Wednesday, 12 October 2016




Bloomsbury, 2016, 324 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

‘How does it aid the revolution, you trying to be funny?’.  The left-wing Liverpudlian, Alexei Sayle, the future star of the BBC’s comically demented The Young Ones, was flummoxed by this question posed to him by an exiled Arab revolutionary in Sayle’s London flat in 1971 in which the General Congress of the deadly serious Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf was being held.


Sayle, the son of working class communists, was a “practising communist” himself but also loved clowning around, he writes in Thatcher Sole My Trousers, his follow-up memoir to his childhood reminiscences in Stalin Ate My Homework.  For fun and politics to cohabit, concludes Sayle, he would have to divorce from the organised left, a process made easier by his particular party of choice, the dogmatically Maoist Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a party which was obsessively paranoid (with ample justification) about being infiltrated by police spies and which correspondingly treated all potential recruits as such.


Sayle was also steered towards cultural, as well as political, individualism, which he pursued through anarchist cabaret (which included “throwing things at the audience – darts, chairs, fire extinguishers, seafood …..”), a solo stand-up act and a manic TV comedy series.  Sayle, unimpressed by traditional comedians with their punchline-dependent, sexist and racist gags, wanted “smart, relevant, popular comedy” that was aggressive, challenging and a bit wild but still socially engaged – “basically I talk about politics, social hypocrisy, consumerism, the legacy of post-colonialism, the fissiparous nature of ultra-hard-left political groupings …. with a great deal of physicality, allied to a kind of surrealistic overview, evocative, perhaps of the French Situationists”. 


Sayle, however, “didn’t think stand-up comedy … could change anything” - he sided with Peter Cook who satirised his own early comedy club as wanting it ‘to be like those cabarets in Weimar Republic Germany that had done so much to stop the rise of Hitler’.  Sayle did, however, continue to count himself on the left, staying true to its “core values of workers’ rights, social justice and equality”.


This included donating his hyper-energy to gigs supporting the Nicaraguan revolution and Amnesty International (getting the call from John Cleese for The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball) whilst poking (mostly) good-natured fun at left-wing benefit gigs themselves where the humour had to pass an audience ‘political correctness’ test for “possible sexism, neo-colonialism, and adherence to the theory of dialectical and historical materialism”.


Sayle also toured the country, laying into Tory Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s, 1984-85 war against the miners - in response to the massed forces of government, judiciary, police and press, “the left deployed me and Billy Bragg” (and The Style Council and Wham!).  Sayle was quite the Gramscian, an optimist of the will, a pessimist of the intellect.


Sayle’s comedy (in one episode of The Young Ones, he is “a train driver giving a speech to Mexican bandits about the revolutionary biscuits of Italy”) isn’t to everyone’s taste (‘as funny as a funeral’, said one eminent football manager) but, like his memoir, he sets both left wing politics and anarchic comedy marching together in some semblance of rough harmony.

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