Dave Allen, one of television’s most successful comedians, died March 10, aged 68. The suave Irish comic, a former journalist and Butlin’s redcoat, was famed for the monologues he casually delivered from a high stool with a drink and cigarette to hand. His favourite hunting grounds were sex and religion, which were parodied in short sketches and echoed in his closing catchphrase “May your God go with you”.
He frequently goaded the Catholic church and his strong use of language made him a regular target for critics. His use of the F-word in 1990 prompted the BBC to issue a public apology and led to questions in the House of Commons. In the offending sketch Allen reflected: “We spend our lives on the run. We get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, go to work by the clock, get up again, go to work – and then we retire. And what do they give us? A fucking clock.”
Pressed by journalists, he vowed not to give up swearing. “I am Irish and we use swearing as stress marks,” he said. Banned by RTE in the seventies he managed to upset the ‘clean-up TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse with a humorous account of a postcoital conversation. Whitehouse denounced him as “offensive, indecent and embarrassing”.
The youngest of three boys, David Tynan O’Mahony was born in Tallaght, Co Dublin, on July 6, 1936. His father was a journalist and his aunt was the poet Kathleen Tynan. He began his career as a clerk on the Irish Independent and later came to London, where he tried to make his name as a reporter.
Comedian Jack Dee said: “Dave Allen was our greatest storyteller and nobody ever came close to his ability to spin a yarn. He influenced the world of comedy as a whole. He was unique, right up there with the greats like Morecambe and Wise.”
In 1955 he worked as a redcoat at Butlin’s Skegness and changed his surname to Allen. He went on to work as a comic in strip clubs and variety theatres before making his TV debut on BBC’s New Faces in 1959. He toured in variety and appeared on concert dates with both Sophie Tucker and The Beatles but his big break came in Australia when he was given his own TV show Tonight with Dave Allen (1963-4). He stayed in Australia for two years and married his first wife Judith Stott, before returning to Britain in 1964.
After initially appearing on The Val Doonican Show in 1965 and compering Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Allen’s first UK solo series was Tonight with Dave Allen for ITV in 1967, which was followed by The Dave Allen Show for BBC2. However, it was through numerous series of Dave Allen at Large for the BBC in the seventies that he became a household name. Later seventies contributions included Dave Allen and Friends (1977), Dave Allen (1978) and the documentary Dave Allen in Search of the Great English Eccentric (1974). He returned to television in the ninetes with a new and controversial set of frank monologues.
He made his theatrical debut in 1972, in Edna O’Brien’s play A Pagan Place at the Royal Court and in 1979 he played the lead in Alan Bennett’s television play One Fine Day, as an estate agent going through a professional and domestic mid-life crisis. He performed his own one man stage show in the West End in 1991.
For the past ten years Allen had been in semi-retirement, concentrating on his hobby as an amateur artist. He first exhibited his work in 2001 to raise funds for Marie Curie Cancer Care. He quit his 60-a-day smoking habit in the eighties, saying: “I was fed up paying people to kill me.”
Offers of stage and TV work still continued to pour in for the comedian and he was considering a new television project for later this year. He once quipped: “You spend your whole life working to a point where you don’t have to work. When you reach that point, people say, ‘Why aren’t you working?'”
BBC’s Alan Yentob paid tribute to Allen, saying: “There was no one quite like him – the stool, the smile, the cigarette, the hand gesture, the slow burn. He was a master storyteller.”
Allen and Judith Stott divorced in 1983. He is survived by his second wife Karin Stark and by his three children.