Dave Allen


Drenched, I am greeted by Dave Allen opening the door of his Kensington home with the warm welcome, “Come in, come in… Come in and drip.”

Dave Allen is 50 and suddenly grey. Elegantly scruffy, casual, poised, he wears neat collapsible glasses and a handsome Irish Walter Matthau sort of face: worn, warm.

He has chosen to let his interviewers into his home but not into his heart.

He has a modern, modest home with polished wood floors, pictures and paintings everywhere and shelves stocked solid with books: psychology, medicine, law, cricket, dictionaries, Dickens, Thurber, Trotsky, Hemingway, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw.

His living room, like the other rooms I see, is a healthy litter of pens, letters, notes, clothes, tapes and paint tubes. He is working on three small dotted Impressionist derivatives.

He is kind and friendly but fiercely private, so the small talk reveals as much as the interview.

He passes on Orton’s remark that vomit and madness are alike in that it’s always the passer-by that suffers and he then trumps my favourite definition of a cynic (someone who will not get out of the bath if the telephone rings) with “a cynic is someone who refuses a second peanut… That’s lovely,” he chuckles.

Straight away there are stories and that instantly reassuring, irresistible soft Irish brogue, the calm charm, the fabulous pauses, the wise, considered reflections and anecdotes, knowing observations and fond memories. The style of the delivery.
“I always remember asking a policeman in Dublin the quickest way to the Cork road… And he directed us… And two weeks later we came back and he was there and he said, ‘Did you find it alright ?’ It was lovely. A lovely moment,” he says, warmed.

Of course it’s the voice that spins the tale itself into a lovely moment and such moments that stop me from piercing the private traumas of his life: his divorce after 19 years of marriage to actress Judith Scott, a publicly embittered affair; or the suicide this year of his brother at a Hostel for the homeless after he had taken him daily to Westminster Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

We are chatting – and chat is Dave Allen’s own art, a love almost – because his new show (a two-month season at London’s Albery Theatre) made my jaw hurt: two and a half hours of laughing is astonishingly tiring.

There is no set, no script, just a square white carpet, a slim black stool (used only to stand the drinks on), dead moths dive-bombing the ground from the rafters and the casual, classic Allen chat.

In conversation or on stage, his observations centre on his increasingly obsessive struggle with the absurdity of life. He is a rationalist in an irrational world. This, the saying goes, is not rational.

His subjects range from the cosy and familiar (statistics, cellotape, Post Office queues) to the shatteringly serious (time, God, mortality).

So why are you doing this show ?
“Well, doing live shows is the same as television: you have to come back to it because as far as the public are concerned, if you’re not doing it, you’re dead. But I mean I might be working in Australia or Hong Kong or the Gulf. I can work just by looking out of the window, making notes. The Albery is a lovely theatre, very intimate, but it takes a bit of knowing. You jiggle stuff round, try things out… I’m lucky because my subject matter broadens, because rather than just being affected by English society, I travel a lot. I love travel…”

Do you get nervous ?
“I still have nerves, yes. I have to have half an hour to myself, a kind of slow ritual, undressing, dressing, polish my shoes… I never had that dread of freezing because this is what I want to do. I actually get a great deal of pleasure from it, so I’m quite relaxed.”

Do you have dreams about telling jokes, being on stage ?
“No, but sometimes in that kind of limbo state there’s part of my brain going, ‘Wake up, wake up, you fool, this is funny.’ So I wake up and write it down and it’s hysterical. It’s genius ! And I think, ‘Why can’t I write like this during the day ?’ And then when I wake up in the morning I find this idea and it’s Absolute Rubbish. Always appalling.”

How much should we assume that the way we see you is the way you are, from the stories about drink and cigarettes, childhood, teaching kids to drive ?
“Well it is very personal, yes. The majority of it is factual and then broadened out. I’ve never missed smoking, no. I gave up five years ago. I just gave up. I thought to myself, ‘Why is it I can be on stage without one cigarette, the only period throughout the day ?’ The body creates its own desire if you deprive it. So you start eating, not because you’re hungry but because the body is saying, ‘If you eat you’ll become fat and you don’t want that, so why don’t you get cancer instead and have another cigarette ?’”

And what about the juice ?
“People imagine I’m storming away, walloping it down, but it’s just the image. People say to me, ‘What are you brushing ? What’s wrong with your legs ?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve got herpes, madam’ or ‘I’ve got little eels crawling up my legs,’ haha.”

Then of course there is God.
“Ah, yes.”

Although he points out that “a lot of people in the clergy actually have a wild sense of humour, like doctors about medicine,” one imagines they’d need it if they saw his hilarious anecdotes about his own Religious Education at the hands of the Carmelite and Holy Ghost Fathers.

“’Jesus died for your sins,’ they said…’ ‘When ?’… ‘Two thousand years ago’…’ ‘But I’m only fucking four and a half !’… ‘Well, he died for your sins. He was born on Christmas Day and he died at Easter’… ‘Well he didn’t hang around, did he ? Got his Christmas presents and his Easter eggs and fucked off !’… ‘No he didn’t ! What else do you know about Him ?’… ‘Well, Jesus’ mummy was Mary’… ‘Yes’… ‘And his daddy was God’… ‘Yes’… ‘So Mary and God were married’… ‘No they weren’t’… ‘So he’s a bastard !’… ‘He is not a bastard, you little bastard !’”

This is coupled with the idea he offers us of God as the first sperm donor, and giving the Holy Ghost the phial with the sperm telling him: “give it to this Jewish bird in Bethlehem, blow your bugle a bit and do the Artificial Insemination,” and the Holy Ghost arriving through the window, blowing his bugle and saying “Congratulations ! You have been Chosen to be screwed by a spooky !”

So, do you ever wonder what’ll happen if you ever meet up with Him ?
“Well… if he is there I’m going to have a long talk with him, I can tell you.”

I think he might want a word or two with you himself.
“No, no. I’m going to put him right on a few things, I can tell you.”

Later he remarks on the stupidity of gravestones and when I ask him who from history or literature he’d most like to chat to up in Heaven, he says matter-of-factly: “It’d be like talking to the Invisible Man, wouldn’t it… My father, I suppose.”

There we leave it.

Not surprisingly, in an hour talking to Dave Allen, there are stories – enchanting, simple stories. These are what stay with me.
“I have a heap of memories, yes: the smell of a house, if it had fresh bread, soggy grass, long cycle rides, great stores of memories. I think I had a very happy childhood, yes. Looking back I have great warmth for my childhood. I was brought up in Dublin, yes, the youngest of three brothers.”

What do you remember ?
“Gang fights, rival gangs, building dams to make swimming pools to swim in. We were like beavers. We’d block off the river and every cow and sheep downriver is screaming ‘Water !’ and the farmer’s going, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there was a drought.’ Defending our pool, great battles… I had a great dog, which I bought for tuppence, called Tuppy and he became and extraordinary friend, companion, guard, confidant, confessor… The local cinema was great, on a Sunday. You knew exactly what the film was by the way the kids came out like Errol Flynn or Zorro or Tyrone Power or Frankenstein. If it was Buster Crabbe there’d be hundreds of little Irish kids with no teeth and imaginary guns going ‘Stick ‘em up now !’”

He stares off fondly out of the window.
“There was a notice in the cinema which said ‘No guns allowed’ ‘cos as soon as the bad guy came on, we’d just shoot him ! We had cap guns and there was a posse of usherettes who’d storm the aisles with flashlamps. ‘Leave your guns here’, all that…”

Did you ever get into any trouble, with the police or anything ?
“Well the real danger was from the farmers and their workforce… If they caught you robbing their orchards, they’d beat the crap out of you. I came out with black eyes and chipped teeth and was thrown into nettle beds… One time I hacked down this Christmas Tree from this protected forest with one of those Swiss Army penknives, which are great ‘cos you can do everything with one of those – pick your nose with it, do brain surgery on your brother, anything. It was a great adventure for me, getting past all these rangers…”

A head of steam is clearly building up here.
“Now, this road, you could go up there every day for two years and never see a soul… Nobody ever travelled up this road… There was no reason to. There was nothing there… But round the corner comes this policeman on a bike, so I drop it and run. And he chases me for miles but there’s NO WAY I’m going to get away. He catches me and says, ‘I’d have chased you to hell and back’. I said, ‘I gathered.’ He said, ‘It was just your unlucky day.’ I said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘I’m the Cross Country Champion of All Ireland’… I was fined two pounds.”

You can never imagine him getting one of his rolling, strolling stories wrong, tripping up over a punchline or over-playing a pause. It is, indeed, his art.

He still goes back to Ireland regularly but admits to being both surprised and appalled by the recent vote to reject the legalization of divorce: “I’m surprised they want to stay in whatever decade they’re in, yes. It’s not ‘nice’ that Ireland stays the same at all, no. Change is life, change is innovation, colour, change is everything. Without change you stop breathing…”

In accordance with the dignity Allen has, he’s kept his distance from show business in an almost unique way.

You’ll never see him on one of those idiot-games like Blankety Blank, and I wonder how many of the Alternative Comedians will be able to say that when they’re fifty, having already dived into those abysmal sitcoms.

Change has certainly been a dominant influence throughout his career. Besides the famous Dave Allen At Large series, he’s played in two Edna O’Brien plays and an Alan Bennett TV play, made an acclaimed series of American documentaries (The Melting Pot), which looked at drug-pushers, Skid Row, undercover police squads and American psychiatry, and made two programmes about The Great English Eccentric which left him thinking: “They were truly sensible ones. They weren’t in traffic jams from 7.30 to 9, fighting traffic wardens, all that insanity…”

When he left school he followed his grandfather, father and brother into journalism with a job as a cub reporter on The Drogheda Argus.

Then at 19, David Tynan O’Mahoney went into show business “for no particular reason” other than a few Laurel & Hardy films.

He was a Butlins Redcoat and played the circuit of Variety, panto, Summer Season and nightclubs before getting tours with The Beatles, Sophie Tucker and Val Doonican and going on to six-week seasons at The Talk Of The Town and compering the Palladium Shows.

“I never thought about it as a kid at all, no. The only thing I ever did was I played a frog and exposed myself when I was four ! The costume was skin-tight, so I’d taken my knickers off and the zip went. The audience was in hysterics, I thought I was a great success. And there was this nun trying to grab me every time I went by the wings, lunging at me… They were always saying to me at school, ‘Stop laughing, this is a serious subject’ or ‘Take that smile off your face’, which is a wonderful thing to say. They always said I had the wrong attitude to life. I used to mitch off school, and I’d go to museums or art galleries and look at paintings and artifacts from Fiji or the Samoan Islands. They’d say to me, ‘You’re disrupting your education by going to these museums’, but of course it was far better than what I learnt at school,” which he describes as “Latin grammar, guilt and mathematics.”

Forty years on and they’re still saying much the same thing.
“People say, ‘It’s too serious a subject to laugh at.’ To me, the only subjects I don’t think you can laugh at are people’s afflictions or racialist/sexist gags, which have no place at all…I hear politicians say Extraordinary things. I heard one politician say the other day, ‘It’s about time people learnt that they’re not on this earth to enjoy themselves’… Extraordinary. But there are people who will sit back and say, ‘Yes, yes, quite right.’ People talk about ‘Ronald Reagan The Great Communicator’ ! The man is the worst communicator I have ever seen ! It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Sex of course, in particular, attracts regular attacks and Allen warns of a serious loss of personal liberties from both the American (Christian) Fundamentalists and the (Agnostic) Victorian value merchants over here.

I ask him if he saw Mary Whitehouse, an old adversary of his, on television saying, with terrifying, oblivious logic, that she’d watched Themroc on her video at 8 o’clock that morning and what a disturbing film it was ?

“She’s a very dangerous woman,” he mutters. “War to me is shocking, not sex. These people who get irate about sex, who speak about ‘talking dirty’ or who describe Ulysses to me as a ‘dirty book’, they’ve got very serious hang-ups. The Church and the politicians and the Government protect themselves by talking about ‘lewdness’ or ‘disrespect to the Queen’ or ‘profanity’. That’s the way society protects itself.”

Allen once said of his first ever TV show (which originated in Australia and started here in 1968): “Viewers turned on wondering if this was the night they would see me kill myself.”

Why ?
“Jesus, you’re going back nearly twenty years now… It was basically an interview programme and we’d discuss things like Exorcism and The Church or Common Physics, Inventors… Then I’d do things, like I went underwater in a car to show how you get out of a car underwater. I stood behind a sheet of bulletproof glass while they shot the shit out of it… There was one where I laid on a bed of nails with a bed of nails on top of me whilst they lowered a Bentley onto it. I just wanted to know how you could do it and survive. I mean, if they’d dropped it onto me, the fucking thing would’ve perforated me… I’m not sure if I’d do it now, mind you… You certainly found out if you really wanted to live, yes, if you were glad to be alive afterwards.”

Have you always had this calmness, this self-assurance ?
“Well, the older you get, the more aware of yourself you become…I’ve never had psychoanalysis, no…. Brendan Behan described himself as a ‘daylight atheist’, which is lovely. I’m not sure I’m quite to that state. It’s not all calm, it’s not all soft. There are moments when I’m up and down, rushing inside… Like now, I really have to go…”

And so sensing, perhaps, that I will overstay my welcome and overstretch my curiosity, he snaps to a halt.

After the calm and the charm, the soft nostalgia, I get a glimpse of him cursing for not having the time to do some letters and trying to get the washing machine to speed up with his son’s washing. (Although he lives alone, he has four kids, aged between 18 and 27, who come to visit.) He’s soon bright again and apologises by asking me if I talk to myself too. Who else will listen ?

Allen’s self-portrayal as a grouchy eccentric comes to life as we begin to search for the place he’s left his car (a black Volvo).

He goes out of his way to kick away (rather than pick up) some litter, snarling: “I hate rags in the street, don’t you ?”

Eventually we find the car. I remember he has a line about “people always coming up to me, saying, ‘Hey, you’re the guy with half a finger’,” then pausing before shouting, “I have got NINE AND A HALF FUCKING FINGERS.”

I ask him about the famous finger, but naturally he’s not telling.
“I never tell people. It would spoil it.”

I thank him again for the show and the chat. He gives me an affectionate punch on the shoulder, leaving me, as he always leaves anyone with a sense of humour, smiling.