The satire boom of the Sixties chose as its targets politicians, church, unions. The world moves on, and in 1980 so-called “alternative cabaret” is gunning for rock entrepreneurs, media manipulators and a pre-packaged youth culture inherited at second hand . . .
❚ WE ARE IN A SLEAZY CLUB DEEP IN SOHO STRIPLAND. On stage, corseted by a too-small mohair suit, a South London Mod of particularly repellent aspect is delivering from beneath pork-pie hat a foul-mouthed tirade: “Do what? Leave it out! P—, b——-, c—! Jean Paul Sartre. I don’t give a monkeys. Know what I mean?” He is more than usually inarticulate. He tells us: “When I was at school the careers adviser asked me what I wanted to do. I said hurt people – badly. Mentally or physically? she asked. Oh physically, I said, so she said well, that’s social work out, isn’t it?”
This is Alexei Sayle, Chelsea Art School graduate turned nightclub entertainer, discharging his brutish black humour with all the menace of a charging bull. To him, the audience are as red rags to be trampled on, especially anyone who’s into saving the whale, street theatre, self-help groups, Zen, drugs, the Open University, the Arts Council, live-in lovers, Habitat, pine, or scatter cushions.
Sayle, 28 years old, keeps company with an SAS squad of young performers whose armoury of malice and ridicule is blitzing a new front for comedy in the 1980s. Theirs is unsentimental up-front clowning geared to such peers as can decipher the code.
Rik Mayall, of an act called Twentieth Century Coyote, gives us a scathing lampoon of a feminist poet reciting with gifted timing “an angry love poem” that’s as hilarious as any Monty Python creation. The Outer Limits give us an OTT trailer for a two-man airline disaster movie, plus a shrewdly informed parody of a heavy metal rock star’s story as told to a mass-circulation newspaper. “Music?” he says. “Don’t talk to me about music.”
There is a dour Scot, Arnold Brown, who tickles the intellect as he delicately knifes the Hampstead “NW Twee” set by referring to “silent picketing vigils outside the white-sugar factory”. And there are exquisite speciality acts like Furious Pig, Britain’s first voice band (look, no instruments yet oh so musical) and Cardboard Cut-Outs, singers whose dislocated gestures gently pastiche the skin-deep sincerity of the average showbiz animal.
All this closely calculated anarchy is being whispered about as Alternative Cabaret and it is a visibly youngish audience who is to be seen stumbling legless with laughter out of the ambiguously named Comic Strip which shares premises cheek by jowl with the Festival of Erotica at Raymond’s celebrated Revue Bar. The tawdry location, tacky scenery and costumes, all conspire to attract the word-of-mouth cognoscenti and keep the less receptive at bay.
As it is, some luckless ticket holders find their sensitivities under assault and sit stunned and frozen-faced like those first-nighters in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers. Regulars, however, leave wet-eyed with mirth, purged and elevated. They know to bring their hair-shirts.
“This is basically a rock audience,” says Alexei Sayle unhelpfully afterwards. “All right, they are in the B,C,D socioeconomic groups, have degrees from universities like Exeter and have at some time probably been vegetarians,” he adds sarcastically, borrowing the detestable jargon of the adman who herds consumers into precisely targetable social groups. His patter is so personalised as to seem monogrammed.
“My humour is aggressive because it is inspired by things that annoy me … like graphic designers on roller-skates wearing headphones. Why? Because they’re symptomatic of manufactured values. It’s living a certain dictated life-style just like the Sunday supplements depict. A fat lot of good my Chelsea Dip AD did me – I certainly didn’t learn the craft of painting. Art school is a cock-eyed form of higher education for the academically thick. It did teach me to perceive nuances in fashion and equipped me with the intellectual references for my act. Our cabaret would mean FA to a manual worker from the North, though.”
❚ WHAT WE ARE WITNESSING AT THE COMIC STRIP and select other places is of course the rebirth of satire, but of a subversive pungency Britain hasn’t known in 20 years. When Peter Cook erupted into 1960 with the Beyond The Fringe team, their audience was the middle-class theatregoer, their language that of Oxbridge intellectuals, and their aim to tilt at the old order: politicians, church, unions. As institutions, these made easy targets and it was enough then simply to dare to satirise a previously unassailable Establishment for The Fringe crowd to cause absolute furore.
In the pop charts of the day The Shadows were at Number One and the crazed media circus had yet to be invented to mass-market rock superstars, among others, and foist their “shoddy splendour” on a nation of “battery people”, as Alan Bennett was to describe Britain in his play Forty Years On by the end of that decade.
Today the Eighties satirist has as his target trendiness itself, a wholly Sixties creation exploited by the opportunists of the Seventies, phoneys like rock entrepreneurs and media manipulators, momentarily fashionable gurus like shrinks and sociologists. These today represent the old order which the Comic Strip satirist wants to pull down. His audience is one of young adults whose language is cynicism, a rock generation grown finally indignant at having inherited in the Seventies a pre-packaged youth culture at secondhand. Hence the rebellion in music and fashion against big business and towards homegrown alternatives … and the commandos of New Wave comedy who can liberate live entertainment both from the cosy iconoclasm of the Fringe clan and the mother-in-law jokes of the music-hall tradition.
“There is a pressure here to speak the truth
as we see it and Alexei’s Mod embodies
certain attitudes very truthfully.”
When in 1962 writer Dennis Potter wanted to deride the adman’s image of the Sixties Mum on satire’s pioneering television show, That Was The Week That Was (aka TW3), he described her as “so flaming ignorant she can’t tell Stork from butter”. When Alexel Sayle caricatures a typical creature of our own times, his repugnant Mod Two-Tone Poet, he goes tooth and claw to dress and perform him with maximum bad taste, hallmark of today’s New Wave street fashion.
And as Potter’s media Mum passed into folk memory for having “2.4 children”, so too will Sayle’s Mod for his brilliant song and dance entitled ’Ello John, Gotta New Motor? It is a hymn to the great goddess, Cortina, most prized of all cars among a certain class. Its language makes it unperformable outside a nightclub, and Peter Richardson, the Comic Strip’s producer and one half of The Outer Limits, says: “There is a pressure here to speak the truth as we see it and Alexei’s Mod embodies certain attitudes very truthfully.”
“The stage is the only place you can say what you want,” Arnold Brown says. “TV would anaesthetise what we do.”
And Sayle: “People who go to rock concerts and are pissed off with fringe theatre represent an enormous market nobody is serving. They are looking for excitement in live entertainment. Anyone can bullshit about awakening the masses. What I’m good at though, is making people laugh. Of course, you wouldn’t find someone like me funny if we were living in a socialist Utopia.”
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