I’m still too busy with work commitments to put any new material on this blog. However, here is a slightly updated version of something I posted a few years ago. Appropriately for today, March 17th and St Patrick’s Day, it’s a tribute to the greatest Irishman of the late 20th century.
16 years after his death, I still regard the Irishman Dave Allen as the best stand-up comedian ever. Allen was known to many British TV viewers during his heyday in the 1970s as ‘the comedian with half-a-finger’, although he once pointed out that he was actually ‘the comedian with nine-and-a-half-fingers’.
When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland and when the Dave Allen Show (1968-86) was at the height of its popularity on BBC1, he was the undisputed King of Comedy for me. I didn’t always understand the jokes and stories he told his studio audience, though my parents invariably guffawed at them. However, I loved it when the glass of whisky he sipped from at the side of his chair – despite being a ‘stand-up’ comedian, he spent most of his time sitting down – reached a low level and he said, “It’s time for some sketches.” Those sketches were packed with slapstick and surreal absurdity and were perfect fodder for a ten-year-old. After they’d shown the sketches and the programme returned to Allen in the studio, his whisky glass would be full again.
However, when I look back at the show now, I realise the sketches have weathered the passage of time least well. Rather, it’s the sections where Allen simply sat and chatted to his audience, marvelling at life’s ridiculousness and telling jokes, anecdotes and yarns, that seem timeless now. These tapped into a tradition of storytelling he was familiar with from his boyhood in Firhouse, Dublin, where his father worked as general manager of the Irish Times.
Allen’s formative years were schizophrenic ones. From all accounts, he had a loving and cultured family at home, but he received his schooling from a succession of priests and nuns who had no compunction about beating their young charges and threatening them with eternal hellfire. “People used to think of the nice, sweet little ladies,” he once said of those nuns. “They used to knock the f**k out of you, in the most cruel way that they could. They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain… The priests were the same.”
It’s fair to say that during his professional career Allen got his revenge on the Catholic clergy who’d persecuted him in his schooldays, both through his verbal routines in the studio and through his sketches, which provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags about priests, nuns, monks, altar boys, bishops and, occasionally, the Pope himself.
Taking pops at organised religion and at any kind of authority (for Allen was no fan of politicians either) was brave for a stand-up comedian on British TV in the 1970s, when the safe targets were considered to be mothers-in-law and ‘wimin’ generally, and blacks, Pakistanis, homosexuals and, indeed, Irish people. However, in the history of British comedy, Allen wasn’t just important for his anti-authoritarian streak. Although some of material consisted of traditionally structured jokes and punchlines, some of it too was based on his observations of everyday life and its absurdities. In fact, he was doing observational humour long before the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s turned such humour into a stand-up staple.
Allen’s mocking of Catholicism earned him a TV ban in the Irish Republic. This made me feel almost privileged to be living in Northern Ireland, where I could watch his show on the BBC. Also, of course, I felt privileged to be a Northern Irish Protestant, so that I could laugh at all those gags about the Pope doing stripteases and performing somersaults down the aisles of Vatican chapels, bishops lusting after sexy nuns, priests sprinkling holy water over their ironing, altar boys breaking wind, confession boxes turning into dodgem cars, etc., without suffering Catholic guilt and fearing I’d be damned to eternal hellfire. Though in the interests of religious equality I should say that I remember him cracking a lot of jokes about the Reverend Ian Paisley too.
Predictably, Allen also earned the ire of clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Britain’s equivalent of the Moral Majority. She once described one of Allen’s sketches, involving a post-coital conversation between a husband and wife, as ‘offensive, indecent and embarrassing’. Incidentally, when I did some research on Mrs Whitehouse recently, I discovered that in 1977 her organisation gave an award for ‘wholesome family entertainment’ to Jimmy Savile.
Allen was said to have received death-threats from the Provisional IRA for putting the nose of Ireland’s Catholic establishment out of joint. However, Danny Morrison, the former IRA man and editor of the Republican News, has claimed that Dave Allen was actually a big hit with his old terrorist colleagues, especially when they were incarcerated. “Dave Allen was a major hit with Republican prisoners. We all loved his show. We particularly loved his anti-clerical material. You have to remember that Dave Allen was a subversive in the Seventies. He was anti-establishment, and you couldn’t get more anti-establishment than us, so we identified with him.” So it sounds like during the 1970s the inmates of the Republican section of Long Kesh were laughing at those stripping and somersaulting Popes, lusty bishops, sexy nuns, comical priests, farting altar boys, bumping confession boxes, etc., as heartily as us Protestants were.
As well as his comedy shows in the 1970s, Allen hosted a documentary series where he would track down and interview eccentrics, oddballs and people who generally lived their lives not giving a toss about what other people thought of them. Though they aren’t remembered today, Allen’s documentary programmes created a blueprint for later programme-makers like Louis Theroux. Unlike Theroux’s trouble-seeking, if-I-give-them-enough-rope-they’ll-hang-themselves approach, however, Allen was genuinely interested in and respectful of his subjects’ eccentricities.
Dave Allen should have thrived during the 1980s. After all, this was when a younger generation of comics made British comedy less about traditional joke-telling and more about lampooning authority and observing life’s absurdities, stuff Allen had been doing for years. But his TV appearances became less frequent. He did, however, enjoy an acclaimed run doing a comedy show in London’s West End. I heard people claim at the time that Allen was such a genius he went onstage each evening without any script and simply talked about whatever came into his head. From what I’ve learned subsequently, things weren’t quite so freeform. Allen worked with scriptwriters and those writers sat in the front row of the audience holding up cards with keywords written on them, to keep his mind running in the right direction, if not exactly on track.
Dave Allen made his final TV series, of purely stand-up material, in the early 1990s. I know some fans of his shows twenty years earlier who felt uncomfortable with these later performances. Allen, now noticeably greyer, saggier and wrinklier, sounded a lot more acerbic than he had when he’d been perched on that 1970s chair with his whisky-glass, his slapstick sketches and his congenial Irish charm. The routines were more observational than ever but were invested now with an old man’s cantankerousness, with Allen venting his spleen on monosyllabic teenagers, supermarket queues, dog-lovers, retirement and the aging process generally.
One of Allen’s most memorable tirades at this time went: “You wake to the clock, you go to work to the clock, you clock in to the clock, you clock out to the clock, you come home to the clock, you eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock, you get up to the clock, you go back to work to the clock… You do that for forty years of your life and you retire. What do they f**king give you? A clock!” As the F-word was still a big no-no on British television at the time, questions were raised about him in the House of Commons.
And that was pretty much it for Allen’s public appearances until his death in 2005. His later low profile was due partly to ill-health and partly to his desire for a quiet and stress-free retirement. And he managed to take with him to the grave the true story about what’d happened to his missing half-finger, although over the years he’d teased reporters, interviewers and audiences with tall tales about it. He once told Clive James that his brother had knocked him on the jaw while he had the finger in his mouth, causing him to chomp it off. And I seem to recall him telling a journalist for Loaded magazine that it’d been devoured by his own arsehole one night when that orifice was feeling particularly hungry.
Here’s some Youtube footage of Allen, a self-described ‘practising atheist’, subjecting the Book of Genesis to his own, inimitable scrutiny.
© BBC / From the Daily Telegraph