Have you ever noticed how much stuff there is in the world? If you haven’t, take my word for it – there’s a lot. But I’m not the first to notice this; in 1988, Alexei Sayle was so overcome by the amount of it around that he began the first of three BBC2 series that were dedicated to finding stuff and then trying to explain some of it. In a comedic way, of course.
‘Stuff’ was part sketch show, part vehicle for Sayle to demonstrate his stand-up comedy, a trade he’d been honing in his role as the first compere of London’s Comedy Store. For his new show he travelled around the country on a moped and, in between the often surreal sketches, Sayle would go into one of the ranting monologues that he was already famous for, in progressively stranger places.
There would be a vague theme regarding an aspect of life in modern Britain running throughout each episode and while the humour of the show was broad, politics was always a big part of it too. In keeping with Sayle’s own personal comedy targets, Prime Minister of the time Margaret Thatcher came in for some fairly vicious barbs. He also occasionally bit the hand that fed him; spoofing the BBC’s continuity announcers and logos and its generally perceived position in society at the time.
The show always felt original, with that sense of ‘anything could happen’ that alluded to Monty Python’s own brand of peculiar comedy – often sketches would overlap, or Sayle would walk in over the end of one with the beginnings of another soliloquy. Sometimes it was not apparent a sketch was underway; one episode started with a scene played so straight it was not until a long way through it, when one of the characters said something ridiculous, that the audience were made aware that Stuff had actually begun.
There were many, many memorable skits during the three series; a particular favourite has to be The Noble Art of Verbal Abuse where Alexei, dressed as a rather effeminate dandy, instructed his fellow fops on the correct way to respond when being threatened by a gang of heavily armed Millwall supporters. ‘What do you use to defend yourself?’ Sayle asked. ‘Witty reposte?’ ‘Sarcastic remark?’ came the replies. He affirmed this to be true and then added: ‘Ironic banter, heavy innuendo, badinage, bon mots, dextrous word play and so on and so on…’
Series three also featured the delights of Monsieur Aubergine; a farcical, almost silent character who Sayle used to send up the idea of bad comedy. The sketches would have Aubergine in a particularly pedestrian situation (sitting on a park bench for example) with a joke set up that you could see coming a mile off. A laughter track that abruptly stopped and started would be used to portray the fake audience practically wetting themselves with hysterics at anything he did, even if it wasn’t at all amusing.
The ‘fat man in the tight-fitting suit’, as Sayle called himself, was also a running joke of Stuff. So much so that the opening titles of the first series featured a well-dressed, well-groomed, good-looking man entering the BBC Television Centre and receiving admiring looks from all the women he passed, including the female receptionist. The man made his way to make-up where he was then given some fat padding and stubble and had his head shaved and his suit arms and legs cut off until he became the Alexei Sayle that we all recognise. He walked back through the reception, only for the receptionist to this time say ‘Who is that fat b*****d?’, a catchphrase that would crop up on plenty of other occasions throughout the 18 episodes.
In fact, these self-directed ‘overweight’ jibes were a feature of all his opening titles; series 2 had Sayle depicted in cartoon form as ‘Steamboat Fatty’ – a parody of Mickey Mouse’s first screen outing, ‘Steamboat Willie’. Series 3 featured Sayle as a faux-Zorro character, riding into the scene on his moped, wearing a cape, eye mask and hat over his suit, before carving a ‘B’ into a nearby tree. An accompanying mariachi band sang the lyrics "This fat renegade / Carves a 'B' with his blade / A 'B' that stands for 'B******d'." Nothing like getting a few jokes in before the others do, eh?
Whilst Sayle was obviously the star of the show (he was already well known to many, many television viewers from his appearances in The Young Ones and The Comic Strip but this was his first starring role) there were many other faces that would go on to be familiar to UK television audiences. Angus Deayton, Jan Ravens (an impressionist who appeared in Carrott’s Lib and Whose Line is it Anyway?), Mark Williams and Arabella Weir from The Fast Show, Harriet Thorpe (The Brittas Empire and Absolutely Fabulous) and Felicity Montague (Alan Partridge’s put-upon PA Lynn is probably what we all love her best for) all featured in Stuff regularly.
Although most of the material in Stuff was written by Sayle, he also had contributions from other comedy writers; most notably David Renwick and Andrew Marshall. Renwick is better known for the creation of another angry man, Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, as well as Jonathan Creek and Marshall for 2point4 Children, although the two of them also collaborated on many earlier sketches for programmes including Not the Nine O’Clock News and The Two Ronnies.
Stuff ran until 1991 and was widely praised by television critics. In 1994 and 1995 the comedian followed it up with The All New Alexei Sayle Show, which also went out on BBC2 for two series of six episodes each. Written this time by Father Ted geniuses Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, it had more recurring characters and sketches than Stuff had had. Alexei Sayle’s Merry-Go-Round was the third in the trilogy of sketch shows, with six episodes airing in 1998. Linehan and Matthews were replaced by a team of new writers, including Edgar Wright (later to become famous for Simon Pegg vehicles Spaced and Shaun of the Dead amongst others), while adding some serious comedy weight were Jessica Hynes - then Stevenson – (The Royle Family and Spaced as well as many more), Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen), Noel Fielding (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd) and Peter Serafinowicz (How Do You Want Me?, Spaced, Look Around You).
Oh, and David Walliams was in it too. But you can’t have everything, can you?