Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

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2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

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As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

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Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

25 years in showbiz

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As 2013 fades from view, and with it, one largely overlooked anniversary – that is, My First 25 Years In Showbiz – I ponder the fact that I had once considered actually marking my silver jubilee in the media with some kind of tour, or one-man show, but I seem to have settled with some determination into scriptwriting (under which umbrella I include script editing) as my chief creative outlet in recent years, and even radio seems to be fading now, so it seems more suitable to simply mark its passing with a blog entry. Writing prose for free: that sums up my current lot, too.

My quarter-century is well documented, not least in my third memoir That’s Me In The Corner, which you can now buy as an eBook for £5.42 from the evil, tax-avoiding Amazon. (I can’t. Or at least, I can, but I don’t have a Kindle to load it up onto.) So I thought I might cut the yakkin’ and sum up 25 years of indecision and happy accident in a single image. The grab above was captured from the studio webcam of what was the main 5 Live studio in Television Centre, a building now cruelly and unsentimentally condemned. I think an eagle-eyed listener grabbed it, and sent it to me. If it was you, raise your hand: it’s a superb shot. I’m dating it back to circa 2009? I am clearly waiting for the light to go green. My best guess is that I was filling in for Mark Kermode – a gig that I haven’t done since I was pushed off the subs’ bench by Simon Mayo’s producer and replaced by Nigel Floyd and Boyd Hilton because their names rhyme – and Simon was broadcasting from a sporting event, possibly the cricket, which is why the studio was otherwise empty. There I am, on my own, waiting, with my BBC canteen coffee, summing up my own career!

Actually, the very fact that it’s indistinct is perfect. Here are a few other images that either give me a Proustian rush or say something thematic about the past 25 years.

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I’m rather tempted to leave them uncaptioned. Let the images speak for themselves. If they say anything, it’s that I have spent a good chunk of the past 25 years being around famous and talented people and not complaining or being self-conscious about that fact. Not always by the side of a lake in Sweden, as above, usually in front of “branding”, but in the vicinity of talent, and that’s the key.

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This one needs captioning. It’s the mighty 6 Music team finally winning Digital Radio Station of the Year at the Sonys in 2012. I was not there, which is the significant part. I celebrated their win anyway.

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C&H166I hope you enjoyed that visual celebration of not knowing what to do with myself for 25 years. (My home life has been, it must be said, a whole lot less chaotic.) Let’s get on with the 26th and make it so boringly focussed, there’ll be nothing to illustrate it with bar a selfie of me at my laptop.

Happy New Year!

Hellooooooo, O2 man

The view from Row E, at the O2 Arena, or, as Jerry Seinfeld erroneously called it, “the O2 Center”, Friday night. Thanks to Richard Herring (who broke the no-photography rule and took this picture), the nice people who distribute his videos, and his girlfriend, who had a prior engagement, I found myself with this clear view of a stool and a mic stand at 8pm. I was excited. If I had paid £100, as many of the 14,000 people in the big barn had, it’s possible I would have been even more excited. (I’m not sure I’d pay £100 to see anybody, whether stand-up or band. Isn’t there a recession on?)

Seinfeld hadn’t played in London since 1998. There’s a chance he won’t be back any time soon. So it was a golden opportunity to catch him. It’s been over ten years since Seinfeld ended and we were all deprived of his big teeth, Brooklyn drawl and constant failure to actually act, although the box sets do provide eternal comfort in a Godless universe. (I actually love all nine seasons. All of them. Pick any episode you like, from any season, and I will like it. I used to hate the slap bass when it started, but I got over that. The rewards are too great to get hung up on an annoying musical sting.)

Anyway, this wasn’t about Seinfeld, it was about Seinfeld. Would he cut it as a stand-up, on his own, standing up? Yes is the non-surprise answer. He’s 57, he’s been standing up and observing life since 1976, keen to get back into the comedy clubs once the sitcom ended in 1998 and clearly more at home behind the mic than in front of cameras. Richard and I were very lucky to be in Row E – this is, I think, the closest to the stage I’ve ever been in an arena or stadium, not including the times I’ve been in the moshpit, or side-of-stage, as a journalist. As I noted when we sat down, if Row E had been the back row, it was like seeing Seinfeld in a small club. There just happened to be thousands of other people behind us. Way behind us. I’ve only ever seen Al Murray at the O2, and he filled it by being larger than life – and having giant beer pumps behind him. Seinfeld moved from left to right, but what you got for your £100 was a man standing in front of some curtains, talking, for around an hour and 40 minutes, non-stop. (Jerry was supported, fairly pointlessly, by his old friend and current Vegas resident George Wallace, whose catchphrase “People say some stupid stuff/shit” was repeated so often it was clearly a device to stall while he recalled the next joke.)

I’m not going to repeat any of Seinfeld’s gags, suffice to say, this was all observational stuff, as we’ve come to expect from the stand-up that used to bookend his sitcom. Much of it is sharp as a tack, some of it is unoriginal in subject but marginally more original in execution, and all of it is delivered in such an assured and economical manner, you can’t fail to have a good time. I laughed a lot. Many people around us didn’t laugh at all, especially – if I may generalise – the women, but smiled instead. On one or two golden occasions, a spontaneous arena-ful of appreciative applause broke out. Nobody whooped. I was glad about that. It’s great to see a stand-up on top of his game, albeit reciting very old material in places, and you’ve got to hand it to a man almost in his sixties for doing so much material about technology without simply denigrating it from an old man’s Luddite perspective – he’s a modern man; he does not necessarily mock the BlackBerry, he mocks the type of person that uses one. He does not pretend to not know how email works, he merely bemoans the fact that it is not delivered once a day like mail used to be, but all day long. Even the material on marriage and fatherhood seems fresh, because, as he makes clear, he’s a late adopter to these two institutions, having married at 45.

Thanks to the above laminated guest pass – something neither of us expected when we picked up our comp tickets – Richard and I had access to the inner sanctum backstage. (It’s called the Sky Bar, as it’s sponsored by Sky.) When Al played, the outer sanctum was the inner sanctum – it’s where Al was – but this time, an inner sanctum was created so that Jerry didn’t have to mix too heavily with the assembled freeloaders, just the higher echelon of freeloaders. I don’t know why this included us, and once we’d dared to enter the inner sanctum, it was pretty much empty. We were happy to have bumped into Simon Amstell and Richard Bacon outside while we tried to actually find the lift that took you to the Sky Bar, but that – or so it seemed – was the full compliment of celebs. Then Clive Anderson turned up, which was nice. We were happy enough with the turnout at this point, and the beer was free (if still served in plastic bottles, even in the inner sanctum). Then, as if by magic, all the real comedy celebs appeared – it seems that they had been watching the show from some exclusive box or something, not from the scummy rows of seats where Rich and I had been. But they were welcome to it. I loved it in Row E.

Anyway, within minutes, we were in the rarefied proximity of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Angus Deayton, Lise Mayer, Harry Hill, Lee Mack, Chris Evans, George Wallace and … Seinfeld himself. No, we didn’t speak to him, but we spoke to Ricky and Steve, and they’d spoken to him. (The famous comedian Omid Djalili had been sitting next to us in Row E, but he chose not to go to the after-show.) I found myself having an impromptu script meeting with a TV exec who has commissioned a group-written sitcom I’m working on (can’t say any more), which was not really what I expected to be doing at the Seinfeld after-show, but I suppose was poetic enough in its own way. At least I was talking about comedy. I have only met Ricky Gervais a couple of times in my life, but he is always gracious enough to say hello to me when someone that famous could easily just blank me, and I appreciate that. He is a just a bloke, after all. (He’s arguably as famous as Seinfeld. Think about that.) There was a man in the inner sanctum who seemed to be bothering all the celebs with what might well have been requests for his entirely worthy charity, but he had crossed the line I feel, and had become a pest. (He had swapped glasses with Chris Evans seconds after Chris’s arrival, and Chris was totally patient with him, but I found it very uncomfortable. I am as guilty of anyone of gushing to people I admire – you know that – but this man, a serial botherer, seemed to actually be driving people away. I guess you’d have to call it liberal interventionism.

Richard and I left around midnight, having at least breathed in air that Jerry Seinfeld had exhaled, and presumably added to the air that he was breathing with our own exhalations, and missed the last Tube home, so we had to share a cab to his house and pay through the nose for it. The “O2 Center” is a very good venue, well signposted, helpful staff, but it is a long way away from civilisation.