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Alexei Sayle talks to the Echo
MOST children growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s would’ve been happy with a week’s holiday in a caravan in Rhyl – and Alexei Sayle was one of them.
But he was different to the other kids.
His mum and dad only read the Soviet Weekly.
They only went to seaside towns to attend union conferences, but they did travel to Europe.
They visited Czechoslovakia, for example, where they went to the sites of massacres, rode in space-age limousines and saw bizarre mime shows.
When everyone else in the playground was nagging their parents to take them to see Bambi, Alexei’s mum and dad took him to see Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein’s classic Soviet-era historical drama.
“I always knew we were outsiders, I suppose, and that became my thing, my gimmick, if you like,” says the one-time godfather of alternative comedy who will be in Poole on Monday (October 11) to read extracts from his engrossing childhood memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, at Lighthouse.
“You have to remember, though, Nevsky was just something we went to see. It’s not like I was a great cineaste or anything.
“As I say in the book, it’s all very well telling kids about Nevsky, and seeing they were fascinated, but kids will believe anything, so when someone else says, ‘My cat can drive a car,’ they believed that too.
“It’s just that my stories were true.”
Born and raised in the Anfield area of Liverpool, in the shadow of the famous football ground, it was inevitable Alexei would be drawn in.
He says he felt he lived backstage at Anfield, and was quietly engineering the Liverpool team’s emergence from the second division in the early 1960s.
“Well, football was my first contact with showbusiness – the sense of theatre, the bright colours you never saw anywhere else, the noise.
“The trouble was I’d change allegiances at various times in a match, depending on a number of random factors. It made it quite awkward.
“These days, of course, I’m in some director’s box, so it doesn’t matter so much. Well, actually I mostly watch football on telly now – I need someone to tell me what to think.”
Researching the book allowed him to quiz his 95-year-old mother in a way that a son wouldn’t necessarily expect to talk to his mum.
“Actually, she was a very good interviewee – her memory is great – but she was pretty open at first, then got a bit more cagey when she realised a lot of this stuff was going to turn up in a book.
“It’s funny, a lot of the things you vaguely believe to be true from childhood turn out to be quite unfounded.
“We did different things from other kids, we were far from ordinary. That was my parents’ gift, and I learned to embrace it, which is great for me as an artist.
“But at the time nobody knew it would make a book, and I just wanted to be like the other kids.”
With two collections of short stories to his name, as well as five novels, Alexei is happier these days to describe himself as a writer.
“It’s a fantastic privilege to be in total charge of the creative process – and the publishing world is still very gentlemanly, which is a good thing.
“There’s nobody at work on a Friday, but, other than that, it suits me well to create a little film, starring me, all about me.
“I do these readings, and there’s comedy in that – but that’s as far as I want to go these days.
“I sort of got tired with stand-up comedy. I did it for 20 years or more.
“But it’s thriving these days – it seems to be doing very well without me.”
Stand-up may be thriving, at least in commercial terms, but go back 30 years or so, and Alexei was very much in the vanguard of the new comedy. Back then it was called alternative comedy. Suddenly, the outsider was in.
“Well, for the first and only time in my life, I was the height of fashion.
It was very fashionable to be a left-wing comedian in the late 70s and early 80s.
“Others, like Ben Elton, dropped the politics once they became successful – it served him very well though. But I’m pretty much where I was 30-odd years ago, certainly politically – socially too.
“Successful people tend to gravitate towards other successful people, and they form their own little self-serving cliques, but that’s never really been me.
“I’ve still never been to Stephen Fry’s house, but I’m learning to live with it!”
• The first series of Alexei Sayle’s Stuff was filmed in Bournemouth in 1988. Co-writer David Renwick returned a couple of years later to shoot One Foot In the Grave.
• Alexei’s 1984 single, Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? was a top 20 hit.
• Having appeared in Doctor Who in 1985 he said he wanted to become the first Socialist Doctor.
• He has appeared in several films, including Gorky Park, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, less auspiciously, Carry On Columbus.
• On first hearing that Liverpool was to be awarded the European Capital of Culture, he was heavily criticised for describing his home city as “Philistine”. Having written and presented Alexei Sayle’s Liverpool, a three-part TV documentary in which he reconnected with the city, he now feels he doesn’t know whether his original statement was true… but as a result of making the series, he does now consider Liverpool to be his home… even though he lives in London.