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My Arts - Alexei Sayle

Liverpool's popular radical talks to Angie Sammons about Steve Martin, picket lines and bad architecture

Written by . Published on July 18th 2011.

My Arts - Alexei Sayle

Anfield born author, actor and political comedian Alexei Sayle left the city in 1971 to study art at Chelsea. He was the first MC at The Comedy Store and as a member of The Comic Strip, TV successes included The Young Ones and The Secret Policeman’s Ball. He lives in Bloomsbury but maintains good links with the city.

His quote “...never assume anything in Liverpool” features heavily in the promo material for the Museum of Liverpool, opening this week, and he will be reading from his autobiography at News From Nowhere on Thursday.

What are your top three albums of all time?
Threepenny OperaThreepenny OperaMarvin Gaye, What’s Going On; My Aim is True, Elvis Costello’s first album, and the original soundtrack recording of The Threepenny Opera, from 1930. I don’t know what they’re singing about, mind you.

What were the first and the last records that you bought?
I think the first one was Acker Bilk, Midnight in Moscow. I’d like to think it was.

Did your family’s Communist Party connections play a part in that?
Definitely yeah.

The last one?
Can’t remember. I haven’t bought any CDs for ages. I don’t do downloads either. I haven’t got an iPod. I listen to Spotify, it’s just easier.

Has music played a big part in your life?
It never did massively. I mean I always liked it. I kind of hung it on in through hip hop until Eminem and the last really bad album he made.

What tune is running around your head at the moment. 
One of my favourite tunes - Good Day, by Ice Cube. Especially the line “Today I didn’t get to use my A.K / It was a good day”.

Steve MartinSteve MartinWhat was the last gig you went to?
Last Saturday I went to Manchester Apollo to see Steve Martin playing the banjo.

What was that like?
Fucking awful.

Was he not funny?

Something like that makes you reassess if he was ever funny really. I liked those early comic albums, A Wild and Crazy Guy, and stuff like that. But in all fairness, this wasn’t essentially a comedy performance. However the comedy that was in it was diabolical.

Whatever possessed you to go all the way up to Manchester to see that then?
A friend of mine thought it would be a good idea.

Did you pay to get in?
He did.

What newspapers/magazines do you read?

I read the Guardian, but mostly online now. If I’m passing a Tube station, I’ll pick up an Evening Standard. The only magazines I’d buy would be Auto Car and What? Car.

Sanjeev BhaskarSanjeev BhaskarWhat word do you most like the sound of?
Tracheotomy. It sounds nice: tracheotomy... I think I could do one as well.

I asked a friend of mine who is a surgeon and he’s told me how.

Your friend, he hasn’t invited you into the hospital and stood behind you while you had a go or anything, has he?
No, it hasn’t gone that far. But I do know you can use a ballpoint pen in an emergency. You’ve got to take the pen bit out, obviously. Then after you’ve stabbed the person, who's choking, in the appropriate place, you can use the rest of the pen as an airway.

Which websites do you visit most often? 
Mostly my own: www.alexeisayle.me  I also like Seat Guru where you look at seats on aeroplanes.

You a big air traveller then?

No, I just like looking at first class seats on aeroplanes.

The WireThe WireWho or what do you listen to on the radio?
Radio 4, 6 Music.

Do you get up to Liverpool much?

Yeah, about once every six weeks. I was supposed to do a talk at the opening of a show about art and revolutionaries at the Walker a few weeks ago, but it was the day of the public sector workers’ strike. It meant you would have had to cross the picket line to do it, so I couldn’t.

Oh the irony...

What was the best television programme ever made?
Very predictably, The Wire. I came to it early because a friend of mine worked in Baltimore with David Simon and Ed Burns on a previous show for HBO called The Corner and he alerted me to it.

Don't forget, when The Wire was first shown in Britain, only 12,000 people saw it. But every one of them wrote an article about it.

What book in childhood made the biggest impression on you?
Biggles, I liked, and I read a lot of science fiction in my early teens. Ray Bradbury and the like.

Book At BedtimeBook At BedtimeWhat's your current book at bedtime?
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

Do you go to the theatre and what did you last see?
I saw the RSC’s production of Dusinane with a friend of mine, Siobhan Redmond, in London.

Who or what makes you laugh, apart from Steve Martin - not?
Mostly friends. I mean I much prefer having a laugh with people I know rather than professional comedy. I mean I like being with comics. Unlike the way they are portrayed, actors and comics can often be very funny and quite generous in real life. I was filming with Sanjeev Bhaskar yesterday and he was being incredibly funny and making me laugh a lot, just anecdotes.

The Rock Drill - EpsteinThe Rock Drill - EpsteinWhat single work of art do you find the most moving or intriguing?
I quite like the Winged Victory of Samothrace in The Louvre. Even though it’s lost it’s head it’s just tremendously well done. I also really like The Rock Drill, by Epstein. That’s very powerful.

Which public figure do you most admire?
I’m not a great one for hero worship, but I do a lot of Palestinian related things and someone like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s a decent, moral man and also a very good constituency MP (Islington). He came bottom of the people on the expenses list. I think that shows his morality, really. He didn’t even use all the expenses he was entitled to. He will always be a backbencher because he is too moral and too honest.

Do you think that power instantly corrupts?
Jeremy CorbynJeremy Corbyn MP: 'Moral'I think even the desire for power corrupts. The more I think about it, I genuinely believe that anybody who is successful, anyone who is extremely successful is mentally ill. What marks people like that out is not talent, but an extreme desire to succeed. Take someone like Blair who has the most borderline narcissistic personality disorder. Gordon Brown on the telly last week: insane, I thought.

What is your favourite piece of architecture?
Kings Cross Station, particularly after redevelopment, The Piazza looked stunning. Up here, the Anglican Cathedral is still enormously striking and that whole collection on William Brown Street. The destruction of the cityscape from Everton Brow to Scotland Road was a war crime really. And St John’s Market, I am amazed how it’s survived when so much that was good has been lost. Especially given the beauty of what it replaced.

Least favourite?

Pretty much everything from 1964 to 1997 really. Architecture was in the grip of cultists, in a way, and having been brought up as a Communist I know about growing up in a cult. It was in the grip of a kind of priesthood and they all followed, particularly the stars like James Stirling and people like Richard Rogers and Foster. I know they were later, but people who were very...not disturbed actually, but very vain and narcissistic, who made these buildings which called for attention.

James Stirling's handiworkJames Stirling's handiworkAnd the students had to subscribe to this cult, and normally with a cult the only harm they do is within that cult, but with architecture, and in Britain, it was a kind of insane cult that really ruined our city centres.

To think that somebody thought the Arndale Centre in Manchester could ever improve anything, particularly when they demolished medieval streets to make way for stuff like that.

Know any good jokes?
Only a really long one.
A bloke starts his new job at the zoo and is given three tasks. 

First is to clear the exotic fish pool of weeds. As he does this a huge fish jumps out and bites him. To show who is boss he beats it to death with a spade. Realising his employer won't be best pleased he disposes of the fish by feeding it to the lions. 

Moving on to the second job of clearing out the chimp house, he is attacked by the chimps who pelt him with coconuts. He swipes at two chimps with a spade, killing them both. What can he do? 
Feed them to the lions, he says to himself, because lions eat anything. 

He moves on to the last job, which is to collect honey from the South American bees.
William Brown StreetWilliam Brown StreetAs soon as he starts he is attacked by the bees. He grabs the spade and smashes the bees to a pulp. By now he knows what to do and throws them into the lions cage because lions eat anything. 

Later that day a new lion arrives at the zoo. He wanders up to another lion  and says "What's the food like here?" 

The lions say: "Absolutely brilliant, today we had fish and chimps with mushy bees."

*Follow Angie Sammons here on Twitter

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Tourman.July 19th 2011.

Not one of my favorite people and as usual he is only here to flog a book. I have still not forgiven him for the hatchet job he did on Liverpool with his series "Alexei Sayle's Liverpool" another example of someone who has not lived here for 40 years giving their informed opinion about Liverpool, just the same as Edwina Currie did. Both got it completely wrong. What I find funny is the fact that people who have left Liverpool such as Jimmy Tarbuck are called pseudo scousers, yet Sayle is regarded as some sort of working class hero.

London RoadJuly 19th 2011.

Perhaps it's because folk here generally like him and his left wing politics while nobody can forget Tarby was a Tory worshipping acolyte of Thatcher's. Tourman.

Tourman.July 19th 2011.

Yes London Road you may be correct but at least Tarby is funny, no one could ever accuse Sayle of being funny.

Prof ChucklebuttyJuly 19th 2011.

I enjoyed reading this interview and I quite enjoy Mr Sayle. (although his so-called communist household was Kruschevite revisionism if you ask me) But if you count the appearances on The Young Ones, a series 75% of which I couldn't stand, then on that he was bloody awful and seldom funny. But I think he may agree with you on that these days. I rather enjoyed his programmes on Liverpool, I can't remember any particular hatchet being wielded, maybe I should watch it again if I can find it.

I think as a performer Mr Sayle is at his best when talking or slow burn ranting to camera as he did in his "STUFF" series. And even when for a while he seemed to get a bit arsey about being a novellist, I'd forgive him that for moments like Marks and Spencers, Marks and Spencers what would we do without Marks and Spencers. If anyone remembers it. Or the compensation claiments ad " I was poking myself in the eye with a stick and it went in! I got 3 thousand pounds!
I tittered on the bus about that for weeks.

The sketches were sometimes a bit long and weak - he is not a natural actor, but I would be happy to see him back on telly. As for Tarby, yes he is and can be very funny, (shock horror) but didn't he dare to make a joke at the Empire on his last visit that had all the sensitive
scousers / Liverpolitans/ pudlians foaming at the mouth?

And all this stuff about if they liked Mrs T or were a lefty or don't live in Liverpool, is silly provincial nonesense. People go to where the work is based. Being from Liverpool is an accident of birth and an honour. But it's not a life sentence.

And like Ringo, (Peace and Love) people should be allowed to say they don't miss it, particularly if, when they were growing up here, it was bleedin' awful, and for many at that time, it was. I would even suggest that even today, depending upon where you go and how well off you are, it is still bleedin' awful for a lot of people.

Liverpool WagJuly 20th 2011.

I recall no hatchet job either. It is not people like Alexei Sayle who give Liverpool a bad name, Tourman, but whingeing, bleeding heart scousers, like you, going on about people leaving the city committing some sort of crime. Surely you can see that? I am immensely proud of my city, but had I not lived elsewhere in various periods of my life I would not have fully LIVED my life. This ridiculous, blinkered parochial attitude gets us, quite literally, nowhere.

Tourman.July 21st 2011.

The series that Sayle did on the BBC was badly reseached, factually incorrect and poorly presented. I have been promoting Liverpool all my life and I agree that can move away, I spent many years living in other countries, without it being a crime. But I object when people give us the benefit of their wisdom and are not qualified to do so, like Mr Sayle.

AnonymousDecember 11th 2013.

Great profile... really enjoyed this, thanks!

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