Alexei Sayle is, in his own words, “a moody kind of northern oik.” Having spent half an hour on the phone with him, you can’t help but agree – he’s dour, and extremely dry. But touch on certain subjects – such as cyclists or Bruce Springsteen – and he erupts into a warm, friendly chuckle.
My suggestion that his new collection of short stories, The Dog Catcher, is a form of Alexei autobiography, elicits a brief version of this laugh. “It’s all generally inspired by my travels or observations, but I never intended it as an autobiography.” Yet the stories in The Dog Catcher neatly tell the stories of various events in Alexei’s life.
Whether it’s knowledge from his former membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain showing through in ‘The Only Man Stalin Ever Feared’, insider voiceover tricks in ‘My Lucky Pig’, or his experience of cycling in ‘Who Died and Left You In Charge?’, Alexei’s life and personality is constantly very much in evidence. And always accompanied by that trademark wit.
“I try to be humorous, because I’m afraid of coming across as pompous,” Alexei concedes. “Although I want to make serious points, I cover myself with the humour – it’s a very modest thing.”
While he’s still clearly passionate about serious issues – the government’s prohibitive strategy against drugs particularly angers him – it’s still the minutiae of social etiquette that he picks on for his humour.
In The Dog Catcher, this manifests itself in Tony Blair following in Jamie Oliver’s footsteps by mimicking a cockney accent. “If I can get a gag out of it, I will. That’s the comedian’s craft – picking out the details that people recognise.”
One detail everyone will recognise is red-light jumping cyclists. “That really does make me mad,” he says, clearly riled. “Careening through pedestrian crossings, going the wrong way up one-way streets, yet so smug and happily anti-social. And I can only say that being a cyclist myself.”
In ‘Who Died and Left You In Charge?’ a cyclist finally gets mowed down by a vengeful motorist, although Alexei denies him pity by brutally adding that he “was a complete waste of fucking space and deserved to die”.
This sort of twist – and this is only a mild one compared to most of his stories – is a favourite Alexei trick. “I was very much into classic sci-fi authors – such as H.G. Wells or Brian Aldiss – as a child,” he explains. “They were masters of the plot twist, and I still love it as a device.”
As you might have expected, Alexei still has one surprise left up his sleeve, which is a return to our screens. “Do I feel more at home on television? Oh yes, I still love the attention – I’ll be back soon.”
Copyright © 2001 Adam Vaughan