Dave Allen Part One of Two

Written by Laurence Marcus
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Dave Allen 1

© Words Laurence Marcus.
David Tynan O'Mahony was born on 6th July 1936 in Dublin. He later changed his name to Dave Allen on advice from his agent who felt that his given name was 'unpronounceable'. However, that didn't hold back other members of the O'Mahony family of whom his grandmother, Nora O'Mahony edited Freeman's Journal, a publication that could boast W.B. Yeats among it's contributors, and his cousin, Eoin O'Mahony, a respectable barrister and something of a wandering scholar, who was affectionately given the nickname of 'The Pope', because one day when he was asked what he wanted to be -that's what he replied.

David remembered his father, Gerard, the Assistant Manager of the Irish Times as a very warm man, 'a cuddler', David later recalled and his mother, Jean, as a good housekeeper who always ensured that their home was well-kept and clean, 'a real home', as David described it. Like the other boys of his parish, David became an altar boy but early on discovered something of a rebellious streak in himself that led him to being something of a prankster and practical joker as well as an inventive and imaginative child. But he remained, in spite of his antics, observant and considerate.

/Dave Allen 2David and his father were very close and the boy looked up to the father with a great sense of humour and a gift for mimicry, and positively doted on him. So it was a terrible blow for David when his father died on 19th April 1948 and he missed his father profoundly. His death also meant that David, his mother and his two brothers, Peter and John, had to struggle for a while with money becoming scarce.

Jean decided to start dress designing in order to earn enough to put her boys through college and eventually Peter went to work as a junior reporter in Drogheda, and John joined Independent Newspapers on the commercial side. At the age of seventeen David was taken on to the staff of the same newspaper group in the circulation department before going to join Peter in Drogheda. By now John had moved to England and eventually David followed him. In 1955 he joined the staff at Butlin's holiday camp at Skegness as a holiday host and entertainment officer known to all of Butlin's holiday-makers as Red Coats. He was paid less than ten pounds a week and for this he had to work a six-day week with meals and accommodation provided. For many would-be entertainers Butlin's was an ideal training ground as the Red Coats were expected to put on shows and entertain the campers to a very high standard. Oddly enough, David did not look forward to this and admitted much later that at first he hated going onto stage, but after a time "wild horses wouldn't drag me off."

Among the future stars who at one time joined the ranks of the Red Coat were Charlie Drake, Roy Hudd, Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck. David joined up with a Red Coat called Al Page and together they performed a double-act. This went down so well that they continued the act the following holiday season at Filey Holiday Camp in Yorkshire. The rules for Butlin's entertainers were very strict and the owner, Billy Butlin, would often visit camps personally to ensure that these were adhered to rigorously. Cleanliness was high on his list of priorities, not just in the sense of camp hygiene but also in the material his comedians were allowed to use. Jokes about sex, politics and religion were banned and foul language from a camp member would result in instant dismissal.

It was David's brother, John, who encouraged him to make show business his career during that summer season at Filey. John felt that the relaxed, warm and intimate persona that his brother projected on stage, managed to get him laughs even when the material was not of the highest quality. After three years at Butlin's David and Al Page turned in their red coats and began to tour around small clubs as a continuing double-act, but after a couple of months David decided to go it alone and the duo parted amicably. But he found that the English had a great deal of trouble in pronouncing his name, O'Mahony, and so on the advice of his agent he changed it. He chose Allen because his agent had no one else on his books with a surname starting with 'A', and figured that in the alphabetical index this would put him top of the list.

Dave Allen Al Page Red Coats Butlins.jpg

Audiences took to the newly named Dave Allen's act and he began to work his way up through appearances at seaside strip shows and as a warm-up man for musical acts appearing at that time with Helen Shapiro, a young thirteen year old who had topped the British charts and, at their first theatre performance in 1962, an upcoming Liverpudlian group called The Beatles. His agent went to see him at the New Theatre, Oxford on the recommendation of Sophie Tucker, with whom he'd accompanied on a short tour of South Africa, and instantly signed him up for an eight-week tour of Australia. All the while David's material was improving and Tucker, already a showbiz legend, predicted that he would be a big hit in Australia.

He may have been lacking in a little self-confidence about the daunting task of getting across to a different type of audience in a different country but as he got further into the tour that confidence was boosted by a warm reaction to his act. But it was his first television appearance that cemented his success. As part of the tour he was booked onto BTV 9's In Melbourne Tonight -and at the risk of uttering a cliche, he became an overnight success. A huge postbag arrived at the TV station the next day addressed to 'Dave Allen' and newspaper critics took an instant liking to him as well, with one critic writing: 'Dave Allen makes people feel as if he's interested in them. To many, many people this is more important than oily charm.'

David continued his tour of Australia and towards the end of the eight-weeks returned to Sydney where a life-changing opportunity was awaiting him. Channel 9 were so impressed with David that they wasted no time in offering him the opportunity to host a late-night show on Thursday's which would contain humour, singing, dancing and interviews and would be tailored to his particular talents. He jumped at the opportunity.

Dave Allen 3.jThe Tonight Show became an instant success. David wasn't interested in interviewing pop or movie stars who had their latest release or a new book to plug, but instead went for societies eccentrics such as the man who electrocuted his fruit-trees to make them grow faster or the reformed alcoholic who had taken to writing the word 'Eternity' everywhere after finding God. But David never sent these people up and always listened sympathetically to them. And he was a risk taker. He would get involved with many of the specialty acts or stunts that were part of the show. On one occasion he began bouncing feverishly on a trampoline only to suddenly shoot out of camera view. When the camera finally located him viewers saw, to their horror, their beloved host lying motionless on the floor. Two women in the audience fainted and the channel was deluged with phone-calls from concerned viewers as TCN officials rushed the unconscious Dave Allen to hospital. Later that evening an announcer broke into the succeeding film to tell viewers that he had regained consciousness and was all right.

In 1963, following two appearances on his show David was romantically linked to the singer Eartha Kitt. David had always guarded his private life from the press much to their consternation, so when he and Eartha were seen in public holding hands, the media had a field day. Rumours were fuelled by the fact that David was soon to take a trip to the US by way of London and an appearance on the prestigious Sunday Night at the London Palladium. David appeared on the same bill as The Beatles and received rave reviews, which was an achievement in itself as all the press were geared up to reporting on the 'Fab Four's' bill-topping appearance.

On his return to Sydney, David assured anxious Channel 9 executives that he had no intention of quitting his show for the lure of fame and fortune in the UK. Then in January 1964, at a friend's late-night party he was introduced to an English actress, Judith Stott. Within a few weeks David and Judith had embarked on a whirlwind romance and on 9th March they were married a private ceremony. But Judith was reaching the end of her tour of Australia and wanted to return to the UK where she had a son from a previous marriage. By early December of that year David could not bear the anguish of separation any longer and informed TCN 9 executives that he would be returning to England. He was genuinely sorry to be leaving Australia but he and the TV company parted amicably. 'Dave will not be easy to replace,' they said in a press statement, 'the whimsical Irishman has won an unprecedented audience in our viewing area.' Dave Allen returned to the UK before the end of the year with no idea where he was going to be employed next.

For the first six months David contented himself playing the cabaret circuits until an offer came from Bill Cotton, then head of variety on BBC television. Cotton thought that David would be ideal to fill a four-minute comedy spot on the new Saturday night Val Doonican Show. Previously, the idea was that Doonican would employ a different comedian every week to fill the slot, but Cotton's idea to make David a resident artiste received the full backing of both the show's star and his producer Johnny Ammonds. The thirteen-week series was an immediate success with viewers and pulled in a huge audience.

/Dave Allen 4.j

By Christmas of 1965 Dave Allen was a familiar face on British TV and through his appearances on the Val Doonican Show was picking up a large following. Bill Cotton was already preparing to offer him a longer six-minute slot on the next Val Doonican series. On the cabaret circuit David was beginning to expand on some basic themes such as life, death and religion, and was quickly earning a reputation as not so much as a stand-up comic but as a funny storyteller. In July of 1966, David received an eleventh hour call from anxious TV executives who were preparing to broadcast The Blackpool Show with resident host Tony Hancock, when the star had been taken ill. David stepped in at a moment's notice, totally unrehearsed but gave a performance that seemed as natural as if he'd been doing the show for months. It led to Lew Grade offering him the job of resident host on the Sunday Palladium show. David turned him down.

David's reason for turning down Grade was that he didn't feel as if he was ready for it yet, and wanted to remain a performer. "Dave Allen was a natural wit with a unique way of telling a joke." Lew Grade later said of the star. "Off-camera I liked him as a person from the beginning. He was amiable and did not try to be funny. He had, what I liked to call, star quality." In any event, Grade was prepared to wait for his star and was obviously not put out by his refusal because in 1967 he was host of the Palladium Show and also that year Independent Television announced that he was to star in Tonight with Dave Allen.

The new programme made newspaper headlines, not least of all because it was to replace the hugely popular Eamonn Andrews Show, a late night show that went out at 11.05pm on a Sunday. Andrews was reckoned to be a hard act to follow and many critics, aware of David's success in Australia, watched with interest to see if he could recreate the same achievement in the UK. The show opened to mixed reviews. Despite this it quickly rose in the ratings to be popular viewing for a late Sunday night audience. ITV announced that the show would return for a second series. However, early in September 1967 there was a change of plan.

David Frost 1ITV decided to switch the popular Frost On Sunday from its regular prime-time slot with the next series of the Dave Allen Show. Frost would be relegated to 10.55pm in the London and the North, and be recorded for a Monday screening in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Although the David Frost show had been losing viewers on a weekly basis, there may have been more to this move than meets the eye. Behind the scenes Lew Grade was having something of a power struggle and was successfully re-establishing his authority. One of those who opposed him was David Frost who was a major shareholder in the newly formed London Weekend Television. Lew had always proved in the past that he had a great instinct for public taste and put on shows that viewers wanted to see, and with his great track record nobody was in a position to disprove him. Not even David Frost.

The newspapers were quick to pick up the story, reporting 'Dave Allen Freezes Out Frost'. But Dave Allen was having none of it and went back to ATV and told them he didn't want the switch. He explained that his show had been specifically tailored for late night viewing and he wasn't prepared to change the format to cater for people watching earlier in the evening. When he pointed out to ATV that he had signed a contract for a late night series, the network dropped their plans and let David have his way. But it would be the last series he did for Independent Television for some time. In 1969 he was made an offer of a BBC television series by the Corporation's head of light entertainment, Tom Sloan.

Sloan approached Ernest Maxin and asked him if he would like to direct Dave Allen and Maxin replied that he'd been trying to do a Dave Allen comedy series for years. The new series was made up of singing, dancing, comedy sketches and Allen's own solo spot. The series was a great success and David was soon handed a contract to make another series to be called Dave Allen At Large for BBC2. The series was to be produced by Peter Whitmore and between them, Whitmore, Allen and scriptwriters Austin Steele and Peter Vincent, decided to try a new approach to the show. Sketches were to be pre-recorded on film instead of being performed in the studio and David would face the audience whilst sitting on a stall and telling his stories. Bill Cotton, the BBC's head of variety worried about the new format and informed Whitmore that sketches had to be performed live in the studio. Anything else was a recipe for disaster. As it was Whitmore ignored his bosses wishes and went ahead with the planned format.

Above Article originally appeared in Television Heaven – Used by Kind Permission  (Laurence Marcus.)
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Laurence Marcus

Laurence Marcus

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