“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in” is as true for stand-up comedians as it is for gangsters, at least fictional Hollywood gangsters. Few comics who announce their retirement ever manage to remain planting goose-berries in their allotment. Alexei Sayle managed nearly 15 years of being an author and motoring correspondent for the Telegraph, but then…
His wife, Linda, thought a return was not a good idea. He had been placed 15th in Channel 4’s top stand-ups countdown and she worried a return would “dilute the legacy”. I saw those first few return gigs. Initially Sayle presented himself in the avuncular fashion of the novelist regaling his readers with a few pithy anecdotes and occasional scabrous quips. One night, an overly excited punter, brought up on the violent delight of The Young Ones, let out a misjudged heckle that had the intention of praise. Suddenly, the avuncular author was gone and Sayle was jumping up and down screeching in a manic voice. The stand-up had escaped from his shackles in the attic in his head.
For eager young comedy fans of the early 1980s, Sayle changed the possibilities of what live comedy could be. With Rik Mayall he was the siren that lured us into stand-up.
Last year’s Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar is being repeated on Radio 4 Extra. It combines his skills as author, stand-up and song and dance man, though you can’t see the dance, only hear the song. Each episode begins with a short story, imagination retold as reality, before we enter his equally imaginary sandwich bar frequented by Neil Kinnock and Yo-Yo Ma, who enjoys tandoori chicken and parsnip sandwiches. “To the end of my life my mother would never admit there was anything wrong with the Soviet Union… but she used to say, ‘you can’t make an omelette without murdering 40 million people’.” The joy in absurdism mixed with communist jargon and cultural umbrage is all intact. For eager young comedy fans of the early 1980s, Sayle changed the possibilities of what live comedy could be. With Rik Mayall he was the siren that lured us into stand-up. The rage is not as volcanic now, the passions tempered by age and experience, but the man who wrangled early drunk, untutored gong shows of late ’70s Soho is still visible, vital and vocal.
“That’s enough fun, time for poetry,” says John Hegley on Hearing with Hegley, another Radio 4 Extra repeat of the moment. I worry that John Hegley’s eccentric, schoolmasterly voice is not paid enough attention any more. He is someone to be celebrated, an undoubted highlight of Luton’s history. One of my radio highlights of any decade was his easy persuasion of Martha Reeves to be the backing singer on his song Grand-Mère, about his French grandmother. I hope the Luton legend and Motown legend may work together again one day.
I have distracted myself from what I intended to write about, The Beef and Dairy podcast presented by Ben Partridge, recent winner of Podcast of the Year and also on Radio 4. The seemingly limited canvas of a podcast dedicated to imagined beef and dairy news with aggressive abattoir owners and milkmaid progeny folk singers celebrating cream is dark, silly and addictive. I sat down to listen to one and listened to so many that I have missed my deadline to write about it.