INTERVIEW / Out with the old stuff, in with the new: Alexei Sayle has a chip on his shoulder, which is why in Australia they've fallen for his act in a big way. But all is not what it seems with the bolshy boy of comedy. Interview by Mark Wareham

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The Independent Culture
Alexei Sayle Mk I, the quiet, bearded version in slacks and leather jacket, is reflecting on the new television series starring souped-up Alexei Sayle Mk II, the loud, shaven model in bulging shiny suit. He's talking about the show ('Friends who are usually hyper-critical say this is the best work I've done'), but I'm not really listening . . .

It takes a while to adjust to meeting Alexei Sayle. Chat off-camera with Dave Allen or Lenny Henry and you'll find a moderately toned-down version of essentially the same person. Sit down with Alexei Sayle for half an hour and you realise the extent to which his comic character is an alter ego. There's the accent - de-Scoused; and the voice - calm, almost dopey. He's not even fat, for goodness' sake. He says he's put on eight or nine pounds, in itself a revelation: Alexei Sayle, one of comedy's fat men, actually bothers to get on the scales. You don't expect him to stick out his tongue or pop up from behind the sofa pulling funny faces, but you do at least expect him to be fat.

'I've accentuated the look over the years. As a comic, you try something and if it works you go with it and grind it to death. I don't think I'd ever get thin, but I don't see why I should necessarily think that I couldn't . . . You can't live your life for your routines.'

So when it's time to get down to work, into the bathroom walks the reclusive bearded writer and out comes the brash and funny slaphead. Would he ever consider playing a gig with his beard on? 'Never. It's one of them rules. You can't do comedy with a beard. Billy Connolly was the exception. And having shaved it off . . . it's like Samson really. He seems emasculated, a lot less funny. His brain's addled. There's someone who's been in LA for too long.'

Sayle should know, having flirted on and off with Hollywood for the last decade. First, in 1982, there was Gorky Park. And if you turn on to BBC1 tonight, you might just catch him popping up in Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the Sultan.

So why has he failed to capitalise on these blockbuster cameos? Partly, it's because there is no British equivalent of America's comedian expressway, as travelled by the likes of Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Michael Keaton, non-stop to Tinseltown from the comedy clubs of New York. In this country, the bright young things of the theatre have it all sewn up.

But as much as anything, he can't be bothered. 'I don't like kissy-arsing up to producers, so I'm not equipped to get beyond a certain level in Hollywood. I can get work playing baddies in TV movies, which is usually a holiday. You get to the Caribbean for a couple of weeks and shoot a few people. To go much further, you have to put a lot of effort in . . .'

So, having largely abandoned appearing in other people's films, he's spent the last year working on his own film projects and preparing the new show. He's also been struggling with a sitcom. 'I find films quite easy to write. It's a story with a beginning, middle and end . . . unless it's a Peter Greenaway film.' And the sitcom? 'I couldn't do it. I wrote these characters, got them in the room and they just sat there not saying anything. If sitcoms were easy to write, there'd be a lot of good ones, and there aren't'

But there is a new sitcom about to go into production that Alexei Sayle believes will make quite an impact. Written by two young Irish writers, Graham Lineham and Arthur Mathews, it is called Paris and stars none other than Alexei Sayle as a struggling artist hanging out in the sort of 1920s Parisian cafes Picasso wouldn't have been seen dead in.

Lineham and Mathews will be cementing their working relationship with Sayle, having also contributed material to the new TV show, where, for the first time, Sayle finds himself in complete control. Unlike the first three series of Alexei Sayle's Stuff, he has been allowed to select his own director, writers and producer for The All New Alexei Sayle Show. And whereas Stuff was 'my live act with the 'fucks' taken out', the new series has been written specifically for TV. The result is unashamedly populist, featuring running characters and dispensing with Stuff's low- budget rep company. 'Before we had a cast of five and if you wanted an old person then you'd stick a wig on Angus Deayton. Now, if you want an old person, you get one.'

Of the running sketches, the strongest are performance artists Egbert and Bill, Australian soap Psycho Ward 11 and John Smithman, blathering leader of the opposition. Best of all is tragi-comedian Bobby Chariot, one of 'the bottom warm-up men in the country', with his catchphrases ' 'Ow yer diddling?' and 'Am I on yet?'.

Sayle says that something strange comes over him when he pulls on Chariot's revolting purple suit, permed wig and buck teeth. 'My eyes get very sad. A lot of those comics can't hold down relationships and they've got no other life apart from performing. They sleep in their Jags and a lot of them can't even talk. All they can do is tell gags. If you meet one of them and say, 'What about the Gatt talks?', they'll go, 'Heh, heh, Gatt eh? These two Uruguayans go into a bar and one says to the other . . .' Even the successful ones are pretty tragic.' Are the buck teeth significant? Ken Dodd, Stan Boardman, Tarbie? 'They've all got those teeth with that gap. It just seems to be a universal comedian's teeth formation . . .'

At 41, Sayle seems to be trying to come in from the cold. Forgotten are the days of riot control as the Comedy Store's first compere, the cod Albanian blabbering on OTT and the Lithuanian landlord in The Young Ones. Even his recent show of bolshiness on Have I Got News for You was a spot of calculated play-acting - 'I'd been off-screen for a year, so I had to make some sort of an impact.'

If you think it strange that the former rude boy of comedy should be courting mass popularity, look no further for an explanation than Australia, where Sayle has developed a taste for adulation. 'It's one of those accidents of history. You see articles, 'Fulham Woman Is A Superstar In Turkey'. Well, I'm enorrrrrrmous in Australia. They don't buy much from Britain but they put Stuff on prime-time, so they think I'm the boy . . . Britain's No 1 entertainment star. They hate a lot of that upper- class stuff like Fry and Laurie out there. They prefer my chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. After all, they are an enormously paranoid and resentful people, so that fits in with my Weltanschauung.'

'The All New Alexei Sayle Show' starts tomorrow, 9pm BBC2

(Photograph omitted)