Alexei’s New Book On Sayle
By Richard Lewis 15/9/2010
Alexei Sayle’s recently published autobiography Stalin Ate My Homework - a memoir of his life up to the age of seventeen - has been greeted with critical acclaim and as part of his extensive promotional tour for the book he came to Liverpool’s radical independent bookshop News From Nowhere to sign copies and meet fans. Nerve met up with him for an interview.
Arguably the most influential comedian of the 1980s and 1990s, Alexei Sayle cuts a far more mellow figure than the verbose, audience-baiting comedian who took the TV industry by storm following his now legendary appearances at the Comedy Store in late 1970s London. Immortalized as psychotic, rent-demands-with-menaces student landlord Mr. Balowski in anarchic vom-com The Young Ones, Alexei co-wrote and starred in seven BBC comedy series before turning his hand to writing a decade ago. His comedic influence in recent times can be glimpsed in Al Murray’s Pub Landlord act, whose abrasive put-the-world-to-rights character has strong echoes of Alexei’s mod character thirty years on.
His gifts as a talent spotter are hugely under-rated, writers on his Stuff sketch show and Paris sitcom included Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews who went on to huge success with Father Ted and The IT Crowd. Angus Deayton and a then-unknown comedian Simon Pegg made some of his earliest performances on Alexei’s shows.
His most famed character from the Comedy Store era - the aforementioned be-hatted abrasive cockney mod later used for his 1984 hit ‘Ullo John, Gotta New Motor?’ - became his calling card. The sheer ferocity of his delivery in a world more used to aged working men’s club comedians was enough to ensure many of his audiences were too intimidated to even try and heckle. Meanwhile the strangely likeable, tragically washed up comic Bobby Chariots (“How yer diddlin’?”) in later years demonstrated the pathos that occasionally surfaced in his act. Looking positively avuncular nowadays with his graying beard and relaxed demeanour, Alexei’s wit and his opinions are still as sharp as ever.
“Obviously I want to help independent bookshops cos they’re having a hard time of it at the moment” he begins, explaining the book launch. “We always thought it would be a good idea to use Liverpool as a base (to launch the book), we had all these grand plans but it’s come down to this and an extract in the Echo!” he laughs. Having cut the ribbon for News From Nowhere when it relocated to its current premises in Bold Street in 1996, Alexei knows co-owner Mandy via his mum Molly, described by one reviewer as “the real star” of his autobiography. “You have to keep Waterstones and Amazon onside and all that but I’m always keen to help” he adds.
When asked about how Liverpool has changed since he left for Chelsea Art College in the late 1970s Alexei puts the matter into perspective. “In Britain everywhere seemed pretty grim really, but you just kinda accepted it in a way” he states. “Liverpool was an extreme example of that and then there were the Hatton years (in the mid 1980s) which in many ways was a dark period.”
Stalin Ate My Homework describes a Liverpool of times past, when heavy industry and shipping was the city’s main employer. In the post-war era the advent of tower blocks and town planners saw the city undergo massive changes. “I’m very bitter about the post-war redevelopment of Liverpool” Alexei states, “I mean coming in through Lodge Lane now, there’s all that shit and palaver [the abandoned post-war housing]. Given all the shit that’s happened, the redevelopment of Liverpool (in more recent times) has been very effective, it’s reinvented itself as a kind of tourist town and that’s been done very well.”
As for recent developments including a certain collection of shops around South John Street, Alexei is reflective. “Liverpool One, for a shopping mall is very attractive, I’m sure it will have a deleterious effect on the rest of the city centre, but you can kinda see it’s been well done, that and all the nightlife-y stuff.” Although based primarily in London, Alexei’s fondness for his birthplace has seemingly grown over recent years. “I think given the catastrophic decisions that were made in the 1970s, the reinvention of Liverpool has been really better than you could expect. I mean it is amazing, it’s great here now.”
The political backdrop of the 1970s, the turbulent battles between the government and the unions that took place and the events that led to Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979 form the backbone of Stalin Ate My Homework. As he explains, “The book is about the failure of the authoritarian left in a way, that authoritarian model where you try and make a better society by forcing people to be good.” He feels that this continued in the 1990s albeit in a different guise, “New Labour was intensely authoritarian and paternalistic.”
Given how newspapers in the present day seem to survive on a never-ending diet of micro-celebs and X Factor bilge it would be easy to assume that people are less interested in politics. Do you think this is the case? “In a more generalized sense people are still political” he reasons. “Britain leads the way in terms of the Boycott Israel movement, which is stronger in Britain than anywhere, the Stop the War movement is incredibly strong” he states. “People still are engaged politically I think, it’s just they’ve just lost faith, quite rightly in a sense, with the conventional model of squabbling left-wing parties that I used to be a part of, all that’s gone really” he states. “It’s very diminished, for the good I think in a way. That kind of factionalism’s gone.”
Alexei, to adapt a quote of George Galloway’s seemingly views the main political parties as “two cheeks of the same arse”. “Labour and Tory just represent two ideas about managing capitalism” he shrugs. “Neither of them represent anything that challenges the nature of capitalism. The Labour Party represented a slightly more enlightened capitalism, but it doesn’t even do that anymore really. You see someone like Boris Johnson because he’s a libertarian, what he represents even though he’s a Tory and a capitalist, is more free-thinking than Ed Balls in a sense.”
Recently Alexei has received media attention over his activism with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, speaking out against Israel. “When the invasion, Operation Cast Lead happened, I’d just started my website and it got inundated with people pro- and anti- arguing with each other. I had to take all the comments down, it was people slagging each other off, there wasn’t much of an argument there” he states.
Given such a subject as sensitive as Israel and Palestine did you expect to be criticized over it? “I did get a fair amount of earache, if you were in the States I think it would harm your career, I can’t pretend I’ve been victimized for it though” he states. “I find it depressing the response, it’s an issue that personally drives me crazy, it’s a very difficult area to talk about.” The British media at least seems to be willing to discuss some of the issues he feels as “In the States the debate is completely stifled.”
Given the political themes in much of his comedy output in the 1980s and 1990s, does he feel that comedy in the present day is less political? “I don’t make a study of it” he says. “There’s that kind of Mock the Week, news quiz, Have I Got News For You? thing, but that’s just a relentless kind of negativism it seems to me. They are political but they don’t really offer any kind of analysis, apart from just a general kind of negativity.”
“Certainly from what I observe, I’m surprised given the state of things that there isn’t some young comic who’s being political, just out of cynical self-interest” he ruminates. “I’m surprised there isn’t a latter-day Ben Elton, clearly there isn’t and I find that odd.” Alexei continues, “I was talking to a friend who’s a comedy producer who’s just come back from Edinburgh and she said it was all misogynistic and racist. She said the one thing they would have a go at is the Christian Church but they were too frightened to attack Muslims! She said young comics are amazingly reactionary.”
Leading on from that, do you feel that comedians have a duty to try and question the establishment? “No,” he says shaking his head, “they have a duty to be funny. All the other shit’s up to them really.” The majority of British comedy doesn’t seem to interest him much nowadays, “I don’t really watch much comedy really, I’ve been watching Grandma’s House. I love Simon Amstell, I’ve always been a huge fan of him since Popworld.”
Well into the second act of his life as a successful novelist, when asked if he would prefer to be known as a comedian, writer, actor or activist, Alexei says he would prefer to be known for his writing. “If somebody’s doing a list I’d like them to start with writer, just because that’s what I do now really. You try and steer people towards the new thing rather than the old thing. ‘Activist’ I was known as for a while during the Gaza thing, the BBC News Channel put ‘Activist’ (on the screen caption). They did the news conference and I was live on the BBC and CNN, they went to me first, so I was activist for a few days. I was Bianca Jagger”, he smiles.
Continuing with politics, a debate that had featured on the news earlier in the day is the Labour Party’s current fortunes. “Who would I back for the Labour leadership?” Alexei asks, looking slightly incredulous, “Spongebob Squarepants off the top of my head.”
He states that Ed Miliband would be the best candidate for the job, even though it is inevitable that his brother David is virtually guaranteed to win. Grinning, he goes on, “I did Andrew Marr with Ed Miliband, if it was Tony Blair I would’ve walked out of the room, but because it was Miliband I thought ‘Well, whatever’ and he said to me, “Do you know it’s exactly twenty five years since ‘Ullo John, Gotta New Motor?” I looked at him like, ‘Oh wow! Cheers, thanks’. I was all thrilled he was like ‘I love that record.’” Later on however he became suspicious of the Labour man’s certainty about that particular piece of pop trivia. “He seemed a bit too sure of his facts, cos it was more or less exactly twenty five years to the day and I wonder if he said to his assistant, ‘Google the arsehole and see what we can get!’”
He does note approvingly that Ed (and David) Miliband’s mother is in the Jews For Justice For Palestinians organization. Who eventually does become the leader of the opposition isn’t a major concern to him however. “It’s academic really and I’m only saying it on the basis that Ed sucked up to me” he laughs. Following the promotion for the autobiography have you got another novel in the works? “I’ve got about ten short stories lying around, but I’m in a kind of hiatus really, seeing how this goes. And I’m gonna do volume two (of the autobiography) which I’ve started already.”
A final question then, would he ever return to his first love that initially
got him noticed all those years ago, would he ever return to stand up
Stalin Ate My Homework is available at News From Nowhere and all other bookshops.
Visit www.alexeisayle.me for more details.
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