‘Dave Allen at Peace’: An overly simplistic portrayal of one of Ireland’s most complex jokers

Review: The intentions of this biopic are honourable, but Allen, you feel, would have told it so much better.

Aiden Gillen plays the Irish comedian in the biopic shown on BBC Two and RTE One.

 

If your life story is inadequate, a young Dave Allen is advised early in the course of his own, it’s up to you to improve it. Or, to quote the Irish comedian’s father in Dave Allen At Peace (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm; RTÉ One, 9.30pm), “What kind of an idiot chooses the truth over a good story?”

It’s a very good question, albeit an unusual one to come from a managing editor of The Irish Times, as Allen’s father, charmingly played by Tommy Tiernan, once was. That it comes with the fateful severing of his index finger, encouraging the boy to invent a different sensational reason every time he’s asked, suggests the birth of a comic imagination. But it’s a more goading question for the makers of this brief biopic. Should you make him a man or burnish his legend?

The solution of writer Stephen Russell is to attempt a little of both, basing his simplified account on real events, interspersing a straight-forward chronology of Allen’s life with director Andy de Emmony’s lovingly slapdash recreations of the comedian’s sketches and monologues. Sadly, though, the truncation of a lifetime and a rebellious philosophy into the space of an hour leaves little room for much comic imagination of its own.

Here, Allen’s finger is treated as a dismal truth – a childish mishap with a machine cog. Russell uses it to illustrate a loyal and protective bond between brothers, lasting a lifetime, which would be slightly more resonant if he hadn’t written one of Allen’s two brothers completely out of existence.

The story of one of Ireland’s most complex jokers is thus given a glib by-numbers simplicity. Alive to the brutal injustice of a school nun (Pauline McLynn), the young Allen is protected by an older brother, encouraged by a benevolent father who dies young; flees journalism for a Butlin’s double-act with his brother; and is then catapulted into fame as an iconoclast and raconteur with an endless supply of sharp tailoring.

The show’s contention is that for all his religious criticism (“I’m an atheist, thank God,” Allen would say, pithier in real life), he was always a believer, chiefly in himself.

At the drop of a hat David Tynan O’Mahony changes his name to Allen, with a canny eye for being first in the alphabetic queue. Later, over a producer’s objections, he insists on the inviolability of his contract. By the time a superfluous scene has the BBC director general pledging the station’s support “so long as you keep them laughing”, you begin to think that Dave Allen at Peace is part of a binding posthumous deal.  

Anyone new to Allen, however, will struggle to find this accelerated version of the man amusing. That’s partly because the sketches chosen for re-creation suggest an uncanny eye for Allen’s weakest gags, most involving a Mexican firing squad, and partly because while Aidan Gillen looks the part, suave and suited, he is not the world’s most natural comic actor. With an intonation that often recalls his metallic portrayal of Charles Haughey, Gillen misses Allen’s smooth sense of authority – something that made his irascible anti-authority routines all the funnier.

With another high-profile cameo in the shape of Conleth Hill as Allen’s alcoholic brother John, wheeled through seemingly endless hospital corridors, we get an overdetermined reckoning and reconciliation between brothers (“I hate your success – it highlights my failure”). There again his father’s words might have been better heeded: “That’s a sure sign of over planning with ill-intent,” says the old man when he hears too neat a fable.

The intentions of Dave Allen At Peace are entirely honourable, but Allen, you feel, would have told it so much better.

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