'There'll never be a DVD'
I T seems that we have comedian Stewart Lee to thank for Alexei Sayle's return to stand-up comedy after a 16-year break. One of the founding figures of alternative comedy, Sayle, along with members of The Comic Strip and The Young Ones, reshaped British comedy in the early 80s.
Wearing a distinctive suit and hat, the portly Liverpuddian combined Spike Milligan-esque absurdity with a left-wing edge, but as his career led him into TV, radio, films and eventually writing and motoring journalism, stand-up took a back seat, with a tour of Australia a personal low-point.
But then Sayle met Lee, and the younger comic lured him back onto the stage for a nostalgic early-80s inspired night at the Royal Festival Hall last summer along with The Young Ones' Nigel Planer, Arthur Smith, and other veterans.
Surprised by the reception, Sayle could suddenly see a way forward.
"Stewart Lee is very inspirational as a performer," says Sayle, who writes a weekly motoring column for the Telegraph.
"He could play the O2 Arena in London, but he'd rather do 30 nights at a 500-seater venue – which is what I want to do."
After a few no-fuss dates at the small Soho Theatre in London, Sayle now makes a fully-fledged, though still tentative, return to comedy with a 30-date jaunt around the UK.
"This tour is very small-scale, small venues, and the poster says it's a work-in-progress, it's very clear about that, so people know what to expect," he says.
"It's not a full 36-date tour of Apollo theatres – it's a few dates, just to see.
"If this works, I'll do a tour next year of arts centres, but I'd never play anything bigger.
"I'm not interested in it – that's not what this is about."
Gone is the aggressive character who fought audiences at the Comedy Store and rapped Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?. Instead is a on-stage persona shaped by a decade of book readings and one closer to the real-life Sayle.
"Before it was all about world domination: selling the most tickets – although I didn't do a good job of that – playing the biggest venues, but it's not like that now.
"Twenty years ago I'd have wanted to smash it, be the best on the bill.
Last year, on that Stuart Lee show, I wanted to do well, but not kill all the other acts. There was not the impetus to be the last man standing. There's a plan."
Taking his autobiography, Stalin Ate My Homework, as an initial starting point, the "work in progress" takes a personal approach.
"It's quite interesting, being on the periphery of the establishment, like being on the Andrew Marr Show with (Labour leader) Ed Miliband, so that's a starting point – although it's not about that. That comic, that Comedy Store character, he'd never have been on the Andrew Marr Show with Ed Miliband. It's about my real life, my friends ... that bloke generally had a hatred of celebrities and politicians. So it's more domestic in a sense."
In preparing for his low-key comeback, Sayle first delved back into contemporary stand-up comedy and found a world changed.
"When I did four shows at the Soho Theatre, I felt I couldn't do it until I knew what was going on out there. I went with a friend, (comedian) Josh Howie, he took me around the circuit all last summer/ autumn.
"I saw loads and loads of shows, the 99 Club, Comedy Store... rooms above pubs, loads of shows.
"I enjoyed going. I didn't perform. I thought about it, but turning up with ideas on scraps of paper...
"Someone said, 'Why not do ten minutes at a new material night?' Not me. I've seen Jack Dee do it, Michael McIntyre, but I'd never do that. I have to be the one in control. But going around these clubs was sort of exciting. People were excited I was there and I like that. People bought me drinks and I didn't have to pay to get in. It was interesting to see. Fascinating to see all these acts in basements ... just peculiar."
Sensing more opportunities for comedians, Sayle's not alone in returning to live comedy, with names as varied as Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Izzard all back, but the Liverpudlian does not see this tour as a launch-pad to panel shows, and greater success.
"I see it as an opportunity to do interesting work, not for career advancement.
"I can't see it going anywhere or leading to anything."
Which means there'll be no Alexei Sayle DVD or Blu-Ray in the supermarket racks at Christmas.
"There'll never be a DVD. And I don't want it on the telly. It's pretty definitely not about that – I'm doing it for itself, it'll never be about a DVD and telly – been there, done that."
Having turned 60 in August, he looks back at his varied career with pride, with his acclaimed literary endeavours ranking high.
"I think a lot of my writing, that's my most complete work, the two complete short stories and the memoirs, and (novel) Overtaken, that's what I'm most proud of. The novels first, after that, the Liverpool documentary (2008's Alexei Sayle's Liverpool), I was very pleased with that.
"After that, the stand-up, being the first MC of the Comedy Store – that's more complex emotionally, what I feel about that – and inventing modern comedy," he laughs.