Dave Allen Part Two of Two

Written by Laurence Marcus
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© Words Laurence Marcus.

When the series was screened on BBC2 the critics heaped praise on it finding David's story-telling hilarious and the new technique of using the filmed sequences an exciting innovation. In spite of Dave Allen's reputation for controversial material this first series took great pains to avoid anything crude or vulgar. True, he did take a side-swipe at religion and other sacred subjects but the only complaint that the first show had was not from a viewer.

It was from Billy Cotton. Cotton had gone to the studio to see the recording of a sketch in which David was dressed in a Bishop's robes. The Bishop is reading aloud in a deep voice a prayer from the Bible and as he comes to the end of it an altar boy, standing close by, slams the book shut. From the look on his face it is quite clear that the boy has caught a very sensitive part of the Bishop's anatomy in the book. At this point the Bishop lets out a very high-pitched 'Amen!' Cotton was worried that the sketch would cause offence, even though he thought it was hilariously funny. He ordered Whitmore to remove it from the show -which he did. For three weeks. Whitmore waited until a night when all the BBC top brass were attending the BAFTA Awards -and put the sketch back in. There wasn't one single complaint from viewers.

Dave Allen 21.jOver the course of that first series there were some complaints. Some viewers took exception to David making jokes about the Pope, God and religion in general, but compared to the 10 million viewers a week the show was pulling in, a record for a light entertainment show on BBC2, the number of complaints were negligible. Although the format for Dave Allen at Large became such a huge success on BBC TV its roots were laid on ITV. Between the earlier BBC Dave Allen Show and the 'At Large' series, David made a one-off for Thames Television called Inside the Mind of Dave Allen. This came about after David approached ITV with the idea to do a show that didn't involve guests or dancing girls and just involved him chatting and doing sketches. The 60-minute show was broadcast on 8th July 1970 and was written by David, Bill Stark and Chris Hughes. The only other performer to receive a credit was Bob Todd. The critics panned the show and ITV lost interest in talking about contracts. Less than a year later virtually the same format was employed by the BBC and became a massive success, illustrating that comedy definitely is all about timing.

At the same time that Dave Allen at Large was airing on BBC2, David was engaged to play the Talk of the Town in London's West End. Opened in 1958 by Bernard Delfont, brother of TV mogul Lew Grade, the Town was London's premier entertainment nightspot. David saw this as an ambition fulfilled as to work at the Town meant that he took to the same stage as some of the world's greatest cabaret performers, including Vera Lynn, Shirley Bassey and the great Judy Garland. In 1972 David took his first serious dramatic role in Edna O'Brien's new play, A Pagan Place, which was put on at the Royal Court in London. David received good reviews for his performance as Dr. Daly, a sombre but wise medical man, but it was 16-year old actress Veronica Quilligan who stole all the notices. But not everyone was complimentary about the play and the Irish Times gave it a particularly damning review using phrases such as 'monstrous boredom and vulgarity'. David had hoped to return to his native Ireland with the play but in the event it was turned down by the Dublin Theatre Festival. Despite the mixed reviews, A Pagan Place enjoyed a successful run at the Royal Court and by January 1973 the third season of Dave Allen at Large was ready to go out on BBC2 where it remained as popular as ever. By now the series had become a little more daring and there was very little that David was not prepared to joke about, the Pope, God, the Church, sex and drink all got the Dave Allen treatment. But it wasn't until series four, which began in February 1975, that David got into trouble with the Church. It arose out of a sketch in which David, dressed as the Pope, did a striptease on the steps of the Vatican. At Northwich, Cheshire, five hundred parishioners signed a petition criticizing the shows continually irreverent treatment of the Church. Father John O'Sullivan of St Wilfrid's Roman Catholic Church said that after a number of complaints from both Catholics and non-Catholics about the content of the series he decided to watch it himself. When he saw David disrobing his papal vestments to the tune of 'The Stripper' he was absolutely appalled and phoned the BBC to voice his protest. Later still, nearly 200,000 Catholics in the northwest joined a viewers' protest to the BBC and boycotted future shows by the Irish comedian. The newspapers were quick to latch on to the story, and a few of them contacted high-ranking churchmen in London who said that they had not been offended by the sketch and, indeed, had laughed along with the rest of the country. The Rt Revd Charles Henderson, Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark, stated, "I do not object to jokes about the Church. If we can't laugh at ourselves-God help us." This didn't stop Tom Elwood, a Northwich primary school headmaster, from launching a campaign to get Catholics in the Shrewsbury diocese to complain to the BBC. The Evening Standard, London's biggest selling newspaper, phoned the Vatican for a comment and were told by a spokesman, "We do not object to jokes about the Roman Catholic Church as long as they are in good taste. People must not be too sensitive about that. We like to think we have a sense of humour."

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In May David returned to Australia to film four shows for the ATN 7 network, for which he was paid $100,000, which at that time made him one of the highest paid performers on Australian television. Australian's it seemed had not forgotten him and his pulling power remained enormous. He had returned home and was on tour when news came through that a compilation show of Dave Allen at Large had won an award at the Golden Rose of Montreux TV Festival in Switzerland. In Norwich his one-man show, An Evening with Dave Allen, set a new box office record for the Theatre Royal, when £21,876 was taken for six sell-out performances. He was at the height of his profession and America beckoned. David was not widely known in the USA. His television series had only gained syndicated exposure in New York, so he was opening on Broadway with a distinct disadvantage. But his show had attracted New York theatre critic Clive Barnes who, upon seeing the Broadway show, went away and wrote a review headlined 'It's David The Killer Comic.' Barnes went on to enthuse about the comedian's one-man show but warned potential theatregoers that they might possibly be offended by the comics sense of humour 'particularly as to how you regard irreverent and, I suppose the word is explicit, satire about sex, bodily functions and religion in general.' Barnes was one of the most influential critics on Broadway, but other critics did not echo his sentiments. Some lambasted the show and audiences did not pack the theatre.

On returning to England, David continued his one-man show and unlike his American experience, these did play to packed houses. In his private life his marriage to Judith was coming to an end and his brother John had a serious alcohol problem which, left untreated, would probably end up in his death. David did everything he could to help his brother, but John's condition continued to worsen. He was now drinking heavily and was out of work. Eventually he ended up in a single room in St Mungret's Hostel in Earl's Court. In early January 1986, John Tynan O'Mahony was found dead after a fall from a fifth storey window. The inquest into John's death also revealed that he had a rare form of duodenal cancer, which would have killed him within two years. David knew nothing of this. Following the death of his brother, David took off on another tour of Australia and upon his return continued with his one-man show. But he hadn't done a new TV series since Dave Allen at Large had finished in 1979 and contented himself with a series of occasional specials. So it came as a surprise when it was announced in January 1990, after an absence from television of four years, that David would make a new six-part series for BBC1. To those who hadn't seen him for many years his appearance had changed considerably. He was now 53, had a head of grey hair and was carrying a little more weight. But he made it quite clear that he was looking forward to his TV comeback and joked on the opening show, "I retired. I'm still retired, but in order to keep myself in retirement in the manner in which I'm accustomed, I have to work. It's a kind of Irish retirement."

Dave Allen 23.jThe first show was scheduled for Saturday 6th January 1990. It was quite clear from the 10pm start time that the series would be squarely aimed at adults. The show was pre-recorded and then edited down to thirty minutes duration. It was just David talking to the audience about a variety of subjects but there were no supporting guests or sketches. The trademark chair was still there, but he stood up the whole time. His monologues took in his usual pet subjects as well as jokes about birth, advances in television technology, food and ageing and he delivered each punch line with his usual wit and expertly honed comedic timing. Time, in fact, was the subject of his last joke, in which David spoke of how our lives are ruled by time and how we have become a nation of cloc--watchers. "We spend our lives on the run;" he said. "You get up by the clock, you go to work by the clock, you clock in, you clock out, you eat and sleep by the clock, you get up again, you go to work -you do that for forty years of your life and then you retire -what do they f***ing give you? A clock!"

The show had hardly finished before the BBC switchboard began to light up with a flood of viewers complaints. The BBC defended David saying that the use of bad language was within the context of the show and that the late-night broadcast time were all factors in their decision to broadcast it with the expletive. Allen was unrepentant but the storm continued into the following week with MPs standing up in Parliament to comment on the BBC's lack of control and poor taste. The newspapers had a field day bringing up every instance of controversy in Dave Allen's TV career, including the Pope/stripper episode. The following day the BBC were forced to issue an apology admitting that a warning should have gone out before the programme about the strong language. Following the six shows on BBC television David disappeared from the screen once more returning briefly to help launch Carlton, the new ITV franchise. Filmed live at the Mermaid Theatre in London, a little older, a little more angry, and filled with a succession of uncensored tirades, David's new series, simply entitled Dave Allen was not as successful with viewers as previous shows but nevertheless won him the Best Comedy Performer honour at the British Comedy Awards. But that was to be the last time television viewers saw Dave Allen in a series of his own. In semi-retirement, he made the occasional chat show appearance, and presented the six-part The Unique Dave Allen for the BBC in 1998 and the following year he quit performing, (his last interview being on Radio 4 in 1999) to concentrate 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 and rumour has it he was considering a new television project for late 2005. 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?"" But on March 10th, aged 68 years, Dave Allen died in his sleep.

Survived by his second wife Karin Stark and by his three children, tributes soon came flooding in for the suave Irish comic who was famed for the monologues and his frequent goading of the Catholic Church. As writer Paul Clark correctly pointed out in a tribute to him in The Stage: 'His influence and success on TV ensured an audience for irreverent revues like Not The Nine O'Clock News and The Day Today. Without him there would have been no royal bashing on Spitting Image, no religious humour and possibly no Father Ted. The quickfire social satire of Little Britain owes everything to the short, sharp, visual skits of Dave Allen at Large. His influence is everywhere.'

BBC's Alan Yentob paid tribute to David, 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."

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The BBC's head of comedy Jon Plowman said, "(he) tried to show the hypocrisies of the world as well as its funny side".

Comic and writer Barry Cryer said: "Like all the good comics, he was a perfectionist - he wouldn't settle for anything less. I watched him develop, from his days on The Val Doonican Show to becoming a storyteller, delivering his polemics. He was so serious and committed, but he proved you could be serious and funny."

And Late Late Show presenter Gay Byrne, who interviewed David on several occasions, said he admired Allen's delivery style. "He was a tremendous observer of the idiocies of life and brought them brilliantly to the screen and the stage,"

Interviewed once, Dave Allen said he'd like the following engraved on his tombstone: "Don't mourn for me now, don't mourn for me never - I'm going to do nothing for ever and ever."

Part One of Dave Allen

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Laurence Marcus

Laurence Marcus

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