Alexei Sayle portrait by Des Willie

This story begins back in the autumn of 1979, when, after a typically boozy evening in Soho, my friend and co-author John McVicar suggested that it might be fun to try to get into the newly opened Comedy Store. It was easier said than done. The queue stretched round the block and we only made it to the front after John had been up and had a quiet but meaningful word with the bouncer on the door.

We travelled up to the club in a tiny claustrophobic lift and then fell out into a darkened crowded room full of people who seemed to be getting ready for a fight rather than gathered for a cabaret. It didn’t take a second to see what was arousing them. Up on the stage, wearing a suit that was too small for him, and holding the microphone so close to his mouth that every plosive rang out like a gunshot, was a man with a crew-cut butting head who seemed less interested in getting laughs than winding the audience up into a state of ugly aggression. Alexei Sayle was beginning his comedy career.

He was in the middle of a trope about his childhood. “Remember when you were at school,” he bellowed, “and how you fancied looking like someone famous. Fancied looking like Mick Jagger or John Lennon? Yeah? But do you know who I looked like at school? Do you know who I looked like? I looked like fucking Bertold Brecht. Fucking Bertold Brecht! Imagine being at school and looking like a fucking East German playwright.”

I had more reason than most people in the room to be cowed by this tumultuous invective, by the scouse adenoidal power of the swearing, the latent violence of the head-butting delivery. I’d made a pact with John that when the invitation came for members of the audience to try their comic luck on stage, I’d put up my hand.

Somehow, when the time came, I managed to stagger through two or three minutes of fatuous observations about academic life without being howled down. But even as I stood there genially accepting the chorus of catcalls and boos and even allowing myself the thought that I’d done not too badly in the nightmare circumstances, I found the microphone snatched out of my hand by Alexei. “Fucking hell,” he shouted. “Laurie fucking Taylor. D’you know, when I was at college I had to read his fucking books. I thought then that there couldn’t be anything more boring than that. But he fucking is!”

When I met up with Alexei for this interview at a café of his choice bang next door to the headquarters of the National Secular Society in Conway Hall, I naturally recalled our only other encounter. He laughed aloud. But I sensed it wasn’t because he remembered me. He laughed like someone remembering a cruelty that was necessary to make his name but which he no longer quite endorsed.

I wanted, though, to stay with that memory a little longer. Was all that aggression something that he’d picked up during his days in the Young Communist League in Liverpool, a throwback to the type of demagoguery that I also remembered from the hard left meetings I’d been to in the city?

“I wasn’t really a hardliner. My parents were both in the Communist Party so it wasn’t really much of a decision to join the YCP. It was just what happened. It was automatic, almost tribal. And even though you always edit your own memories, I always think now that there was a part of me that thought the whole thing was absolute bollocks. The YCL was like a paedophile’s charter. You could be an official with the Young Communists until you were about 50. Our chair wasn’t that old but he certainly wasn’t young and all of us kids used to go round to his house and have meetings and rehearse some street theatre about the horrible things that were going on in Vietnam. But I never felt I was part of it. I could never fake the gibberish, the jargon. I could never become what some of them were.”

You couldn’t see yourself having a life in politics? “No. You know when you see someone who’s on the up in politics, like a student union official. You always think, ‘Hmmm, you calculating little fucker’. Because you can see that drive in them. Jack Straw was like that. You saw him when he was young and you thought, ‘You fucker, you’ve got this all planned out. You’ve got the drive and you’ll strike a certain attitude but then when it’s convenient you’ll strike a completely different attitude.’ I wasn’t like that.”

So you always kept a sense of distance? “Yes, I think I was a very watchful child. Not really a joiner but not really a dissenter. I always see myself – and I don’t know how much of this is retrospective – as this little kid spending his time looking at everybody. But I was also entrepreneurial. I remember the time when I was about eleven and CND badges were really fashionable. I lived just round the corner from Pat Arrowsmith and I went round one day and collected a load of badges from her. And she said, ‘These aren’t toys, you know.’ And I said ‘No, missus. I know that.’ And then I went off and sold them all for a profit.”

Anyone who has seen Alexei Sayle in public performance would have to say that he’s been tamed or at least rearranged by television. There have been plenty of programmes where his wit and extraordinary observational powers have created loads of memorable laugh-aloud comic moments: his dramatic appearances in The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff, for which he won an International Emmy; the strange mini-series Drive, which mixed surrealism with advice on safe driving (“You not only have to expect the unexpected, you also have to expect the utterly impossible,” he advises soberly before jumping into a car containing two lobsters). But I’ve always had the feeling that his desire to confound expectations, his determination not to become like other professional comics or at least not to follow their predictable career paths, has sometimes led him to refuse a joke when one looked on the cards, almost as though the refusal was an assertion of his difference, his distinctiveness, his obsessive determination not to sell out. Was that something he recognised?

“I would say that there are a number of arbitrary lines that I draw for myself. You see, what has always fascinated me, and again this is the very watchful child at work, is not the material used by comedians and performers but their lives. I was always fascinated by their lives. And I saw from a very early age how the things that they did had consequences. How they became elevated. How others made them feel elevated. I remember at the age of twelve reading a piece by Kenneth Tynan in the Sunday Times about Morecambe and Wise and thinking, ‘I don’t like this. I find this profoundly wrong.’ They shouldn’t have been written about like that by a serious theatre critic. Popular culture should be disposable and popular. That’s all. It shouldn’t be examined in that way. Look at Tony Hancock. Look at the way in which his kind of arrogance fucked him up.”

Was he suggesting that the danger for entertainers like himself was that they came to take themselves too seriously, that their lives went wrong because they allowed themselves to be carried away by what was written and said about them?
“I think it’s because they don’t choose to intervene in their own lives. The front of your mind, the unthinking part of your mind, leads everyone in the same direction. It leads you to be selfish; to always do what suits you. All evil, and I don’t really believe in evil as a concept, but all evil comes from solipsism, from just thinking entirely about yourself. He’s different from me, so I’ll kill him. All my work is about really, I guess, is a plea for empathy.”

This was a moral position? “Yes, there is a lot of morality there.” But not a morality derived from religion? Hadn’t he always described himself as an atheist Jew?

“I never think about religion. If other people go on about it, I wouldn’t really give them a hard time. Just roll my eyes. It’s up to them really.”

But wasn’t there anything moral or religious left over from his mother’s Jewish background? How Jewish did he feel?

“Well, my mother is psychologically Jewish. She’s got the whole hysteria, hypochondria, excessive love for her child, alternating with violent denunciations. The whole shtick. But me? I feel sort of Jewish. I’ve been to a couple of bar mitzvahs. And if you’re pro-Palestinian it helps to play the card. I’m in this group called Jews for Justice for Palestinians. If it was good enough for the Gestapo, you know, then I am Jewish.”

So there was nothing religious, nothing about treating one’s neighbour as oneself, that lay behind his philosophy of life?

“The only philosophy of life that I hold to is the importance of uncertainty. You can’t become a fanatic if you keep saying, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ Fanatics always say, ‘This is absolutely true.’ When I look back at the Left I’m ashamed and unsettled by the way we behaved. As I’ve said I was always ambivalent about that politics but when the Wall came down I still had this belief in the idea that there was something better in East Germany than the capitalist West. And I think that I was completely deluded. East Germany, Russia, China. They were just terrible terrible hellholes really. And I and the people I knew made excuses for those hellholes. Even now Stalin’s dead, who were much more numerous than Hitler’s, are not memorialised in any way.”

This sounded awfully close to the position Martin Amis had taken in Koba the Dread. “Yeah. I’d go along with that. He’s coming at it from a very different point of view but he’s right in that sense. It’s an outrage that the Left hasn’t said enough. They should rent their clothes with guilt about the things they said and did. And so should I. We believed terrible bloody things. We condoned genocide and mass murder.”

But you’d still call yourself a Marxist? “Yes, I would call myself a Marxist. In fact during the recent crisis I’ve been inundated with offers to go on The Week in Politics and things like that. ‘Oh, hey, let’s get a Marxist on. They were right all along.’ But yeah, generally, I’d call myself a Marxist.”

I didn’t want to psychologise too much – I had already sensed how reluctant Alexei was to talk about anything too close to an inner life – but I couldn’t help but suggest that his current philosophy of uncertainty, his resolution to resist paths that led straight ahead, sounded like a sort of reparation for his past readiness to accept some of the shibboleths of the Left.

“Well, I certainly can’t bear the idea that anyone’s right all the time. That’s why I’ve always liked to read Evelyn Waugh. It may have started off as an affectation but I also thought: why shouldn’t I expose myself to another voice, to someone who was a snob? It’s not going to do me any harm. What’s the danger? That I might change my mind? The thing about Waugh is that he had a horrible cold self-knowledge. He knew that he was a drunk. He knew that he was a pompous little twat. And yet he could also evoke people’s humanity so exquisitely. And he could criticise himself. And he could also handle people he didn’t like. He has bad characters. I’ve recently read a couple of novels on the Orange Shortlist and they can’t tolerate bad characters. They can’t just leave them to express their humanity by being bad. They have to make them good. They have to make the bad characters turn into good characters.”

Alexei, of course, is not merely interested in fiction as a pastime. He is now a novelist in his own right. I reminded him that there was ample evidence in his own writing of a determination to keep bad characters bad. In one of his most powerful short stories, The Dog Catcher, we are introduced to a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where a couple of Brits, one of them a petty thief and part-time prostitute and the other a hard drug dealer, go about their sinful ways with a happy casualness which only comes to an end when the official dog catcher arrives in the village and shoots them dead with the same gun that he has taken to all the unwanted canine strays. What seems to have ensured their terrible fate is that they didn’t see what was coming to them despite the signs that lay all around. They didn’t change.

In his later work Sayle has worked the motif of personal change with more subtlety. In The Weeping Women Hotel the heroine, Hattie, an overweight invisible mender, is transformed through the intervention of an absurd personal trainer who teaches her an obscure martial art that involves jumping out of trees and having stones thrown at you. It’s the story of how even the stupidest beliefs can have good results. A satire on the contemporary obsession with personal conversion?

“Yes, it is. I’m satirising the very notion that you can change yourself and also the danger of even thinking that you can change yourself. One of the things that interested me, having done a bit of martial arts myself, is that when kickboxing first came over here there were articles in all the women’s magazines about how if you learned kickboxing then as a woman you could go out and walk the streets in safety. And I thought, ‘You’re fucking mad if you think you can do that. You are fucking nuts.’ A bit of kickboxing in Primrose Hill? You will get battered to fuck. What gets me is that through a simple new belief you think you can affect your life.”

In his latest book, Mister Roberts, published in November 2008, this distaste for simple solutions takes an even more graphic form. It’s the story of a young put-upon boy, a sad watchful child, who finds a suit left behind by a visiting spaceman. He tries it on and slowly realises that he has now become all-powerful. With his new strength and presence he can dramatically affect matters that he previously had to endure in silence. He can rout the baddies and elevate the goodies. An extraordinary transformation. But even as we’re beginning to relish this turnaround, this vindication of the underdog, Alexei starts to pull away the rug.

Life doesn’t ever really change so readily. Slowly the power of the suit begins to corrupt and we are returned to the messy, uncertain, often unhappy, realities of ordinary life.

So it wasn’t the possibility of change that he was railing against. It was the idea that it was simple. But how did this apply to his own life? Surely I wasn’t the only one who detected a softening in his demeanour since those days at the Comedy Store when he seemed to be kicking against everything and everyone including his fellow comedians?

“I was always, particularly when I was a Commie, very judgemental. You’re right. I had very violent opinions. I was very unforgiving. Very angry.”
Part of that anger, I suggested, seemed to come from his working-class roots. While he’d never gone along the usual career route of left-wing entertainers and taken part in fringe theatre or Belt and Braces agitprop, he’d often gone out of his way to slag off his middle-class competitors in the business.

“Well, I still feel that. But now I wouldn’t necessarily call them cunts. I think I accept now that the world is very unfair. I still feel that Stephen Fry shouldn’t be making that documentary or that it’s a fucking disgrace that Griff Rhys Jones should be making a programme on anger last week and one on cities this week. I still don’t think it’s right but I don’t think it’s a terrible injustice. It’s just what it is. And anyway those feelings were driving me mad, making me anxious. I’ve found acceptance.”

But you still feel a loyalty towards your class? A loyalty to your long-term friends like the comedian and writer Rob Newman? A thirty-four-year loyalty to your wife, Linda?

Instead of an answer Alexei waves his hand across his face and shifts uncomfortably in his chair (his back is causing him a lot of grief). “Loyalty?” I ask again

“Yeah, it is loyalty, I suppose. It’s just me. And I’m sort of reluctant to claim that it’s a better thing than running off with a 19-year-old if that’s what you want to do. I do think there’ll be consequences if you do that but I’m not trying to take a highfalutin moral position.”

Perhaps I’d hit him on a bad day but there’s a certain melancholy about Alexei Sayle’s present take on the world that makes me glad he’s now so well established as a writer. As he’s made clear to me he always recognised, even as a small child watching comics on the telly, that there was something destructive about a career in show business. It led you on and on and then, when you bought into all your tributes, it dumped you. At least writing offers the chance to shift your mental furniture around, to play with ideas rather than to espouse them fanatically.

I will never forget my first sight of Alexei standing on the stage of the Comedy Store in his all-powerful suit. But neither will I forget the gentler pleasures of talking to him now that he has decided to hang it up for ever.

Portrait by Des Willie