Alexei Sayle without the drunken lunches but with a scary kung fu stance

In 2007, Channel 4 viewers voted Alexei Sayle the 18th greatest stand-up comic of all time. 

A feature of the alternative comedy circuit from the 1980s, he’s been a stand-up comedian, film actor, television presenter, Shakespearean actor, author, martial arts practitioner and recording artist.

One of the interesting things that comes out of this interview is that he talks unapologetically of comedy as an art form. For Alexei. there is little to separate art, comedy, ideas, politics – or indeed anything from budget dining to weapons design.

Inimitable is easy to type – though not so easy to say – but Alexei is the real thing: a unique figure in British comedy, famed for his angry surreal rants, which build – inimitably – jumping from one thought to another.

Some of that unique style can be seen in his answers to me here.

Alexei, you have a finger in many pies. What would you say ties all these together?

I think that when you’re involved in the creation of a new art form – as me and my friends were in the 1980s – you are not aware of any boundaries – so you can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t try whatever comes your way. (Not always with good outcomes).

You grew up in Liverpool, with a Jewish mother and both parents were Communists. Liverpool and Jewishness have long been associated with humour, less so the extreme Left. What influence do you think they had on your choice of career?

As the child of Communists, you are essentially growing up as part of a cult. You know – and value – that you are different to other people. And in a way superior, since you think you know the secrets of how the world works. 

My experience of people on the Left is also that in many ways they are the very best of people, kind, caring and obsessed with injustice. The irony is that all those qualities can also lead them to some very dark places. 

Being Jewish was also a way that I felt different and exotic. And probably the majority of people we knew in the Communist Party were also Jewish. I think my ironic attitude to all that was initially a way to make sense of this environment.

And, later, a way to make money.

Do you think your comedy has changed. Have you softened the anger that was so much your stand-up persona – or indeed got angrier?

I thought when I went back to comedy that I would be more mellow. But in fact as soon as I got out there the old rage came rushing back… given that the material is very different these days and much more connected with my real life.

Though it often sounds fantastical, nearly everything I say on stage is true (until it isn’t).

Also what I saw in the last five years of the smearing and lies told about Jeremy Corbyn – and the Left in general – and the way the entire establishment turned on him/us – and the way so many in the media, who you thought had at least a modicum of courage, turned out to be complete cowards – has given me a new creative impetus.

And I think it’s given me a devoted audience – both young and old – who are also angry at the injustice and the lies they see all around them.

I have to say I loved your radio series Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar – not least for the opportunity it gave you to engage in wonderful rants against the awful things going on around us every day. How on earth did you persuade Radio 4, of all places, to let you do it?

In fact they asked me! I didn’t get on with previous head of comedy, but when Sioned William got the job I was one of her first targets.

I have to say the network has been a joy to work with – I think these days TV would perhaps be more problematic, but I love R4. They seem in some ways like the last bastion of how the BBC used to be in the 1980s.

…But without the long drunken lunches.

How do you write? I think both writers and readers are interested in the mechanics – do you have fixed hours or a target word count? A favourite place? A special pencil? Thumbscrews?

That’s an interesting question. For radio, books, etc., I like to work on a laptop. But for the podcast and particularly for standup, there somehow needs to be a physical interface between me and the material.

So I work on A4 pads, with lines and a margin, bound at the top. On these, I do a detailed running order in black biro of bullet points, which eventually becomes a one hour show.  

I also tend to write in the mornings, because that is when the mind is free to roam. 

And I always have noise going on, with the radio or TV blaring away.

Do you plan? Do you generally have a sense of the ending you’re heading to, or do you dive entirely into the unknown?

I don’t really plan. If you know where you’re going, then that is just filling in a puzzle. Whereas I like it to be more of a (much abused word) Journey.

Who/what are your major influences? Whether other books, films, comedians, writers, politicians or indeed non-literary figures?

I am an art school graduate and certainly, in my day, the art school attitude was that everything was as important as everything else – so architecture, weapons design and budget dining are as big an influence on me as the work of other writers or comedians.

What do you do for fun? How do you spend your time off?

Even before lockdown, I used to go for long walks with friends, but I have recently returned to cycling (see my Lockdown Bike Rides on YouTube). 

Over the years, I have studied various martial arts, but for the last five years I have been practising Tiger Crane T’ai Chi Kung Fu.

If you attacked me, I would be able to beat you up… as long as you attacked me very, very, very, very, very, very, very slowly.

What’s next for you?

I was half way through a live tour when coronavirus struck and I’m not sure when that can start again. There’s supposed to be a new series of Sandwich Bar in the Autumn, but that too is dependent on when live shows can return. 

There are also several upcoming TV projects that I’m not really free to talk about.

Or maybe that’s just a pathetic lie.

Read and listen

Alexei Sayle Homepage


Stalin Ate My Homework (at Amazon)

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