Alexei Sayle: The Story Behind This Photograph of Me with Public Enemy Number One John McVicar

Alexei Sayle: The Story Behind This Photograph of Me with Public Enemy Number One John McVicar

This photograph was taken in an alley behind a block of flats in Battersea. The other man is John McVicar. In the 1960s McVicar was an armed robber who was tagged “Public Enemy No. 1” by Scotland Yard. After his arrest he was given a twenty three-year jail sentence. In prison – encouraged by the trendy academic Professor Laurie Taylor – he took a degree in Sociology. After his release McVicar wrote an autobiography which was made into a film starring the lead singer of ‘The Who’ Roger Daltrey.

I was interviewing him for a documentary I was involved in. This was an Arena film about Britain’s most popular car, the Ford Cortina. The idea of making a serious documentary about a mass market car was at that time a radical one. Arts documentaries were supposed to concentrate on earnest high-minded subjects such as Nobel Prize-winning novels or expressionist painters, but the Arena crowd had always been different. In the end, the Cortina documentary is still the most watched arts documentary ever shown on BBC 2, or something.

In the film I was asking McVicar how good the Cortina was as a getaway car for an armed robbery. I actually found him quite unsettling; I am a pretend hard case but he was the real thing, quiet but with an air of coiled rage. My wife Linda is terrified of meeting any criminals because she thinks there will always come a point when they will ask you to “do them a little favour”. This fear began to infect me too. Every time the cameraman changed lenses or reloaded the camera I expected him to lean across and say to me in a whisper “Y’know Lex there’s a branch of the Halifax in Epsom I reckon you and me could knock over easy as pie, what do you think?” When the interview came to an end and McVicar still hadn’t tried to involve me in an armed robbery I felt a bit let down.

Thatcher Stole My Trousers – Alexei Sayle

‘What I brought to comedy was an authentic working-class voice plus a threat of genuine violence – nobody in Monty Python looked like a hard case who’d kick your head in.’

In 1971 comedians on the working men’s club circuit imagined that they would be free to go on telling their tired, racist, misogynistic gags forever but their nemesis, a 19 year old Marxist art student with a bizarre concern for the health of British manufacturing was slowly coming to meet them.

Through the next decade Alexei Sayle would be a student at Chelsea Art School, a clerk in a DHSS office (where nobody did any work), one of London’s bottom ten freelance illustrators, a school dinner lady and a college lecturer (who kidnapped his students), before he became the original MC of London’s first modern comedy club, the Comedy Store, and the landscape of British comedy was altered forever.

Thatcher Stole My Trousers chronicles a time when comedy and politics came together in electrifying ways. Recounting the opening season of the Comedy Store, Alexei’s experiences with Alternative Cabaret, the Comic Strip and the Young Ones, and his friendships with the comedians who, like him would soon become household names, this is a unique and beguiling blend of social history and memoir. Fascinating, funny, angry and entertaining, it is a story of class and comedy, politics and love, fast cars and why it’s difficult to foul a dwarf in a game of football.