Alexei Sayle at the Corn Exchange, Brighton. 11 Oct 2013

I am invited by friends to go and see 1980s cult Alternative Comedian Alexei Sayle live at the Corn Exchange Brighton. Apparently his previous gigs on this modest come-back tour have been well-attended. In recent years I’d seen Alexei on the telly a few times, in talking head mode, and he always looked and sounded as if he’d had the sharpest edge of his anger therapy’d out of him. And while I didn’t relish the idea of attending a nostalgia fest with a bunch of masochistic old lefties witnessing the latest career move of a would-be national treasure, I was nonetheless intrigued to experience what might be on offer.

In the Basketmakers Pub, after the gig, I’m eloquent in my criticism. “But you were laughing all the way through”, I am reminded by my mates, who can't understand my meticulous comparison of the Alexei Sayle we’ve just watched with the Alexei Sayle at various high-points early in his career. How to explain…

It was said of England’s greatest ever funnyman Joey Grimaldi (1778-1839) that his stage persona was part child, part nightmare. Alexei Sayle, too, sourced his comedy from a similar disturbing emotional cocktail; his funniest moments arising from a momentum of anger spinning off into surreal impersonation, childlike belligerence and eloquent nonsense.

Clearly Alexei Sayle has mellowed; his comic attitude is now more approachable and less threatening than at his psychotic peak in the early-eighties when, live on stage, he appeared hilariously and irredeemably unhinged. None of us who came to see him at the Brighton Comedy Festival could have reasonably expected him to inhabit his old cockney mod persona complete with tight–fitting mohair suit and launch into an hour-long torrent of glorious scatter-gun abuse incorporating creative shafts of class hatred and contemporary socio-political comment. And then, almost collapsing with exhaustion, suit bursting at the seams and drenched in sweat; respond to appreciative howls for ‘more’ by returning to the stage and ironically telling us “to fuck off back to where we came from”.

Back In those days Alexei had his fair share of walkouts and, more ominously, those who didn’t quite ‘get it’ and who hung around after wondering why there wasn’t a riot or at least a fight. But, for the most part, his was a large, post-punk, politically astute crowd who liked their comedy raw and intelligent. And now we were back, with our mates and partners, some of us with our adult kids.

Since the late nineties Alexei has become better known as an author, a regular on the book-launch circuit and, albeit reluctantly, a respectable telly pundit; inevitably there was a nostalgia for his rebellious past informing both audience expectation and artistic potential.

We wanted the familiar excesses – the shameless swearing and the verbal character assassinations of random celebrities and that’s what he was giving us. And yes, he still knows how to ring the changes; vary the pace and structure, emphasise key words and phrases, introduce brief cameos of wanky middle class types, and illustrate them with physical clowning and yes, he’s still a bit of mover - but nothing too strenuous or over the top; One thing at a time. And there’s the rub – at present the material is mostly being presented in a linear fashion. What is missing is the central diatribe - a motor running on anger- which facilitates the attendant asides of quips, callbacks, and voices.

His once-favoured joke structure - the sneery discursive set-up escalating into a demented bark of a punch line, followed by distracted teeth-sucking and psychotic ticks while the red mist settles- has for the most part, been replaced. The set up is now chattier, more engaging and juxtaposed with a punchline still emphatic but with the aggression measured and, more often than not, followed by a reassuring smile - “we‘re all friends together here eh?” Alexei’s one-time insight into his fellow comedians, about ‘how their need to be loved got in the way of their art’ can now just as easily be applied to himself; and if it isn’t love he’s after, then it is something akin. Maybe acceptance or simply the right to earn a crust doing a scaled down version of what he’s still very good at. If that’s not what he’s after, then what is it? And why the winning smile?

At a moment of non-ironic disclosure he confided to us that his wife Linda was concerned about his return to stand-up. “…she said I might be in danger of er… what was it?” “Diluting the legacy,” She shouted from the audience.

What was actually meant by ‘diluting the legacy’ was not elaborated upon and was left unclear. My first thought, when I heard that public exchange between the artist and his wife, was that the Alexei that I had come to see – the old Alexei, he of the undiluted legacy – did not indulge in such bourgeois trifles as chatting to his Mrs mid-rant. But on second thoughts… as far as I understand it – the job of the artist is to decode the Zeitgeist and Alexei Sayle’s legacy is that he once, 30 years ago, successfully managed to do just that. Now, if he can return to the public arena and find a way of expressing an illuminating take on the current state of affairs, then his legacy will be intact – undiluted.

It’s a big ask, to regularly produce a wodge of new material and orchestrate it into a contemporary version of an elaborate comedy style for which he was once rightly celebrated; it ain’t gonna happen overnight. And what’s more the trial and error nature of stand-up comedy demands the process happens only in front of a live audience. A very big ask indeed.

At present there are chunks of material in search of that overall comic structure – at one point he introduces some particularly serious subject matter referencing the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. He even names the actual Christian Falangist and Israeli military commanders. And all to satisfy a decidedly trivial piece of misdirection. It did not work - full-stop. The joke here could only be against the audience for allowing itself to be led astray, or against the comedian himself for believing it was possible; neither was the intention.

Of course, no subject matter should be deemed unsuitable for comedy but such material presented in such a way is not the stuff of comedy. If that was his worst mistake of the evening, there was other stuff of almost vintage quality. One of his most successful jokes was an elegantly concise one-liner about Alistair Campbell, which referenced similarly weighty subject matter.

“Of course he’s depressed he’s a fucking war criminal”

It has always been the case that some of Alexei’s jokes do not bear too much scrutiny, and serve only as colour and texture in the cascade, similarly some of the targets are undeserving of the venom meted out to them but when they receive their metaphorical head-butting in the middle of a ranting diatribe there is no time to deconstruct, only laugh in response.

"Help a London child – Kill a social worker!" Was never that funny, but what will always be funny is the depth of the anger that Alexei expressed while bouncing off the walls portraying it.

There is of course one version of Alexei Sayle’s undiluted legacy available on the comedy circuit and that’s in the bile-spitting, malicious and often hilarious stage act of Jerry Sadowitz. There has always been an arms-length mutual respect between Sadowitz and Sayle; neither ever accusing the other of the slightest stylistic plagiarism – surprising, given the fact that the start of Sayle’s career predates Sadowitz’s by at least two years. During Alexei Sayle’s 17 year lay-off Jerry Sadowitz has been parked in a cul-de-sac on the edge of the comedy world sporadically touring his own solo show to mixed reviews, adverse publicity and with a reputation for walk outs, the numbers of which are enough to concern any booking agent. The rare moments when he is truly thrilling are more than outnumbered by the times he is literally appalling – nice joke structure, shame about the disgusting anti-dependant* content. Sadowitz (it's all in the name) is a man with unresolved issues – harsher, less political and more unforgiving of his audience than ever Sayle was. It’s difficult to envisage any real impediment to stopping Alexei Sayle taking his art to wherever he wants to take it. Even his present act looks and sounds far superior than most of the very average stand-up comedy currently filling stadiums at £45 a ticket.

How he goes about preserving his legacy and utilising his considerable talent to decode the current zeitgeist, could be one of the perverse pleasures that awaits us in the near future.

He is already delivering some politically astute verbal abuse about the great and the good but if any of it is to have resonance he must avoid being seen snuggling up to them on the telly. For Alexei Sayle the temptation to promote himself by appearing on chat shows and panel games as a genial elder statesman of 80s Alternative chic must be almost overwhelming; but to do it would be undignified professional death. As for us, his old masochistic, nostalgia-addicted, current core audience – we need some home truths and may require a good metaphorical kicking if we are to keep coming back for more.

Tony Allen Oct 2013

* Anti-dependent – to define yourself by what you are against and what you hate.