Comedian Alexei Sayle: ‘When Corbyn came close to winning it was a glorious day’

Sayle's comedy career stretches back to 1979 and includes TV, film, radio and innumerable stand-up shows - Getty
Sayle's comedy career stretches back to 1979 and includes TV, film, radio and innumerable stand-up shows - Getty

Alexei Sayle, 70, is one of Britain’s most celebrated and longest-serving stand-up comedians, having begun performing at London’s Comedy Store in 1979. Raised in Liverpool, he has appeared in numerous hit comedy TV shows including The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and The Comic Strip Presents… as well as writing 11 books and creating the Radio 4 comedy series Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar.

Best childhood memory?

My parents were both members of the Communist Party in Liverpool, so we got free rail travel around the Eastern Bloc. I really remember, from about the age of seven, going on these incredible journeys around Prague in the 1950s. It was so different. Trains and communism were our family creed really and I remember these huge steam locos with a red star on the boiler. It was a parallel universe where we went from being ordinary working-class people to being feted heroes of the revolution! It was so strange and surreal to be in a place where advertising was replaced by all this abstract art. In the UK there’d be a billboard for margarine, but in the East there would either be propaganda or avant-garde art celebrating tractor production.

Best subject at school?

Probably art. History was all just kings and queens, which didn’t interest me. Art has become so academicised these days. Van Gogh wouldn’t have got his maths GCSE today. Art in the 1970s was a great way for working-class kids to get out and get an education without being academic. I was good at drawing and it was a way to bring my thoughts to life. I spent a lot of time in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool when I was 14 and 15 – I loved the Lucian Freuds there. That filled up my time, until I discovered alcohol, politics and girls, of course…

Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

A guy called Michael White was a comedy impresario in the early 1980s and I knew him quite well. He was very droll and I was whining to him about something once and he just said to me, “You haven’t chosen an easy profession Alexei. If you choose to do this ridiculous thing called stand-up then don’t be moaning about it, because you chose it.” I do think I have, relatively speaking, kept that vow of not being a whiny git. Just like they say in The Sopranos, “This is the life we chose.”

Best friend?

When people become stars they generally ditch all their old friends and get new ones in London. I must admit I did try quite hard to ditch an old mate of mine called Harry Jackson. But he just wouldn’t go! He’s dead now but he was a fantastic friend of mine from the age of about 15, who also came down to London at the same time as me and worked as a bus driver and then a tour guide. It was a really profound connection and he was fantastic at keeping me down to earth when the comedy started working out. It’s still very painful to me that he’s dead. I’m also very close to Lise Mayer who co-wrote The Young Ones. We still do Chinese martial arts classes together!

Best day of your life?

The 2017 general election, when Jeremy Corbyn came within around 2,000 votes of forming a minority government. It was a glorious day… we came so close. Being on the Left, you get used to losing all the time. It was intoxicating for me to get so close to winning.

Old pals: Sayle with Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Christopher Ryan and Ade Edmondson in The Young Ones in 1982 - Getty
Old pals: Sayle with Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Christopher Ryan and Ade Edmondson in The Young Ones in 1982 - Getty

Worst gig you ever did?

Warner Bros asked me, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson to take our Comedy Store show to its London HQ for its Christmas lunch party in about 1979. We did warn them that it wouldn’t translate well from the venue to an office space but they insisted. I remember some secretaries actually starting to cry with fear as Rik and Ade were so aggressive. The guy who booked us handed over our money afterwards and said, “I’m going to get fired for this.” It was awful.

Worst film you ever appeared in?

I’ve done a lot of really terrible films but the worst was probably Siesta, which had Martin Sheen and Jodie Foster in it.

Everything went wrong. I played a Spanish taxi driver who was also the angel of death. The director, Mary Lambert, who’d worked on a lot of Madonna’s videos, thought she was Fellini and it just didn’t work at all. One review of Siesta consisted of just one word: “bomb”. When I read bad scripts, I would often think “This is b-------s”, but then I’d do it anyway because I thought I needed the experience, or I wanted a holiday.

Worst holiday?

My wife Linda and I took some desperate, three-day coach journeys to Spain in the 1970s. I was expecting one town, Calella, on the Costa Brava, to be this sleepy, Spanish fishing village. But it was already a tourist town in the worst possible sense of the phrase. I remember sitting on a petrol station wall eating some bread and pâté that I’d bought for the journey. The unopened tin of pâté fell off the wall and into some bushes and I couldn’t retrieve it. Then, about 10 years later, I passed by the same petrol station and sat on the same wall. The tin of pâté was still there in the bushes.

Worst celebrity encounter?

I remember being at a BBC Christmas party in the early 1980s and meeting Arthur Askey. He asked me what kind of comedy I did and I started explaining that I did a kind of stand-up, but talking about Marxism and some Brechtian comedy suffused with a situationist meta layer. And he just walked off without saying a word.

Worst comedian you’ve ever seen?

I remember seeing one MC in the early 1980s at a London show. He was a Scottish guy who had been recommended by Billy Connelly. He was absolutely awful; completely out of step with where comedy was going. Clichéd, old-fashioned, cringy. But then I thought, “Hang on, Billy isn’t going to recommend someone that’s actually really good is he?” No comedian wants competition. We all feel threatened that our thunder is going to be stolen at any moment!

The absolute worst

Traffic lights. There are just way too many of them. In the Netherlands you’ll be at a junction and there’ll be one traffic light. The equivalent in London will have about six. I think a medal would be awarded to someone who just got an angle grinder and demolished 50 per cent of all British traffic lights and road signs overnight.

Alexei will be appearing at the INK Festival in Halesworth, Suffolk, next weekend