Alexei Sayle: "What I did before – he wasn't me"

Having reinvented comedy in the 80s, Alexei Sayle is making a return to standup. And not a moment too soon...

Feature by Bernard O'Leary | 03 Oct 2012

Alexei Sayle used to be the most vital comedian in Britain, back when the UK had a nasty Conservative government that treated everyone like scum. So is this why he's finally returning to standup, in order to do battle with the Tories once more?

"Yes, that's it," he chuckles. "I'm doing this for everyone.

"Actually, it sort of surprised me, given how opportunistic comics are, that there seems to be very little political comedy. So either comics are missing a trick or else nobody wants to fucking hear about it."

For his upcoming tour – which stops off at The Stand in Edinburgh and Glasgow – Sayle promises to be more political than he was in the past. Which is a difficult concept to grasp, given that Sayle spent most of the 80s as an angry, shouty fat man in the two-tone suit, a vicious anti-Thatcherite, a proud Communist and the burning heart of the alternative comedy explosion that emerged from that time. How could Alexei Sayle possibly be more political this time around?

"I hadn't started analysing this until I started thinking about doing it again, but what I did before – he wasn't me. He was a comic persona. We used to give him a name and stuff, he was called Coco. He was a demented, fat, old mod. He was fairly angry, very violent... it wasn't planned but that's just how he evolved.

"Obviously it was me, these were my feelings and my thoughts, but they were expressed in a very extreme way. I don't do that anymore. What I do now is me. I talk about things that happened to me, things I've done and I put a comic spin on it but they are real. With Coco it wasn't real."

Coco was a terrifying creation in his own way, a skinhead bovver-boy that seemed a pretty decent portrayal of how the 80s establishment viewed the working classes. Talking about him brings to mind another recent piece of political nostalgia, with the release of the Hillsborough files. Anfield-born Sayle sounds genuinely sad when he talks about the recent revelations.

"That was shocking. I'd always thought there was a conspiracy but the extent of it and the utter incompetence of the council, the ambulances and the police. It's depressing.

"And you forget how the world was. The coppers were kind of trapped in a mindset themselves. A wicked, incompetent mindset that was the spirit of the 80s. Football supporters were considered hooligans and there was a lot of violence because they were treated so contemptuously. You forget that utter contempt that the authorities had."

This was the world in which Coco/Alexei found themselves, and which they reacted to with a new form of comedy. Sayle was the regular MC in the early days of The Comedy Store, back when comedy mainly consisted of mother-in-law jokes told in working men's clubs. The story goes that he saw an ad saying "Comedians Wanted" and walked straight in.

"My wife saw it, really. I had been doing sort-of comedy for a couple of years before then with a partner, but we didn't realise that's that what it was. We were just going around in circles. I had started thinking 'if only somebody would create a venue where I could do this.' So when Linda saw that ad I knew it was my opportunity. I grabbed it."

What was it like there?

"It was wild, you know? The original Comedy Store was in a strip club in Soho and Soho then was pretty demi-monde. You could only get in via a lift and the lift that could only carry four people at a time, so people would come in little groups. It was £4 to get in and the pubs closed at 11, so it was mainly just a place to come and have a drink.

"It had been a club since the 1930s and people like Dylan Thomas had drank there. There were these tables and gilt chairs, and champagne and these beautiful railings designed by Mondrian, I think. It was the kind of club you'd see in something like The Saint or Man In A Suitcase. The audiences were wild, wild. I remember one night Andy De La Tour was doing a bit about Northern Ireland. It wasn't even that bad but it was such a sensitive topic people were just screaming at him 'Get off!' I just stood there and thought, 'Nah, I'm leaving him on.'"

From punk music to alternative comedy, that seemed to be a time when people reacted to austerity by getting together and making art. Without wanting to romanticise the period too much, it does raise the question of what's happening now, why people aren't reacting to life in 2012.

Sayle sighs. "Shit's different now. I try and resist being nostalgic and curmudgeonly and saying 'it were all great in my day, kids today don't know they're born.' But kids today don't know they're born.

"There's a lot more of everything about now. I'd say in a sense that's problematic. When you've got a single strong voice pounding out a message, it's easy to focus on. But when there's this multiplicity of voices... I don't think it's a conspiracy but it suits the powers that be. I mean, it can be a good thing and I hear that Twitter played a large part in the uprisings in Syria and Egypt, but it seems to me here that the cacophony of voices don't lead to any kind of clarity."

So you're not joining Twitter then?

"I probably should, but I'm not sure I'll ever get around to it."

That's okay. Stewart Lee hates Twitter.

"Well, Stewart is our leader. If he hates it, then I hate it too."

Stewart Lee has played a part in getting him to return to standup. Sayle has been busy in the last few years, writing books and doing spoken word shows, but after performing at a show curated by Lee last year at the Royal Festival Hall Sayle admits that he "got a taste for it again."

"Also, it was just seeing how Stewart worked. I suppose my attitude before had been like full-on show business, you know, big tours, big venues, big promotions and there's a kind of different model that Stewart has where you play smaller places and you don't do it with a huge amount of publicity. You do it for its own sake rather than, you know... making shitloads of money."

We finish by talking about what he makes of the current crop of comedians. He admits he's not really on top of what's happening on the scene at the moment, but names a few people that have impressed him. "I like Stewart and Josh Howie who's my mate, and people like Josie Long. There's Louis CK, who is the bomb. He's the first comic I've seen in a long time that's made me think 'I'd like to do some of that.'"

It's good to hear that there's still passion for comedy left in Sayle. And it's exciting to think that he'll be back on the road again, and a whole new generation of comedy fans will find themselves pondering that thirty-year old question: who is that fat bastard?

Alexei Sayle, The Stand Glasgow, Mon 29 Oct; The Stand Edinburgh, Tue 30 Oct Tickets £13, doors 7.30pm