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Sayle, Alexei (1952-)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Sayle, Alexei (1952-)

One of the most original and influential performers to emerge from the 1980s alternative comedy scene, Alexei Sayle started off as a memorably aggressive stand-up comedian in live venues and late-night TV before breaking into mainstream comedy and achieving a considerable reputation as both a writer and character actor along the way.

Born in Anfield, Liverpool on 7 August 1952 to an English railway worker and a Lithuanian pools clerk, Alexei Sayle owed both his name and his eccentric upbringing (summer holidays visiting tractor factories in Latvia) to his parents' ardent Communist beliefs. After studying painting at the Chelsea School of Arts, he worked in a variety of menial jobs before joining a touring cabaret troupe, and appeared in the film Repeater (d. Chris Monger, 1979). Back in London, he became the Comedy Store's first compere, rapidly becoming notorious for his ruthless eviction of inadequate performers with the aid of a gong.

His television debut was in alternative comedy showcase Boom Boom... Out Go The Lights (BBC, 1980), though 1982 was his breakthrough year as a TV performer. It began inauspiciously with a regular stand-up spot on O.T.T. (ITV), Central Television's misconceived "adult TISWAS", though during its run he also appeared in Nigel Finch's seminal Arena documentary, The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (BBC), groundbreaking for its treatment of a subject not normally tackled by arts programmes. More recently, Sayle presented road safety series Drive (BBC, 1994), and wrote regular motoring columns for The Independent newspaper and Car magazine.

In April, he played Commissar Solzhenitsyn in Armageddon satire Whoops Apocalypse (ITV), but his real breakthrough came in November with the first series of The Young Ones (BBC). Initially playing the students' sinister Eastern European landlord Jerzy Balowski, then assorted members of his extended family, Sayle's weekly appearance usually revolved around an off-the-wall monologue that bore little relation to anything else going on.

Despite longstanding connections with the Comic Strip team, Sayle did not appear in the first two series of The Comic Strip Presents... (Channel 4, 1982-84), but he played a memorable cameo as officious motorcycle cop Perryman in the feature film The Supergrass (d. Peter Richardson, 1985). He then gave an uncharacteristically low-key performance in The Strike (Channel 4, 1988) as Paul, the former miner whose heartfelt script about the 1984 strike is grotesquely distorted by Hollywood. In the same series, Sayle wrote (with Pauline Melville and regular writing partner David Stafford) and played both the criminal brothers Carl and Stirling Moss in Didn't You Kill My Brother? (Channel 4, 1988), a Brechtian gangster spoof that was given a short cinema release before its television debut.

But by then Sayle had firmly established himself as an attraction in his own right, thanks to several long-running series of award-winning (International Emmy, Royal Television Society, Broadcasting Press Guild) BBC2 shows. Alexei Sayle's Stuff (1988-91) was a surprisingly winning blend of gently Pythonesque sketches and aggressively polemical stand-up, and this formula continued in the ironically-titled The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1994-5) and Alexei Sayle's Merry-Go-Round (1998). The last of these introduced dismal Northern comedian Bobby Chariot, another display of Sayle's softer side.

During this period, he made numerous cameo appearances in feature films (Gorky Park, US, 1983; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, US, 1989; Carry On Columbus, d. Gerald Thomas, 1992) and played more substantial television supporting roles in numerous series, including Doctor Who story Revelation of the Daleks (BBC, 1985) comedy thriller Up Line (Channel 4, 1987), Malcolm Bradbury's euro-satire The Gravy Train (Channel 4, 1990), and Selling Hitler (ITV, 1991), in which he played the genial forger of the Hitler diaries.

He wrote and starred in one-off dramas such as the surreal 'Itch (Channel 4, 1991), about a man marooned on a traffic island, and the sentimental comedy Sorry About Last Night (BBC, 27/12/1995), which Sayle admitted he wrote for himself on the grounds that no-one else was ever likely to offer him a romantic lead. Paris, a sitcom set in the bohemian avant-garde art world (Channel 4, 1994) was widely seen as a failure, and the US comedy thriller series Keen Eddie (2003), in which Sayle played a regular supporting character, was axed in mid-run by the Fox TV channel, despite good reviews.

Sayle has also had success as a recording artist, especially with the single 'Ullo John! Got A New Motor?' (which reached number fifteen in the UK singles chart) though in recent years his performances have increasingly taken a back seat to his writing, with the acclaimed short story collections Barcelona Plates (2000) and The Dog Catcher (2001) followed by the novel Overtaken (2003). One of his short stories, 'Lose Weight... Ask Me How' was adapted for the BBC's Spine Chillers series (2003), with Sayle himself as the hapless lead.

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alexei Sayle's Stuff (1988-91)Alexei Sayle's Stuff (1988-91)

Aggressively satirical sketch show from the fat Liverpudlian Marxist

Thumbnail image of Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (1980)Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (1980)

First TV showcase for the new wave of alternative comedians

Thumbnail image of Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)

Long-running film showcase for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of Wolcott (1981)Wolcott (1981)

Drama series about a black detective based in East London

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

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Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

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