THE BLUNT, aggressive humour of Alexei Sayle always came with an intellectual bite. Whether from the ranting Russian slum lord in The Young Ones television comedy or the Cockney nutcase singing Didn't You Kill My Brother, his satirisation of culture and consumerism clawed its way to the surface. In the 1980s, Sayle was part of the movement to reintroduce anarcho-punk-socialism, after all three had burnt out against the right-wing firewall of the Thatcherites. That form of violently political commentary is now long gone, a peculiarly dated flashback when placed alongside the numbing effect of Britain's Labour government of today. But Sayle the survivor has flourished in a variety of roles. The Liverpudlian has not been short of work, turning his hand to a variety of disciplines within the entertainment industry and media. Never unfortunate enough to be described as a Renaissance man, he is, nonetheless, an all-rounder who sees possibilities everywhere and is undaunted about pursuing them. He still writes the occasional column for The Independent, but is taking his time, stopping to smell the roses and then write about the experience with a subtler eye. He's published a number of books, among them the patchwork 1984 murder mystery Train to Hell, two volumes of short stories (Barcelona Plates, 2000, and The Dog Catcher, 2001) and, recently, his first novel, Overtaken. Sitting in the King's Bar of the Hotel Russell, around the corner from his home in London's Bloomsbury, Sayle is more bewhiskered, but much the same as he appeared in those early TV roles or as the snivelling henchman in Gorky Park and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He's laid back and amiable. 'There's not really been a plan to work this steadily,' he says. 'But I think it's about being self-analytical, so that you're always trying to think ahead a bit, to see, to try to not go down too many blind alleys. The entertainment business is so full of potential traps, material wealth, celebrity itself, the natural reaction of age. I just try to think of my way around all those things before I get stuck. 'It's important to have a kind of moral sense. It's like Christ being tempted in the wilderness. Show business is about constantly being offered blandishments of flattery - you know, free shoes or whatever - and all these things subvert your art, really.' Overtaken is sufficiently longer than a novella not to be, yet its structure, if not its eclectic themes, are more like a short story. There are stark, obvious dog-ears. The voice of the narrator explains his actions and intentions up front. All that's left is finding out if we're going to be pleasantly surprised with how his plans come unstuck or find a pat, unremarkable conclusion. Fortunately, Sayle fashions enough of a twist to blindside us momentarily, but it still smacks of the pithy, spat-out endings of many of his short stories. I mention this to him, and he looks upset for a moment, then looks at the ceiling. 'I think you evolve as a writer and because I've started out as a short story writer there are similarities,' he says. 'But I hope it's not just an extended short story. That's not what a novel is, really. Hopefully, the rhythm's different. 'The book's about several things. It's obviously about the randomness of events, but it's also about personal responsibility, about moral responsibility. Hopefully, it's not overtly didactic, but there's an implied moral message there. It's not explicit. 'I think that's OK. It's like, Sting is a bit of a nob and people laugh at him for his campaigning and all that, but he's never done a song about the rainforest or anything. He says 'my campaigning is different, my art is my art'. 'There's an interesting point there, that if you write about environmental concerns in a bludgeoning way then you're actually making money out of it, and I've always been ambiguous about that. I'm an activist, but I don't write about it. You have to be analytical about your own motives to survive, really. If you just plough ahead without being reflective about what you do then you end up like Ozzy Osbourne.' The book growls with a latent violence as the principal character comes to grips with the deaths of his best friends in a car accident. The fuming style seems particularly Sayle-like, yet this is another assessment he wants to play down. 'I don't think it's just anger. My stand-up, despite having those elements of violence and surrealness, often had a lot of intellectual references that people missed. I think with the writing you can be much more subtle. 'My feelings about human relationships are always ambiguous. People who have had a family or are married, and human beings, generally, have very ambiguous relationships. It's a kind of nonsense that we're fed by TV, like Will and Grace or something. These people vaguely screw each other over, like Friends, but there's a sense that, in the end, they'll come through for each other, which I think is kind of nonsensical. 'One of my intentions when Overtaken starts out is that the reader thinks 'Oh, this is just a kind of lightweight social satire on consumerism'. But then it becomes much darker.' A particularly dark theme is genocide. 'I wanted, through writing, to try to understand for myself,' he says. 'It's a fascination for me that there are extreme aspects of human behaviour that one person can turn on another, as they did in the Balkans.' He shakes his head in practised bewilderment. 'How people can do that sort of stuff to people they've known all their lives. I don't think I get that close to it, but I'm fascinated by that aspect of human behaviour. It's always there under the surface, I think, and it can be brought out very easily.' Sayle is to attend the weeklong Sydney Writers' Festival which starts tomorrow. He says he's looking forward to the trip (he last visited Australia on his final stand-up tour eight years ago), but marvels at Australia's willingness to involve itself in America and Britain's war on Iraq. 'They always seem to do it, don't they?' he says. 'I remember them sending one frigate to the Falklands about three weeks after the fighting had ended. Why is that?' I mumble something about national identity and the Howard government, but Sayle, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, is already drawing a bead on Britain's 'wartime' leader, Tony Blair. 'All Labour governments are going to be a terrible disappointment, they're always going to be,' he says. 'I remember the Wilson government. I remember how close they were to big business, how inefficient and dogmatic they were. So that was always going to be the case with this lot. 'I sort of think that, in a way, we've been exceptionally unlucky with Blair himself. Although the great sweeps of history aren't affected by individuals, the smaller moments are. And it seems to me that Blair is a particularly deranged individual. I find him difficult to read. George W. Bush is much easier. 'Blair is a strange mixture, an extremely cunning politician. He understands the way other politicians think. The way he ****ed over Clare Short [the former secretary for international development] for instance was masterful in a way. I think he kind of really destroyed all that optimism that we had and he's allowed his sort of Messianic tendencies to grow around him, with people like [Home Secretary] David Blunkett and [Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw and his kind of sliminess. 'With a different prime minister, things would have been better. It was never going to be a socialist paradise, but I think Blair is a particularly odd individual. It seems to me it's hard to know what they've got out of the bargain or what we've got out of it. It's similar to Blair's relationship to Bush. Blair's not getting anything, he's just losing his hair and looking weird. And us as a country aren't getting anything out of this Faustian pact. The US don't care about us.' Next on the agenda is a movie based on one of his short stories. He's working on the script. He's maintained strong contacts with the film business in Britain and the US, and recently worked on an American TV programme with rising star Sienna Miller. 'I'm not really doing scripts any more, but there's a movie adaptation of The Dog Catcher. I'm trying to produce this movie, as well. Not putting my money into it, you understand. I'm not mad.' Sayle's wife, Linda, does most of his administration. They've been happily married for 30 years. 'I think I've been lucky,' he says. 'I wouldn't put it down to any intelligence on my part. It's just the fact that my wife and I come from very similar backgrounds. I don't know if that helps. We've just changed more or less in similar ways. That's just fortune. Things just happen.'