'A lot of the Two Ronnies stuff was appalling'
He stormed the Eighties alternative comedy circuit with those tirades and tight suits, but is Alexei Sayle still angry? As his second biography is published, Hannah Stephenson discovers how ditching the ill-fitting garb has allowed him to be himself
Once an anarchic, angry young comedian in a tight, shiny suit, who shocked and delighted audiences when alternative comedy came into its own in the Eighties, Alexei Sayle still claims to be rather cross and shouts quite a lot during his shows.
Meeting the 63-year-old Liverpudlian today, he's no longer wearing the button-popping suits that became his trademark during his days at London's Comedy Store, but he is still round, although no one would describe him as cuddly.
His second autobiography, Thatcher Stole My Trousers, charts his years from the early Seventies through to the Eighties, a period during which he believes he was instrumental in changing the landscape of British comedy.
"There aren't many people who can look at an art form and say, 'I invented that'. But with modern comedy, I did," he says.
"It would have happened anyway without me, but it would have looked a bit different. But I can look at Michael McIntyre, or Lee Evans, or some young, struggling comic, and say, 'I began that whole process'."
After those heady days, when he and the likes of French and Saunders, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, Keith Allen and other hellraisers heralded a new era of comedy, Sayle starred with his comic cohorts in The Comic Strip series, The Young Ones and his own TV show, Alexei Sayle's Stuff, toured with his peers, wrote some books and made plenty of money doing voice-overs and guest appearances.
Then, three years ago, he returned to stand-up, embarking on a mammoth 100-gig tour for the first time in 17 years.
"When I stopped in 1996, I thought I'd come to the limit of what I could do. I'd hit a wall. I was tired. Then I was invited to do a nostalgia show in 2011 and I thought, rather than do old material, I'd write something new. What I wrote was completely different from anything I'd done before and it really worked.
"That guy in that tight suit was not me. He was a persona. He was a particular kind of creation. There was a limited amount of stuff he could talk about. I realised that in 2011, I could talk about my actual life and make it appear as stand-up comedy. It was so much nicer than the first time around."
Today, he's keen to remain more neutral when it comes to political comedy, observing that audiences seem uncomfortable with the genre, so he has curbed his trademark Left-wing propaganda diatribes.
"I would do stuff about (Jeremy) Corbyn, I suppose, but I think it's important that we're not attached to any political parties, because we have to be free to criticise.
"On the other hand, if you looked at the last election, it was one b****** in a suit from Oxford versus another b****** in a suit from Oxford. People's desires are much wider than that."
Anger featured in his last stand-up tour, but instead of picking on Thatcher, his Eighties nemesis, he targeted the betrayal of New Labour and wrote new material on class.
He laughs at the suggestion that he was also gunning for Ben Elton, who co-wrote The Young Ones.
"I felt very bitter at Ben, because I felt he'd taken certain aspects of what I did and been much more successful, made a lot more money. I was angry about that.
"But the story I tell in the stand-up is that I apologised to him. And he was surprised and invited me to the opening night of his Rod Stewart musical. I paid for every moment that I'd ever been cruel to anybody, sitting through that for three hours."
The deaths of fellow comics Rik Mayall, Robin Williams - who inspired Sayle with his spontaneous appearances at the Comedy Store - and Mel Smith have made him think about the legacies that entertainers leave.
"It's a business that takes its toll. The consolation to any kind of artist is to say, 'At least I've made a mark'. There is the 1985 edition of my appearance on the Roland Rat show."
Sayle, an only child to communist parents, has enjoyed the trappings of showbiz success. He's lived in London for years and has a holiday home in Spain. He's been married to Linda for 43 years.
"I wouldn't have been me without her. I'd be retired by now, or a lecturer at a college in Saffron Walden, teaching media studies and being very angry about everything. I wouldn't have achieved anything without her.
"She hates showbusiness, she hates comedy. She's not that keen on comedians."
In his latest memoir, he slams the old-style comedians whose behaviour was often terrible, he claims.
"No woman was safe from their attentions, they all drank heavily and a lot took cocaine. In contrast, all the comedians I worked with, despite our acts often being aggressive and challenging, were in stable relationships, were non-racist and non-sexist, didn't drink, or take drugs to excess very often and were able to have a normal conversation that didn't end in a punchline," he writes.
"I came to the conclusion that mainstream comedians were nasty men pretending to be nice, whereas alternative comedians were nice men pretending to be nasty (apart from Keith Allen)."
He continues: "I try and stay clear of saying, 'It was all great in my day and now everything's rubbish', but we were fortunate in that we had this vacuum to fill. Everything else was so bad, the conventional comedy."
That's a sweeping statement. What about Morecambe and Wise? Or The Two Ronnies?
"A lot of Morecambe and Wise, apart from those classic sketches ...," he tails off. "I mean, Morecambe and Wise were great comics and the affection between the two of them was terrific. A lot of The Two Ronnies' stuff was appalling."
So who makes Sayle laugh these days?
"Stewart Lee is very funny. Micky Flanagan is really good. There are a lot of good sitcoms which come out of the United States, like Girls, Broad City.
"It's harder to be a comic now. Now, it's very difficult to distinguish yourself. There's always somebody who's a bit like you."
He reckons he'll write at least one more memoir, may do another stand-up tour and is happy appearing at literary festivals, which he finds tame, but in a good way.
"Having served my time in the trenches fighting with the audiences, an evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival is just nice."
Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99