Alexei Sayle talks to Northern Soul
There’s a moment in Thatcher Stole My Trousers – Alexei Sayle’s new volume of memoirs covering his ascent to comedy stardom – in which he finally gets to pass through the doors of London’s Capital Radio for the first time. It’s an event he’s dreamt about for a while, having previously worked for the Civil Service in the same building. Then, when it actually happens, he’s forced to admit, “it didn’t feel as big a deal as I’d hoped”.
This sense of of being clear-headed rather than dewy-eyed about the past pervades the whole book, which is a vivid, irreverent, rip-snortingly witty read. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Sayle says: “I’m not one for nostalgia. And it’s just not what you think really, celebrity, otherwise celebrities would be the happiest people in the world. On balance it’s made me tremendously happy, but it comes with a lot of problems that would be impossible to see from the outside.”
Sayle‘s first memoir, the much-praised Stalin Ate My Homework, detailed his Liverpool childhood, growing up as the son of staunchly Communist parents. In this new volume, he leaves Liverpool behind to study at the Chelsea College of Art and dabble in a wide variety of jobs. His short-lived experiments in drawing, film-making and performance eventually lead him to enter the world of stand-up as MC of the epoch-making London Comedy Store.
And yet, there’s no sense of a grand career plan. The Comedy Store gig which changed his life came about quite casually by him responding to a small ad in the back of Private Eye. Prior to that, he was still pursuing work as a freelance illustrator.
“Being a comic is what I do best,” he says. “Doing the drawing and stuff, I wasn’t quite as good at it, really. It was the first kind of expression I had, but it wasn’t ultimately what worked for me. I suppose I always thought I was somebody who had a vision and I looked around for a way to express it.”
Certainly, he turned stand-up into an art-form. He’s now regarded as one of the prime movers in the alternative comedy movement and inspires devotion among contemporary practitioners including Stewart Lee and Mark Thomas. In the book, Sayle muses on what might have happened if he hadn’t become involved with the Comedy Store at that key moment, concluding that “modern stand-up would have occurred anyway. But it would not have been in that place and not at that time and it would not have looked like it did. You’re welcome.”
One might assume that this statement is Sayle taking the opportunity to assert his position in comedy history. “Obviously in a sense it’s playful, but it’s also something I believe, more or less,” he says. “I mean, one of the difficult things to get right in terms of writing a memoir is not to be overly self-deprecating, because that’s false. Which people do – it’s something Stephen Fry does: ‘Oooh, how did little old me come to be hosting the BAFTAs?’. Well, you did it by fucking ruthless self-promotion, you fucker. So I was very keen to avoid that and not be a humblebrag, not for it to be self-aggrandising but also, when I think I did something right to sort of say so, really.”
By definition, writing your memoirs isn’t exactly a humble act. “Well, exactly. I mean, it’s preposterous and really it’s a mask for a kind of gigantic egotism and arrogance as well.”
One surprising admission is that Sayle took some degree of inspiration from Brummie funnyman Jasper Carrott, who’s not usually mentioned in histories of alternative comedy.
“Well, another trap that people fall into is that they agree on the party line about what their influences were. You have to say, ‘Oh yeah, I was, like, really into comedy. Yeah, I knew everything about comedy and I was a big fan of Morecambe and Wise and Ronnie Corbett’ and all that kind of bullshit. But not to acknowledge people who have not got the accreditation, so you can cite Billy Connolly or the Pythons but you couldn’t cite Jasper because he’s not acceptable. He’s not cool, kind of thing. And I mean, those shows he did for LWT were really remarkable for the time. So the book is in a sense an attempt to kind of step outside that orthodoxy of normal storytelling. It’s that Albert Maysles’ quote: ‘Tyranny is the removal of nuance’. Everybody agreeing on this kind of party line about what the past was like is really dangerous in a way, I think, because it simplifies what is in fact a complex narrative.”
Sayle moved from hosting at the Comedy Store to working on television, perhaps most memorably as assorted deranged members of the Balowski family in The Young Ones. It’s a situation he was more than happy with, declaring in the book that the TV studio environment is “the one location where I feel completely safe”.
He tells me: “It’s a bit sad – I mean, it’s not like I’m ever in a TV studio these days, but I just remember the tremendous sense of serenity which descended on me when I was in a TV studio. Again, it’s just not something that anybody would normally evoke or say but it was certainly something I felt.”
What exactly was it that he found so comfortable about that environment?
“I always struggled with institutions, when I was at school or art school – even when I was a teacher. I was very much at odds with the institution. Whereas when I’m in a TV studio I know that this is a place where I am at my best. I know how everything works. I know what is the best thing to do in this set of circumstances. Everything else drops away and you’ve got no time to think about your worries or anything. You’re just focused on what you’re doing in that moment. Also, it’s where I got to practice my art really for long time.”
It’s striking that Sayle found some sense of belonging in those situations. He’s certainly not blind to the faults of his alternative comedy cohorts, and he is very conscious of having left his Liverpool working class roots behind.
“My experience of being of the first generation of working class kids that got university education is that while obviously it was broadly advantageous, it again came with a price that nobody ever really articulates, which is that we did lose our tribe. We lost, in a sense, who we were. We weren’t authentically working class but we weren’t authentically middle class, unless we made a kind of effort to fit in. Even that’s a kind of affectation in a way. My generation does exist in an odd kind of limbo really, cultural and social. And it’s all right. It’s better than working down a mine probably. But I suppose in a sense the best moments have always been when I have felt part of a tribe, when I have felt at home. I was always trying to re-find that connection so when I did briefly get it it was very precious to me.”
Besides covering Sayle’s ascent to comic celebrity, the new book also tells another story, more personal and arguably much more important: that of meeting and marrying Linda Rawsthorn. They become inseparable throughout all his professional adventures and they’re still together today. In an unshowy short of way, then, this is a love story.
“Yeah, it’s about a couple really. I remember Michael Barrymore used to be managed by his wife and people always used to say, ‘oh, is she your manager?’ and I said ‘no’. I was always keen to refute that because I didn’t want to seem like Michael Barrymore. Show business couples can be creepy, but I think we managed to not be – I don’t know, I can’t think of another example…Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. The Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith of comedy. I didn’t put this in the book in the end, but when we’d go and visit people, if I came in the room first they would very consciously look around me to make sure that Linda was there as well. Because if it was just me it was like, ‘uh’. But if it’s Linda, it’s ‘Linda’s here! Yay, that’s good!’”
Also omnipresent throughout is Sayle’s bike. He spends much of the book cycling furiously around London. This begs the delicate question: how then did he manage to put on so much weight, and create his trademark bulging suit look?
“That’s just by eating and drinking an awful lot. It was a heroic effort, really. Me and Linda would have our three course meal with pudding and custard, then we’d go to the pub and then have a Chinese afterwards. Even if you’re cycling everywhere, that will pile the pounds on.”
By definition Thatcher Stole My Trousers involves Sayle looking back at himself as a younger man. But what would that younger man make of Sayle today?
“Well, you can’t have any conception of what it’s like to get older really – and now I am really fat as well. I mean not, y’know, Robbie Coltrane fat, but pretty fat. So he’d be disappointed in that.”
But would young Alexei approve of his older self? “I don’t know what I thought about shit then, but I think he’d wonder why I wasn’t more successful. ‘Is this it? Is this all we’ve managed? Is this as far as you’ve got? I was expecting a lot more than this mate, really. I mean, the awards cabinet’s pretty bare. The Scouseology award from the Liverpool Echo, a Bronze Rose of Montreux…that’s not enough’. He’d think. ‘Fuck, is that it? No Pulitzer Prize, no Booker, no BAFTA? Nah.”
Northern Soul feels moved to assert that young Alexei would be wrong in this harsh assessment.
“Well that’s good. You tell him then, little shit-bag. And I’d say back, ‘Well fuck, it’s hard. It’s much harder than you think, you know. It’s difficult. They close ranks and you’re not that good! You don’t deserve a BAFTA.’”
By Andy Murray
Main image: John Falzon
Thatcher Stole My Trousers is published by Bloomsbury and is available here in hardback and ebook formats
Alexei Sayle will be promoting publication of the book at the following events: Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on March 17, 2016 in conversation with Frank Cottrell-Boyce:www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-alexei-sayle/liverpool
HOME in Manchester on April 10, 2016, in conversation with Dave Haslam: www.homemcr.org/event/an-evening-with-alexi-sayle
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