Alexei Sayle

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A few years ago I was working on a film which was set in Australia, and as it was a particularly slow-moving enterprise I had a lot of time to chat to the other actors and actresses, who were all antipodeans.

One interesting fact soon came to light about their lives: this was that apart from being actors they all had a variety of other jobs. For example, one of my co-stars, besides appearing in films, also had his own talk show on Triple J (a national FM radio station); and when he wasn't doing that, he was what they called a "story liner" on the TV soap Neighbours. He was responsible for devising various strands of the plot-line that wove through the long-running series. Indeed, he was the guy responsible for having the character Harold Bishop washed out to sea when the actor who played him demanded a pay rise. He bobbed off the coast of Victoria for a few weeks while negotiations went on with his agent. When it looked like he might settle for less, Harold was spotted drifting near a surf beach, but when he finally refused to drop his price they drowned him.

The ubiquity of this actor/story liner/talk show host was by no means unusual. The make-up woman was also an opera singer and made a range of home-bottled pickles, while the electrician was a (published) poet and part-time preacher.

The reason so many people had up to three different careers going was not that they were some sort of renaissance people but rather that there are simply not enough talented people to go round in a country as thinly populated as Australia. Poor Barry Humphries, for instance, even has to double up as both sexes.

It's not a phenomenon confined to the antipodes. For example, in Iceland there are simply not enough people interested in fringe politics, so the Reykjavik Branch of the Communist Party of Iceland also has to double up as the Icelandic Fascist Party. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they're Communists; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays they're Nazis; on Sundays they stage a demonstration and simultaneously try to disrupt it.

But Australians not only have several different jobs on the go at any one time, they can also be several different people at any one time. Let me explain. While I was spending my solitary week in Hastings trying to write, one thing I noticed was that nearly all the acts appearing during January and February at the local gig - the Hastings White Rock Theatre - were "soundalike" bands and acts. Now I think I'm right in saying that the "soundalike" bands phenomenon started in Australia with a group called Bjorn Again, four people, two boys and two girls, who in the absence of the real thing gave concerts exactly re-creating the Swedish quartet Abba at the height of their fame. After "Abba" came the "Australian Doors", the "Bootleg Beatles" and so on. Pretty soon these Aussie bands were coming over to Britain and UK musicians picked up on the idea, with the result that now the list of out-of-season attractions at most English seaside towns goes something like:

10-20 January: The Australian Pink Floyd.

21-26 January: The Streisand and Sinatra Extravaganza.

27-29 January: Minnelli!!! - Direct from Wales (though this last performance was to be something of a disappointment, as it turned out to be a 60-year- old man from Pontypridd who came on stage looking remarkably like the film director Vincente Minnelli and sat in a chair for two hours talking about directing movies such as Two Weeks in Another Town and what a retired miner from the valleys thought it would be like to be Judy Garland's second husband).

Though it is good that any kind of live performance is thriving, to me there is something disturbing about the popularity of these soundalike and lookalike acts. What they offer the public and what the public finds attractive about them is that they give you a sort of Abba Lite. You get the hits of the artists but without any possibility of spontaneous creativity, without any possibility that the band might show any sign of the wayward spark of genius that all great artists possess.

In fact, so popular has the soundalike trend become that the real Tears for Fears have found that they can make more money sending themselves out on the road as the "Belgian Pet Shop Boys". And watch out soon for the "Portuguese Alexei Sayle" - he'll be playing five nights at the London Palladium while I could only manage one, and he'll probably get a column in the Washington Post, which will be syndicated to 2,000 other newspapers in the United States alone.