Keith Allen wants to meet me at the Groucho. Well, of course he does. “I haven’t been here in 10 years!” he protests as we find a corner table. That’s all very well, but no one is more closely associated with the London media haunt than Allen, who had a high old time here in the 1990s with the artist Damien Hirst and the Blur bassist Alex James. Allen’s life membership was a gift from the owners, who felt guilty when he was sent to prison for three months after trashing their previous joint, the Zanzibar. It is an irony not lost on him that the reason he kicked off in the first place was because he objected to members’ clubs. Now here he is synonymous with one.
The 1990s are on his mind because he is starring in a new musical, Rehab, set at the end of that decade. He plays a publicist exploiting the controversy around his star client, a pop star whose drug habit has landed him in recovery. Allen turns up today modelling the character’s look: orange-tinted shades and a silver Bernie Ecclestone wig. “Keith got it in a joke shop,” says Kevin, the show’s PR, from the next table.
“It wasn’t a f**king joke shop,” Allen scoffs. “What are you talking about? This cost two hundred quid!” He removes the hairpiece, revealing a stubbly scalp, and gently lays it to rest in a little box. I wait for him to peel off the droopy horseshoe moustache as well, but that turns out to be his.
Rehab is Allen’s first musical, though his career has always been music-adjacent. In true punk style, his band the Atoms split up after their debut single, Max Bygraves Killed My Mother. He cowrote New Order’s English soccer anthem, World in Motion, as well as the rowdy Fat Les singalong Vindaloo, and cut a gay reggae record under the name Sex Boots Dread. He admits he can’t sing (he failed an audition for the musical Waitress) but points out that this never hurt Ian Dury.
The show is a lively piece, but its portrait of pre-internet celebrity feels quaint, possibly even irrelevant. Why did the writers – Grant Black, Murray Lachlan Young and Elliot Davis – not set it today? “Do you know what? I don’t know. Why is it set in the 1990s?” I assumed it was because of Allen’s own associations with that decade. You can hardly include a show-stopper called Simply Everyone’s Taking Cocaine and not ask Keith Allen to perform it. “Don’t be mad!” he laughs. “It wasn’t written for me. I love the idea, though.”
Allen snorted his first line in the late 1980s, when he was pitching a script to UB40. He wanted the band to star in The Yob, a comedy he had written for the Comic Strip Presents… series on Channel 4 in which he played a pretentious, beret-wearing video director who accidentally merges, The Fly-style, with a soccer hooligan. “I’d never done coke before. I remember thinking, ‘F**k, that’s expensive’. I cut these lines out, then Ali Campbell snorted the lot and I panicked: ‘I’ll phone an ambulance!’ He said, ‘What you on about?’”
That naivety didn’t last long. In Allen’s autobiography Grow Up, he notes that the drug “introduced me to the hours between 4am and 10am”. He did a “massive” line before coming up with the “En-ger-land!” bit from World in Motion. Did coke help his creativity? “Nooo. That all goes out the window. Cocaine’s great for talking to yourself, but it stops you listening.” Does he still take it? “Not so you’d notice. If I do it nowadays, it’s for the right reasons.” Which are? “Well, why not?” Being 68 makes a difference, he says. “As you get older, time rushes past. A hangover can cost you a day. It’s not worth it.”
He is settled now in the English market town of Stroud, with the actor Tamzin Malleson, whom he met in 2004 on the medical drama Bodies, and their 15-year-old daughter. Is he prone to look back on his wild years with fondness? “I stop myself doing that, because there’s always a voice going, ‘Was it worth it?’ In career terms it probably wasn’t.”
One evening, doing stand-up, he walked to the front of the stage with a mug of instant-coffee granules, peed into it, and quaffed the lot. ‘Oh, I only did that because my parents and my auntie were in that night,’ he says, as though anxious not to be misrepresented
Allen claims not to even think of what he has as a career. “I’m amazed when people go, ‘I remember you in…’” It’s often the BBC’s Robin Hood, in which he was a lip-smacking Sheriff of Nottingham, or The Comic Strip, for which he wrote a handful of uproarious episodes and starred in many others alongside Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane et al. But “most of the attention I get is from Vindaloo,” he says, rolling his eyes. “My reputation is bizarre, and that didn’t help. Producers who don’t know me won’t touch me. They think I’m just this bloke marching down the street singing about curry.”
There are no official figures for the number of children Allen has fathered, although the actor Alfie Allen and the singer Lily Allen are among them. She has described him as a “self-saboteur” who “couldn’t channel his comedic gifts into a career”. It’s not an assessment he disputes. “That’s true, yeah. I couldn’t channel anything. You could say I wasted a lot of years. You could also say I had a f**king great time. I was in at the beginning for a lot of things. I presented one of the first ‘yoof TV’ shows. I was one of the first performers at the Comedy Store.”
He left that rough-and-tumble London venue when it became “more middle-class”, but he stuck to live comedy for a while. He rarely knew what he was going to say until he was standing in front of the audience. He threw darts at hecklers. Often he was naked. “Yeah. I’m not sure why,” he says. One evening he walked to the front of the stage brandishing a mug of instant-coffee granules, peed into it, and quaffed the lot. “Oh, I only did that because my parents and my auntie were in that night,” he says, as though anxious not to be misrepresented.
Comedy was never a career path. “I saw myself becoming a David Niven figure. A national treasure. But I couldn’t commit. You have to focus, and I didn’t do that.”
The die was cast early on. Born in Llanelli, in Wales, Allen never settled anywhere long enough to put down roots. He lived in Malta briefly as a child, the family having moved there because of his father’s job as a submariner.
In the UK he bounced from state school to public school before a penchant for thieving led to borstal. Either these upheavals genuinely didn’t bother him or else there was no one to complain to anyway (his father was not someone to whom affection came easily), so he learned to pipe down and press on. “I was always on the move,” he says. “That engenders a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to things.”
Not least his career. He has built sets for Ken Campbell, run a club night with the dancer Michael Clark, been an opening act for The Clash and The Stranglers, curated the comedy tent at the Latitude festival, and directed a pair of credulous documentaries – one a celebration of Mohamed al-Fayed and the other, funded by the former Harrods owner, advancing theories about the death of Princess Diana.
People have said, ‘Oh, there’s that guy who hung around with Damien Hirst and Alex James.’ I always liked to think they were hanging round with me
Allen is like a hedonistic Zelig, forever popping up around prominent or formidable figures without ever quite becoming one himself. Take his carousing with Hirst and James. “People have said, ‘Oh, there’s that guy who hung around with the others.’ I always liked to think they were hanging round with me.”
What he did do he excelled at. He played Hogarth on stage (Michael Billington of the Guardian praised his “foul-mouthed vigour”), one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs on film in the art-house gem Comrades, and Jonas Chuzzlewit for the BBC. When the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears was first mooted, he auditioned in Alan Bennett’s front room and won the lead – though it was eventually made with Gary Oldman. In 1991 he was in David Hare’s Murmuring Judges at the National Theatre in London. Soon after, he began a long association with Harold Pinter. “Harold liked me. It’s astonishing, because I was just this lairy, loud-mouthed twat.”
If he had concentrated more on acting… “Yeah, what would have happened?” he wonders, finishing my sentence. It’s possible that he is only now reaching his peak. Earlier this year he was masterful as the crabby patriarch Max in a savagely funny revival of Pinter’s The Homecoming, while he showed mesmerising control as the killer and rapist John Cooper in the recent Bafta-winning ITV drama The Pembrokeshire Murders.
“I’ve always known I was capable of that,” he says. “I didn’t think, ‘F**k me, how did I do it?’ But maybe I could’ve done it sooner.” It’s been a higgledy-piggledy life, so what does he want to be remembered for? “I think I was always good company,” he says softly. And he is. I can vouch for that. – Guardian
Rehab is at the Playground Theatre in London from September 1st-17th