Before the 1980s, comedy in Britain came mostly through a tragic diet of crass one-liners and skits about mothers-in-law, racial differences, and marriage.
These days, the tables have turned. Britain heartily boasts an array of names who regularly deliver sharp and often politically-charged commentary on the human condition to captivated audiences in large arenas up and down the country.
And it’s all thanks to a Jewish atheist communist from Liverpool who spent much of his young adult life on a bicycle.
In the follow up to his first instalment of his memoirs (Stalin Ate My Homework, 2010), Alexei Sayle offers droll insights into finding his way in life as a young man in an era of considerable political and social shift in Britain.
Sayle’s second memoir is a considered, measured offering, which should come as no surprise given that he’s an author of six previous works. Thanks to his gift of storytelling, Sayle effortlessly takes us along on his journey from Liverpool’s Lime Street Station to London, providing sober philosophical reflections and neatly balancing that sobriety with wry observations that unexpectedly creep up on the reader.
Of his approach to life he writes, “My inclination was to make important life decisions based not on what was sensible or right or appropriate but rather on what I thought might sound impressive to some imaginary people who lived inside my head. These people encouraged me to make a lot of mistakes.”
As mothers tend to be, Sayle’s mother Molly was a major influence in shaping his views about the world, which meant he grew up on the far-left of the political spectrum.
A fierce and fiery woman, she could often be heard shouting political slogans at the TV screen and raging about those who dared to abandon the struggle against the imperialist capitalist system.
Throughout the book there’s a sense that Sayle grew battle-weary of leftist ideals despite sharing with his contemporaries a passionate dislike of then Prime Minister Mar-garet Thatcher and her cut-throat conservatism. For instance, Sayle laments how the £150mil raised by the philanthropic venture Live Aid in 1985 would eventually profit Arab Marxist fighters in Africa rather than the poor and starving the money was intended for.
In the search for his place in life, Sayle fortuitously spotted an ad in the satirical magazine Private Eye looking for an MC for a comedy club in London, a job for which he subsequently applied.
After his initial apprehension that the endeavour would lead to yet another dead-end, he became the first MC of what would become the world-famous Comedy Store, which featured names such as Robin Williams in its early days, and was the catalyst for a much- needed batch of gutsy, satirical comedians who would quickly replace the old guard.
Sayle’s success as a comedian is perhaps due in part to the time he spent at the Chelsea School of Art where, unlike most lefties, he gained access into the world of the rich and, to his surprise, found that they were unlike the gluttonous, exploitative money masters as painted by his left-wing ideology.
Later, during an argument with fellow writers of TV sitcom The Young Ones, Sayle objected to the inclusion of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson. These public school types, he argued, are the enemy.
Back came the reply, “No, that was just you. That was all just in your head. Didn’t you notice that we never subscribed to your demented class-war ravings?”
Thatcher Stole My Trousers
Author: Alexei Sayle
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus, nonfiction, March 2016