Alexei Sayle: When brilliance collides
Coffee at Tutti’s. Lamb’s Conduit Street. A short hop from his Doughty Street flat. Four down from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Just up from Charlie Dickens. Bloomsbury. Blue Plaque Central. Numbers optional.
He talks leaps. That’s what geniuses do; they make leaps. But genius needs a here and now. When brilliance collides with zeitgeist, incredible happens. Where did this genius spring from?
Chelsea School of Art. Bogus painter. Accidental film maker. Eight-millimetre shorts, kind of funny. Someone thought so. Sowed a seed.
Private Eye ad spotted by Linda. Auditioning for new comedy club. Don and Peter know talent when they see it. Opening night. Strip club in Soho. Shouty, sweary, sweaty. Banging the gong for five quid a show at The Comedy Store.
Witness a revolution: new-model alt-comedy intelligentsia overthrowing incumbent racist, sexist, dullness. Subverting norms in anti-establishment stinking suits. Seedy street all falafels and sex toys: Soho strip club becomes Comic Strip Club.
The sitcom’s dead. Long live the sitcom! Disrupting extant TV form. Transplanting in squalid student flat. Landlord: Jerzei Balowski (Jeremy actually). Inhabited by Young Ones.
On ‘The Pops’. Loose man in skin-tight suit and pork-pie hat. Announcing John’s new motor. Superficial nonsense or comedy genius crossed with hip-hop and a spoonful of Sugar Hill Gang? Hated by Radio 1 then. Loved by Kate Tempest now.
Take a situation, add politics, a touch of social commentary, a twist of hypocrisy and top with irreverence. What have you got? Seismic comedy shift.
Mind’s eye: Doughty Street residence, wearing blue plaque:
Inventor of alternative comedy
I met the challenge of writing about Alexei Sayle with trepidation: could I do him justice? Jobbing writer entrusted with the task of articulating the achievements of a ground-breaking and successful writer, actor and comedian. No pressure.
Armed with only an email address I asked Alexei if he might be prepared to meet up somewhere in Bloomsbury. I was half expecting him to be too busy and in demand, but he was both available and amenable. We set a date for two weeks hence, agreeing to meet at Tutti’s, a charming little café on Lamb’s Conduit Street. In preparation for our meeting, I read both volumes of Alexei’s memoirs: Stalin Ate My Homework and Thatcher Stole My Trousers. I recommend both.
Like many, my first experience of Alexei Sayle came from watching The Young Ones – a sitcom that smashed every sitcom mould, and one in which Alexei played a key part. This was a convenient point to kick off our discussion over coffee at Tutti’s. We spent an hour discussing his career and what he saw as his biggest achievement: what was the one leap he is most proud of? Without hesitation Alexei described this as taking a tired and broken model, often based on sexism and racism, and subverting and disrupting it. In succeeding, Alexei Sayle conspired to change the face of British comedy for good and for the better.
We parted with Alexei leaving to prepare for a slot that night at a gig celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Comedy Store. A somehow fitting conclusion.