Stand-up Alexei Sayle on the legacy of pioneering Comedy Store event

Comedian Alexei Sayle says it is a “privilege” to have inspired arena acts such as Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall through a tiny night he helped run in the early 1980s.

The 68-year-old helped pioneer the alternative comedy movement and described its impact while appearing on Desert Island Discs.

When the Comedy Store opened in Soho, London, in 1979, Sayle responded to an advert in Private Eye magazine and became its compere, offering a platform to acts including Rik Mayall and French & Saunders.

Christmas TV 2020
Michael McIntyre (Ian West/PA)

He said: “Up until a year ago it was a giant industry that is stand-up comedy now. The arena acts, the Michael McIntyres and the Jack Whitehalls and the Sarah Millicans and so on.

“They all spring from what we did in that strip club in Soho. That little club in Soho was that one racehorse that sired all the other racehorses.

“That is partly just luck. That is just a question of timing.

“To be there then and be instrumental in the birth of an entire art form, a subset of an art form and an entire industry, it is a privilege that is granted to very few people and I am just grateful to have been there.”

Jack Whitehall
Jack Whitehall (Ian West/PA)

Sayle told host Lauren Laverne his idea of success had been to appear on television but his appeal was limited by the black comedy and political nature of his routines.

He added: “I came to realise there was a limit, ultimately.

“I was on this live comedy show on ITV in 1982 called OTT. It was my chance at big time fame.

“But at the same time, my close to my act was singing a song about Albania which was then a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. I think the song ended with a reference to Joseph Stalin.

“I wanted to be big but I also just wanted to do this mad stuff. You are never going to be a family friendly entertainer doing that stuff.”

Terminator 3 – Mayall
Rik Mayall (Myung Jung Kim/PA)

He also recalled trying and failing to carve out a career in America.

Sayle was signed in 1992 to a long-term contract to play an eastern European chef in The Golden Girls sequel The Golden Palace, but was fired before the pilot was shot.

He said that “unconsciously I didn’t want to be there” and he would act “very odd and my performances were very patchy”, one time performing a tap dance for the stars.

He added: “I cannot tell you how unpleasant those three women were about my tap dancing. They were just so rude. And me clumping and humping about. They were so unpleasant.

“So I got fired. They fired me on my 40th birthday.”

Among his musical choices was American folk singer Joan Baez’s recording of the protest song Joe Hill, after a version of it was sung at his mother’s funeral.

The comic, who was raised by communist parents, joked his desert island would become the “tropical socialist republic of Alexei Sayle”, and included The Battle Hymn Of The Soviet Airforce as its national anthem.

Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds at 11am on Sunday.