Few careers fascinate me as much as Alexei Sayle’s. While one should always be suspicious about showbiz CVs, I defy anyone to read the ‘About Me’ page on Alexei Sayle’s charmingly outdated website and not come away with their head spinning. The obvious things are all present and correct; The Comic Strip, The Young Ones, his stand-up work. But somewhere between his top 20 single and his appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (described with the single word “Movie”), you begin to have a new appreciation of the breadth of his work. And somewhere between his appearance in the infamous disaster Carry On Columbus (“As long as I live I’ll never undestand [sic] why I agreed to be in this terrible movie”) and his part in the landmark lesbian drama Tipping The Velvet, you frankly begin to suspect he isn’t real. Sayle is that rare thing in the British media; an artist who pushes himself, tackling new genres, styles, and topics with a gleeful inventiveness.
But my own favourites among Sayle’s heterogeneous output are his two short story collections, 2000’s Barcelona Plates and 2001’s The Dog Catcher. By Sayle’s own admission, the first book was a response to his own uncertainty:
“I was feeling a little lost. I wanted to move on from comedy but didn’t know where to go. When Barcelona Plates was published to such critical acclaim… and wonderful sales figures I felt like I’d come home and fell in love with the book industry in a way I’d never done with light entertainment. Like a middle aged man going all gooey over his second wife.”
Both collections reflect Sayle’s dissatisfaction and hunger, in good and bad ways. Showbiz satires abound, most memorably in the story ‘My Life’s Work,’ about a comedy writer so ground down by industry bullshit that a life-threatening car crash comes as a relief:
“With skill, dedication and hard work the surgeons dragged me back from the edge of death.
As good a punchline as that is, the sense of a writer taking out their frustrations with the idiot executives can wear a little thin. More interesting are Sayle’s blackly comic stories on wider political and cultural topics. ‘Lose Weight, Ask Me How’ is another dark monologue in which cannibalism is presented as a sort of fad diet; ‘A Cure For Death’ is a Marxist science fiction story whose twist ending sees some rich bastard ascend to heaven while everyone else is trapped in eternal banality.
But the crown jewels of Sayle’s short fiction are undoubtedly ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War’ and ‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of’. The former is the story of a Liverpudlian exile returning to her parents’ estate after decades of estrangement, the latter a black comedy about the Soviet dictator’s psychiatrist. Both stories balance a global scale with a savage individuality, portraying the brutality of restrictive communities and perverse ideologies, and the ways they follow from wider historical events. They are also very, very funny. In the final scene of ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War,’ the protagonist runs into Stanley Park:
“She came to the boating lake, once it had bobbed with colourful rowing boats but when the Militant had been running Liverpool the genial old men who ran the lake had shown insufficient knowledge of Trotsky’s disagreements with Stalin over the theory of Socialism in one country so they’d drained the lake and made the old men care assistants in a halfway house for lesbian crack users. Now it was a muddy bowl.”
‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of,’ meanwhile, outlines its central conflict like this:
“It thus came to Novgerod Mandelstim that if he was somehow to cure Stalin then the murder would immediately begin again. Normally he knew that the patient’s wellbeing was supposed to be the only concern of the psychiatric practitioner, but he felt he was beyond hiding behind such spineless evasions. Nothing was normal in the Soviet Union. No, he concluded: every second that Stalin remained ill, others remained well; therefore it was his duty as a human being, though perhaps not as a psychiatrist, to actually strive to make his patient worse! God knows enough of his colleagues had managed to do this without trying.”
The dryness of the language, its deadpan descriptions of conflicts and atrocities, is akin to much British comic fiction. But the insistence on political context, clearly informed by Sayle’s Marxist background, gives the jokes a real potency, enhancing the personal nature of the characters’ dilemmas rather than distracting from them.
Both stories were shoo-ins for the first series of Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, a set of half-hour radio versions of his short stories, adapted by Graham Duff and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 2019. They were joined by ‘Banner Bright,’ about a group of students amid the ’68 protests, and ‘The Minister For Death,’ about a geriatric assassin working for communist militants. The first series was slick, confident, and uniformly well-acted (with Peter Capaldi as the neurotic Stalin a particular highlight). The general reception was positive, although little actual press coverage is easily findable, and Sayle joked at the time that “there will be subsequent series of The Absence of Normal, no matter how it goes down.” Yet the joke belies a fundamental issue for the second series of The Absence of Normal, which ran on Radio 4 from the 10th to the 31st of March 2021. Having burned through the obvious classics, what to adapt next?
To which the first episode presents one rather distressing answer: the dregs. The original ‘Clive Hole’ is not one of Sayle’s better stories. The tale of a TV commissioner incapable of making a decision, and a pair of hapless TV writers trying to get their kitschy crime drama commissioned, it has a decent line in absurd humour, but the basic premise is very media-centric and painfully 2001. The joking reference to “the small and neglected part of TV centre where programmes were sometimes made” was probably a cutting reference then, but since publication the number of studios in use by the BBC there has more than halved, to the point where a media satire which treats Television Centre as an unassailable temple of British media feels out of step.
And sure enough, the 2021 play feels curiously anachronistic. A few details have changed — Clive Hole now pours ants and honey into his computer in a fit of procrastination, where in the story it’s a VHS player — but in 2021 it feels odd to portray a pair of TV writers so utterly at the beck and call of the BBC. (To say nothing of the fact that the show they are pitching, a detective show set in Lancashire in the 70s, with “all that great glam music for the soundtrack” is so obviously a rip-off of Life On Mars that it’s weird nobody mentions it. It’s the one part of the story that feels prescient, yet it gets in the adaptation’s way).
It’s not a complete write-off. Tim McInnerny gives an effectively dithering performance as Clive Hole, conveying a sense of humanity even through his very archly-narrated nervous breakdown. And the best gag from the story, in which TV writer Tatum assumes that a hospital’s signs about switching off mobile phones don’t apply to him because “I’m in television,” survives the adaptation intact. But it’s a weak start to the second series, and hints at a lack of strong source material for the episodes to come.
Fortunately, the second episode improves things, by leaning into the source material’s age rather than ignoring it. ‘Barcelona Chairs’ is a portrait of a psychopathic architect named rupert, who becomes a key adviser to Tony Blair due to his total disdain for democracy. The horrors of Blairism have become even more apparent in the years since the story’s publication; to actually hear rupert (a sharkily smooth Hugh Quarshie) fantasise about “starting major wars in minor countries” is even more chilling in 2021.
The radio version cannily builds on the original’s critique of Blairism, and shows some media savvy that the first episode lacked. The story is framed by a podcast interview with rupert’s wife Helen (bullied by rupert into starting her own flag-cleaning business, “Ensign of the Times”), who has retired with rupert to southern Spain. This acknowledges the adaptation’s status as a satire of Blairism in retrospect rather than contemporaneously, and allows for some strong new gags. A line about rupert and Tony being photographed drinking Prosecco with Noel Gallagher and Ben Elton is a sharp comment on Blair’s celebrity fixation, as well as a pot-shot at Sayle’s more cynical alternative comedy colleague. The original story’s lengthy skewering of think tanks and taskforces is distilled into a handful of lines such as “Blair loved think tanks: they meant he didn’t have to do all his own thinking.”
But the story’s best details spin out of the minimalist monstrosity of a house rupert builds for himself and his family, the maintenance of whose utter bareness drives everyone including him mad. Yes, it’s a very unsubtle metaphor for the neoliberal project, but it gives rise to several delicious images. The best of these is the secret bedsit Helen rents in Vauxhall, where she sneaks away to “sit in the rocking chair and stroke a ceramic clown.” ‘Barcelona Chairs’ makes for a far stronger piece of radio than ‘Clive Hole.’ While the play’s final beats are somewhat patronising, spelling out a twist ending that was perfectly clear on the page, the overall effect is a much stronger portrait of a mad executive, with much broader and more cutting things to say.
The Nameless Park
“You know, my wife Linda has always disliked this story,” says Sayle’s narrator halfway through the radio version of ‘The Nameless Park Between St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive.’ “She thinks it’s too nasty, and also somewhat derivative. I shout at her, ‘What do you know? I won the BBC Audio Drama Award for Best Scripted Comedy in 2019!'” While taking this sort of fourth-wall break seriously is usually a fool’s errand, it’s hard not to take Linda’s side here.
The original story appeared in The Independent on New Year’s Day 2008, and is freely available online. It’s a curious choice to adapt, even setting its nasty derivativeness aside; the whole thing barely breaks 2,000 words, which doesn’t seem enough to fuel a half-hour play. On top of that, its best moment is the lengthy description of the eponymous park, which doesn’t feel well-suited to radio:
“Jade, though, secretly thought of herself as a little bit different to other girls her age superior, more spiritual: the proof of that was that she reserved her greatest enthusiasm for the nameless and neglected park that ran between her home in St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive. She thought it had to be her most favourite place in all the world. As soon as she passed through the battered sandstone gateposts with the weird Celtic-looking cross carved into them, she felt like a young girl in a fairy tale, or possibly a television advert for expensive shampoo.”
And sure enough, hearing the actors spout dialogue like “I feel like I could be anywhere, I could be in a fairy tale or an expensive shampoo advert” is largely an exercise in frustration. Without enough plot to justify its thirty-minute runtime, the play resorts to gimmicks like the aforementioned fourth-wall break, and a spirited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style musical number. Again there are a handful of decent gags, but the overall piece drags, and the misogynist undertones of the original story are all the more noticeable here. Sayle writing that ‘Like most girls her age, Jade Suvari had many enthusiasms: pop music, stuffed toys, video games, horses, make-up and fashion,” might prompt an eye-roll, but radio!Jade proclaiming “I’ve literally got a tattoo that says ‘push yourself, because no-one else is gonna do it for you’ on my arse!” just feels crass, and not in a particularly clever way.
‘The Nameless Park’ is the worst episode of The Absence of Normal to date, a thin story padded to within an inch of its life. Sayle and Duff are clearly trying, but the episode feels misconceived at a fundamental level. They frankly needed to throw out the source material and adapt something else.
The final episode, on the other hand, is a triumph, taking another very short piece and expanding it in thoughtful yet intuitive ways. The original ‘Locked Out’ is an eight-page third-person mood piece about a high-flying lawyer locked out of her home, who has a nervous breakdown after watching the comings and goings of her own street on a typical weekday evening. The radio play reconfigures the story into a first-person monologue with Maxine Peake as the neurotic and reactionary Katherine, who talks us through her street observations and relates them to her personal history.
Straight away this is a compelling set of changes. The shift from third- to first-person gives Katherine’s emotional collapse an immediacy it never had on the page, and the play’s extended runtime allows for a richer, more intimate characterisation. Peake gives a typically astute and sensitive performance, even if she borders on the hammy towards the end. Sayle’s historical awareness asserts itself here, too. Katherine begins the play by recollecting her art teacher telling her class about the Situationists. The psychogeographic slogan “Beneath the pavement, the beach,” comes up early in the play, and Katherine relates it to contemporary psychogeographers Iain Sinclair, Will Self, and Peter Ackroyd, who she says wrote “some creepy books about London.” That sense of simultaneous fascination and revulsion at the city’s underbelly informs Katherine’s reaction to the uncouth teenagers and “swarthy” men who pass her by. “I didn’t think my street was like this!” Peake splutters, perfectly capturing a tone of middle class indignation as she realises the people she shares a space with.
Towards the end Katherine deliriously states that “I can’t think of anywhere I’d ever feel safe!” before the play delivers a sickening punchline that blows the pat ending of the original story completely out of the water. Compared to the previous episode’s piling on of gimmicks, ‘Locked Out’ is remarkable for its basic confidence in the material and its performer, which pays off in a rich, layered production. It is the clear highlight of the series, and a vindication of Sayle and Duff’s project in adapting these twenty-year-old stories for radio now. Done right, Sayle’s fiction can still surprise, challenge, and disturb with all the power it once did. And it is still very, very funny.
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