Alexei Sayle on Comedy and Politics in Yesterday’s ‘Metro’

Alexei Sayle, one of the pillars of the ’80s Alternative Comedy wave which spawned The Young Ones, French and Saunders, the Comic Strip and Ben Elton was interviewed in yesterday’s Metro (27th September 2019). The man’s 67, but still angry – although the interview also says he’s mellowing – and stars in a series on Radio 4 set in a sandwich bar and due to have a headline gig at the Southport Comedy Festival. Speaking to the paper’s Jade Wright, Sayle talked about his career, the state of modern comedy and attacked austerity, the Tories and supposedly ‘moderate’ politicians, who support them. It’s interesting in that Sayle also champions Jeremy Corbyn, without the paper trying to attack the Labour leader in response or a snide aside. The interview on page 51 and continued on page 54 is entitled ‘Sayle Now On’. It’s too long for me to type it up as a whole, but here’s the bits where he mostly talks about politics, along with his family background and the lack of left-wing comedians today.

Alexei Sayle might have been in the comedy business for 40 years, but he’s not lost any of his flair for contemporary analysis. His take that ‘austerity is the idea that the 2008 financial crash was caused by Wolverhampton having too many libraries’ has been spreading like wildfire on social media. May that’s because, as he claims, there’s a surprising shortage of anti-establishment comedians.

‘There’s a gap in the market. Even if they didn’t believe in it, you’d expect someone to do it, just for the money,’ he says. ‘there were loads of left-wing comedians in the 1980s. Where are the new Ben Eltons now?’

His new Radio 4 show, Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar, in which the Wolverhampton library gag first appeared, is the Liverpool comedian on his usual erudite, and angry, form. As is evident from the show, he’s become a passionate advocate for Jeremy Corbyn and the grassroots movement he has created. ‘When people sneer at Jeremy Corbyn, it drives me nuts,’ Alexei says. ‘To hear him being called a racist by racists, it’s beyond belief. And yet I have friends who are taken in by this s**t.’

‘I hear him talk, and it makes sense, then it gets deliberately misrepresented by people who have something to gain from that, people who are very much part of the establishment.

Alexei grew up in Liverpool. His mum, Molly, was a pools clerk from a Lithuanian Jewish family and his father, Joseph, was a railway guard. Both were members of the Communist Party. But, while always political, he was keen from a young age to find his own voice. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think things are changing’, he says. ‘Voters are seeing through the politicians who claim to have moderate views, but actually what they’re saying is really quite extreme.

‘For a long time the politicians from all parties were all fighting over the votes in the middle. Politics went from strongly right-wing to mildly left-wing and there were lots of voices that didn’t get heard at all, loads of people who didn’t vote.

‘You had all these modern, careerist MPs who were almost indistinguishable from each other. But austerity has disproportionately affected young people and other groups who felt there was no one to speak for them. There are new people registering to vote all the time. Maybe they have more hope now.’

So is Alexei more hopeful, too? ‘Yes,’ he says, before pausing. ‘Maybe. More so lately. Suddenly, from nowhere, they have a genuinely left-wing leader and new voices who are vocally opposing austerity as the political ideal it is.’

‘It was never a necessity for force terminally ill people to look for jobs or to close libraries. That was a series of political decisions that didn’t really save any money any way. Now we have a leader who will speak up.’

I was never a fan of Sayle’s comedy myself, as I simply didn’t find it funny. Much of it just struck me as just abuse, without anything really deep being said. But here he’s pretty much right. The only thing I differ from him here is when he says that things have gone from extreme right to mildly left-wing. Blair was always a member of the Thatcherite extreme right. He and the rest of New Labour really did want to sell off the NHS, although I think he definitely believed in making sure that medical care was free. And he also introduced the work capability tests that have caused so many desperately ill people to be thrown off benefits, to live and die in starvation and misery. What differed about Blair is that he was genuinely anti-racist, pro-gay and anti-sexist – so long as they supported him – and was careful to sound slightly left-wing. Even when he was aiming at the same voting constituency as the Tories, using the same ministers, who had crossed the floor from the Tory party, like Chris Patten, and was taking money from the same corporate donors.

But people are waking up to how they were fooled and the country run down by the ‘moderates’ as well as the Tories and the Lib Dems. People do feel they have hope for a better future under Corbyn. As for comedy, the complaint on the right is that there are few right-wing comedians and that it’s all biased against the Tories. Which is rubbish. Buddy Hell over at Guy Debord’s Cat also wrote a blog piece complaining that the contemporary aspiring comedians he’d seen really don’t have anything funny to say. Their act simply consists of them telling the story of their life. I’m not in show business, so I have no idea why this should be so. It might simply be that the people who aspire to be comedians have been inspired by the autobiographical, observational comedy of people like Sayle, but don’t really have anything to say. It may also simply be that as the left-wing comedians of the 1980s matured and were overtaken by other comics, there was a reaction against the older generation’s political comedy. Even so, shows like The Last Leg are still managing to put a well aimed kick to the Tories. But perhaps, if more people are being inspired politically by Corbyn, this will also spur a new generation of angry left-wingers to subject the establishment to bitter scorn and derision. While showing that there can be a better world without people like Johnson, May, Cameron, Swinson and the rest of them, of course.

 

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3 Responses to “Alexei Sayle on Comedy and Politics in Yesterday’s ‘Metro’”

  1. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Tory Britain!.

  2. trev Says:

    Maybe it’s an age thing but I find I can’t really be bothered listening to comedians anymore. I hear them speaking sometimes on things like The News Quiz, young sounding people, and I don’t know who they are but they don’t amuse me in the same way as comedians did when I was younger, or even as much as listening to other things like I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which is still not bad even post-Humphrey. I also enjoyed Count Arthur Strong on radio but they made a tv version that wasn’t very good at all. And I still enjoy watching repeats of Dad’s Army, but such shows are an entirely different thing to standup comedians. It’s a subjective thing and also there’s that zeitgeist element, but I think I was more receptive to comedians when I was younger. I used to like Billy Connolly for example, but I never found Eddy Izzard the least bit funny. Sayle seemed funny at the time, back in the 80s, as did Ben Elton, but I don’t think I could be bothered now. Maybe I’ve become too jaded, or it just doesn’t seem fresh or new anymore.

  3. David Says:

    I enjoy reading your posts but have to disagree with your views re. The Last Leg. They snipe at Corbyn far more than they do the Tories. Adam Hill barely conceals his support for Brexit and Josh Widdicombe may as well be Anne’s grandson. He loves to further the baseless anti-semitism Labour trope.

    We can no longer bring ourselves to watch that show in our household and we used to be regular viewers.

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