Dave Allen was a brilliant Irish comedian who achieved great success in Britain. He was born Tynan O’Mahoney in Dublin in 1936. His father was the editor of “The Irish Times”. He also had a successful stage career. In 1972 he starred in The Royal Court‘s production of Edna O’Brien‘s play A Pagan Place, and appeared as both Mr Darling and Captain Hook in the London Coliseum‘s production of Peter Pan.In 1979 he played a troubled property man suffering a mid-life crisis in Alan Bennett‘s television play One Fine Day. He died in 2005.
Stephen Dixon’s “Guardian” obituary:
At the height of his career, Dave Allen, who has died aged 68, was Britain’s most controversial comedian, regularly provoking outrage and indignation in a society that got upset more often – and more easily – than it does today. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he introduced a laid-back, satirical, personal, storytelling style, first in Australia, and later on British television shows, such as Tonight With Dave Allen and the hugely successful Dave Allen At Large, with a mixture of elaborate sketches and intimate, sit-down comedy.Behind the calm facade, as he paused to sip his whiskey, or flick cigarette ash off his immaculate suit, he was quietly, humorously furious about political hypocrisy, the church domination of Ireland, and, in fact, all forms of authoritarianism. His stance, at its best wholly uncompromising, made him a godfather of comedy, and won him the admiration of a later generation of stand-ups.
Allen was a little like the reporter he once wanted to be; he simply told people about funny things he had seen or experienced, adding the spin of a natural storyteller. “I don’t know if there’s somebody out there, some god of comedy, dropping out little bits saying, ‘Here, use that, that’s for you, that’s to keep you going,'” he said in 1998.
He scandalised countless people in the 1970s with a sketch which involved the Pope doing a striptease; he was banned from Australian television for a year after telling his producer on air to go and masturbate, and leave him to continue an interview instead of going to the advertisements; he upset Mary Whitehouse in 1984 with an account of a post-coital conversation; his use of the word “lavatory” on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s was objected to; and the BBC apologised when, in 1990, he used the word “fuck” in the punchline to a joke – an incident which provoked questions in the Commons.
He explained why it was necessary, in a routine about employees living their lives by the clock – and then being presented with one when they retired – to use the word: “It’s a disdainful word, because it’s not a damn clock, it’s not a silly clock, it’s not a doo-doo clock. It’s a fucking clock!”
Sometimes, Allen just sat there and told straight gags, and sometimes they were sexist, and sometimes they smacked a bit of paddywhackery. It would be rewriting history to pretend that his material consisted entirely of insightful, observational monologues about life.
But it must be remembered that when he started on TV, Arthur Askey was still a big name, Benny Hill and Dick Emery were stars and Jimmy Tarbuck was “youth comedy”. To an extent, Allen had to play by established rules; what was groundbreaking about him was that there were rules he chose to ignore.
He had wonderful timing. You can tell great technical stand-ups when they deliver the punchline just when you think they’re going to do something else. And there’s another one, just when you think they’ve finished. He was paid large amounts of money to attack institutions in a subtle and subversive way. He, and the slightly later Billy Connolly, traded in alternative comedy long before that phrase was coined – observational stories laced with satire, or very long versions of old jokes in which he would digress into lots of comedy byways.
“The hierarchy of everything in my life has always bothered me,” Allen said in 1998. “I’m bothered by power. People, whoever they might be, whether it’s the government, or the policeman in the uniform, or the man on the door – they still irk me a bit. From school, from the first nun that belted me.
‘People used to think of the nice sweet little ladies … they used to knock the fuck out of you, in the most cruel way that they could. They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain – grabbing you by the ear, or by the nose, and lift you, and say ‘Don’t cry!’ It’s very hard not to cry. I mean, not from emotion, but pain. The priests were the same. And I sit and watch politicians with great cynicism, total cynicism.”
For his 1970s BBC shows, Allen often impersonated a priest; another scenario had him facing a firing squad in some banana republic, delaying his execution with increasingly preposterous last requests. He also had a successful stint compering ITV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium. His interest in journalism re-emerged in documentaries, shot in Britain and the United States, in which he sought out oddballs and eccentrics. And then there was the West End stage – “In case you wonder what I do,” he would tell the audience, “I tend to stroll around and chat. I’d be grateful if you’d refrain from doing the same.”
In the 1980s, Allen made several shows for Carlton Television, minus his trademark cigarette. “I just realised it was crazy spending so much money on killing myself. It would have been cheaper to hire the Jackal to do the job.”
After the early 1990s, he retreated from the limelight, partly due to ill health, but occasionally released videos of earlier material; one such opened with him saying he had retired, but that every so often he had to do a bit of work to keep himself in the style to which he had become accustomed – “a bit of an Irish retirement, actually”. As he grew older, he brought a rueful awareness of ageing to his material, with reflections on the antics of teenagers and the sagging skin and sprouting facial hair of age. He won a lifetime award from the British Comedy Awards in 1996.
Allen was born David Tynan O’Mahony, the youngest of three boys, into a reasonably prosperous Dublin family. His grandmother, Norah Tynan, was the first women’s features editor on the Freeman’s Journal; his aunt, Katherine (KT) Tynan, was a poet. His father, Cullen “Pussy” O’Mahony, who died when David was 12, was the general manager of the Irish Times, the paper on which his brother Peter later worked as a journalist.
Pussy was also a drinking partner of Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien/Myles na Copaleen), then an Irish Times columnist, and Allen recalled that his father threw big birthday parties on new year’s eve, which the boys would watch from the stairs.
Although his father was an agnostic, Allen was brought up as a Roman Catholic, the faith to which his English mother had converted from Anglicanism. His early religious upbringing, in an era dominated by state and church control, influenced the direction his material took later on.
Newspapers were in the family, and in those days, said Allen, “you didn’t go off and make a career for yourself. You tended to take up what the family did.” So he started work as a clerk at the Irish Independent, and, after a short period on the Drogheda Argus, moved to London. But journalism was not a runner and, after a variety of factory jobs, and a stint at Butlin’s, a career in entertainment beckoned.
It was Sophie Tucker, the American vaudeville star and “Last of the Red Hot Mommas”, who spotted Allen’s potential when he played a minor role in her London show in the early 1960s. She suggested he try his luck in Australia, and there he first hit the TV big time.
In Sydney, he worked with opera singer Helen Traubel, another woman who profoundly influenced his career. She suggested he replace the corny one-liners with material based on the reality of his youth. Thus was born a style that made the public, and a generation of comics then in its infancy, think a little differently about humour, about the power of words, about authority, and about the world around them.
Allen’s first marriage to actor Judith Stott ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife Karin, and three chidren from his first marriage.
· David Tynan O’Mahony (Dave Allen), comedian, born July 6 1936; died March 10 2005
The above “Guardian” obituary can be accessed also online here.