The Return of Britain’s Comedy Messiah
In the early 1980s Alexei Sayle spearheaded The Alternative Comedy Movement and pioneered a groundbreaking new approach to stand-up comedy. Pushing beyond the lowbrow styles that had previously dominated the field, Sayle and others rehabilitated British Comedy and made it an acceptable taste for the middle classes. 20 years on he tells Sam Friedman how he’s returning to reinvigorate the legacy of alternative comedy.
Alexei Sayle looks pleased with himself. He’s just metaphorised the Edinburgh Festival Fringe into a comedy warzone. Princes Street is no man’s land, he tells me, with Stewart Lee and ‘The Stand [Comedy Club] Radicals’ firing artillery at ‘all the others’ over in Bristo Square. Leaping into animation he fires an imaginary machine-gun at me, chuckling at his own surreal vision and showering me with remnants of his Sgiotella Italian Pastry. The godfather of Alternative Comedy will, of course, be siding with the Radicals for his first Fringe show in 20 years, playing a late run of 14 nights at Stand 3 in August. ‘Stewart [Lee] said I couldn’t go anywhere else,’ he deadpans. ‘No, really, he emailed me and said, ideologically, I couldn’t go over to the ‘other side’.
We’re sitting in Sfzio’s in Camden, a proudly ungentrified Venezuelan-Italian café that sits unassumingly on Theobold’s Rd amid a sea of trendy gastro pubs and soulless chain eateries. Sayle’s been coming here for years and the owners clearly adore him, humouring his pigeon Spanish and eagerly showing me the articles he’s written for them in the local press. ‘That was complete nonsense’, he confides with a grin as the waiter dutifully decodes his Spanglish coffee order. Sayle once famously remarked that ‘you can’t do comedy with a beard’, but today I’m finding it hard not to notice the elf-like silver goatee that he’s cultivated into a neat arrow formation, and which rises and falls in a not uncomical fashion as he speaks.
Sayle has just finished a run of early Edinburgh previews at the Soho Theatre, the first time he’s performed live in 17 years. Things nearly went terribly wrong, he tells me. On the press night, riddled with nerves, Sayle lost his voice and then in the opening minutes repeated the same joke twice. ‘At one point I thought of saying ‘look, I can’t do this’, and just walking off’. Happily, the Liverpudlian collected himself and the show was largely well–received by the critics. But the fear that he might have been about to debase his own legacy clearly got to Sayle. ‘I suppose the older you get, the legacy is all you have’, he says. ‘When you’re younger you think ‘well I can build another one’, but at my age I don’t have time so it all gets a bit scary. That’s probably one of the reasons that performers stop taking chances. Because it’s easier to stay in a comfortable rut. But equally when people try to replicate their glory days they invariably fuck up so the only way to be free, I think, is to face that challenge.’
Taking chances is something most people associate with Alexei Sayle. Brought up by Communist parents in Anfield, Liverpool, Sayle went on to pioneer the Alternative Comedy Boom of the early 1980s. Frustrated by the casual bigotry of the 1970s club comics and the hackneyed light entertainment of TV sitcoms, he and others like Malcolm Hardee, Tony Allen and Ben Elton championed a kind of post-punk political comedy that aimed to galvanise leftist activism and hone in on the escalating social divisions being cultivated in Thatcher-era Britain. More than just a political project though, alternative comedy was also united by an experimental aesthetic that attempted to push the boundaries of the art form. Sayle’s stand-up epitomised the alternative style, his ranting and relentless speed of attack demanding a constant intellectual participation ranging from Sartre references to Brechtian theatre. ‘For me it was always a way of making interesting art’, he says. ‘A kind of bloody-mindedness to push, to not settle for the ordinary, to always include the erudite reference. Not art that has some kind of didactic political purpose, but art that engages people and contains some truth.’
Watching one of Sayle’s previews at the Soho, it’s clear he retains a commitment to pushing boundaries. Particularly exciting is the quality of the satire. There is a tangible bite and clarity in Sayle’s political commentary, particularly when he lambasts the reproduction of class privilege and the myriad triumphs of our recent crop of Old Etonians (‘Maybe we should just hand back control to the upper class completely’). It’s a refreshing change from the limpness of much contemporary political comedy, I tell him. ‘I think there’s just a refusal in Britain right now’, he agrees. ‘I mean you can do the John Prescott’s a big-fat-idiot-thing, but otherwise you have to go deeper and that’s hard. I think a lot of comics go with the path of least resistance.’
Alternative comedy undoubtedly transformed British comedy, particularly at the Fringe, where Sayle’s 1980 late night double-billing with Tony Allen is widely considered the precursor to the now ubiquitous Fringe ‘hour’. Yet, the cultural stock of many alternative comedians fell dramatically in the 1990s. Many were accused of de-radicalising and assimilating into the lowbrow mainstream, a process epitomized by the trajectory of Ben Elton. Elton’s populist novels and musicals were roundly derided by artists on the left (including Sayle) and he was famously labeled the ‘biggest sellout of his generation’ by Toby Young. Interestingly, Sayle survived this backlash with his cultural legitimacy largely intact. This was perhaps because in 1996, when the commercial juggernaut was beginning to envelop comedy, he quit standup and focused on becoming an author.
Yet considering his enduring cultural currency, one of the most admirable aspects of Sayle’s show is that he doesn’t attempt to bask in this reputational glory. On the contrary, he happily questions his legend, acknowledging that he too is not a wholly uncompromised figure. In one memorable skit, he inverts a rant about Elton by pondering his own participation in a number of lucrative voice-over ads. ‘It would be easy to elide certain subjects,’ he reflects. ‘But I don’t want to pretend. Me doing voiceovers should really make you question my political pronouncements, because I’m clearly a hypocrite.” Again the infectious laugh, again the inevitable deluge of flaky pastry.
But it’s not just Sayle that has changed since he last performed live. The British comedy audience has also altered immeasurably. Sayle says that when he started doing comedy in 1979, ‘no university-educated person went to see stand-up’. Instead, most of the early alternative comedy audience was much like Sayle himself – young, radical and working-class. And Sayle says he still identifies strongly with the working-class, despite his own upward trajectory:
‘If you take a strictly Marxist sense of class there’s three classes, the bourgeoisie, who own everything, the petit bourgeoisie and the working class. And I’ve always accepted those distinctions. Those are the objective economic classes you are in. And I am petit-bourgeois in the sense that I own my own means to production. Culturally, of course, the petit bourgeoisie can go either way – you can be a shopkeeper in Knightsbridge where you’re serving the bourgeoisie or you can be a shopkeeper in Hartlepool where clearly you’re not. So I’ve always understood myself to be petit bourgeois, self-employed, but I’ve always seen my cultural allegiance with the working-class.’
The irony of this, of course, is that Sayle and the alternative comedians were instrumental in transforming British comedy audiences. Borrowing from high-art traditions to inform their style, they helped rehabilitate comedy and in so doing attracted a new generation of middle class audiences, many of whom will be clamoring to buy Sayle tickets in Edinburgh. Unwittingly then, I propose mischievously, does that mean the petit-bourgeois Alexei Sayle of 2013 may actually be serving the Edinburgh bourgeoisie rather than the working-class? Sayle smiles at this, but carefully sidesteps the provocation: ‘I don’t really mind where the audience comes from, to be honest. Audiences definitely seem better behaved now. They will sit and let complex ideas be related. And I suppose in the past I would have turned on them for that, but I let it stand now.’
This seems to epitomise the contemporary Sayle. While in the past he might have mounted a snarling counter-attack, today he seems more forgiving, more mellow. Gone, it seems, is a lot of the anger and bile, and instead there’s a thoughtful, self-reflective tone. ‘My impetus before was always to kill it, smash everyone else out of sight, be the greatest. I really had quite a malevolent streak. But I’ve worked really hard to get rid of that. And that’s a lot of what the show is about, about trying to project that idea, that attitude of forgiveness, understanding and acceptance.’
Sayle says he’s not going to Edinburgh with any ulterior motives of career kick-starts. He doesn’t want a return to TV or Radio, or to release a Christmas DVD. ‘I just want to do this. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, it will just be some sad old man capering around.’ Although you never know…’, he notes, suddenly grinning gleefully, seized by another mental vision. ‘Maybe I’ll end up on 8 Out Of Ten Cats or Team Captain for some Channel 5 panel show’. If only.