To the younger generation, the name Alexei Sayle may not set many bells ringing. However, skip back to the late 1970s and this communist Jew from Liverpool was at the forefront of a revolution changing the face of British comedy forever.
After retiring 20 years ago, one of our nation’s most influential comics, best known for the ‘80s sitcom The Young Ones, delivers a sequel to the much-loved Stalin Ate My Homework. Sayle tells the next chapter of his journey to fame in Thatcher Stole My Trousers where we relive his glory days in the spotlight. Opening on a twenty-something Sayle in 1971, we follow him to London where he subsequently navigates the bourgeoisie of Chelsea Art School, becomes MC of London’s first modern comedy club and births a national comic renaissance.
It’s clear that aside from crafting jokes, Sayle is not ignorant to what makes a good book. Short anecdotal chapters of a Northerner living among the Kensington elite characterise the first third of the autobiography and immediately immerse the reader into 1970s Britain. Satirical tales as communist Scouser meets Tory art students are regularly interrupted by stories of Sayle’s mother’s ludicrous activities back home. Unlike the biographies of most comics, his dry humour subtly creeps into the narrative and Sayle successfully translates his loud on-stage persona into readable material.
Part memoir, part social history, the autobiography is laced with fierce political commentary that is attributed to Sayle’s upbringing as the only child of two outspoken communists. The fast paced narrative is peppered with metaphors that constantly remind the reader both of Sayle’s strong leftist background and his fantastic wit. In one particular instance, he likens his mother’s ferocity as a lollipop lady to that of the Vietcong fighting American Imperialism. Inspired.
At times, this obsession with political affairs and social oddities of the time, such as the monopoly of the apparently inadequate British Shoe Corporation, threaten to bore the reader. Fortunately Sayle’s skill in transporting the reader to the immediacy of a scene curtails any monotony, but these extended passages do dilute the narrative’s sense of direction and ultimately leave the reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied by the lack of any real culmination.
Whilst the initial pace reflects Sayle’s earlier lack of personal direction, the second half of the book develops a steadiness that mirrors his own sense of stability in cementing himself as a comedian. Meanwhile the regular references to Sting, Robin Williams, Lenny Henry and others offer an exciting insight into the goings-on of worldwide celebrities that Sayle has encountered. And yet, despite frequently reminding us of it, it is his unwavering sincerity, and at times painful consciousness to remain true to himself, that make Sayle such a pleasure on paper.
Thatcher Stole My Trousers is a fun, fast-paced account of the struggles of a comedian’s rise to fame, that runs alongside the exciting evolution of British comedy. Sayle merges political cynicism with personal story-telling to create literature that takes the reader right back to the heart of buzzing 1970s Britain.
Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle
Bloomsbury Circus (2016)
Photo credit: Chris Boland via Wikimedia Commons