-headed left-wing firebrand who delivered volleys of angry invective in a shiny, unforgivingly tight suit. ‘He was a bit nastier than me,’ he explains, ‘but it was all pretty heartfelt – I believed what he believed, really.’
Having established himself as the first break-out star of the ‘alternative cabaret’ scene, Sayle hooked up with the Comic Strip gang of Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Nigel Planer, and played a variety of demented characters on The Young Ones, the explosive, anarchic sitcom that swang a wrecking ball through the TV comedy landscape. He even scored a top 20 hit with the cockney-baiting Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?
In the book, Sayle is candid about the pangs of envy he felt when the careers of some of his contemporaries started to eclipse his own, with Mayall, Edmonson, French and Saunders’ star ascending as his and Peter Richardson’s waned.
‘I’m just trying to give a truthful account of what it’s like to be in the entertainment business,’ he says. ‘It comes as a shock when you start out as the star, then other people surpass you. But in all fairness, I was a very strange performer, whereas someone like Dawn and Jennifer are more TV-friendly. I’m not moaning about that. It happens.’
There is a telling passage where Sayle arrives at a recording of The Young Ones to find Oxbridge graduates Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones among the guest cast – at which point he realises he is the only one who genuinely sees them as the enemy.
‘I thought we all thought like that – completely against the evidence,’ he says. ‘It came as a shock, but it shouldn’t have done.
‘They’re all very personable, those people,’ he adds. ‘It’s just they represent class oppression and grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt.’ It’s hard to tell if he’s joking. ‘But they’re charming – they’ve got lovely manners.’
Alexander Armstrong recently told Weekend that the alternative comedy revolution was so successful, Oxbridge graduates of his era couldn’t get arrested at the BBC. ‘Yeah, I think that’s crap,’ says Sayle, bluntly. ‘Then why is he where he is? That’s bull***.’
Not that Sayle’s own career didn’t flourish. He took film roles in the likes of Gorky Park and a Sultan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and got exterminated by the Daleks on Doctor Who, while his acclaimed sketch and stand-up show Stuff won him an Emmy – even if the first he knew about it was when his mother-in-law phoned to say she’d just seen Benny Hill collecting it on his behalf on TV. ‘I guess they thought we all knew each other,’ he shrugs.
Now 63, Sayle – who lives in Bloomsbury with Linda, his wife of 42 years – juggles writing (he’s published several novels and short story collections) with acting and voiceover work, and the occasional foray into a more reflective, less shouty brand of stand-up. He was also the Daily Telegraph’s motoring correspondent for a time – an idea that would no doubt have vexed his Marxist, militant lollipop lady mother on several levels.
It all feels a long way from his days as the angry young man of the alternative cabaret circuit. There’s a lovely quote in the book in which his friend and contemporary Pauline Melville describes them as ‘the sort of people who fantasised about refusing to appear on the Royal Variety Performance’. ‘It’s true,’ says Sayle. ‘Those were the sort of complex daydreams we had in those days. We dreamed about tearing stuff down.’
Despite claiming to have been entirely unqualified to lead the comedy revolution, Sayle does acknowledge the pivotal role he played in the development of ‘the gigantic, arena-filling business that is modern stand-up’.
‘To pretend that I didn’t make a difference would just be humblebrag,’ he explains. ‘Clearly I was really good at it. And I invented this whole art form, in a way, just to find a form of expression.’
So did Alexei Sayle ultimately give birth to Michael McIntyre?
‘Yes,’ he laughs. ‘They’re all my children. They should pay me – Dad wants some money!’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 7, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend