Comedian with a rare style of voicing outrage at society's ills

 

Dave Allen, who has died aged 68, was in latter years a wry, gently humorous man with wild grey-white hair and a slightly eccentric, anti-establishment air. But at the height of his career he was the most controversial comedian performing in Britain, regularly provoking outrage and indignation in a society that got upset more often and more easily than today's.

His great legacy is that he opened up comedy from the traditional sitcom or gag-setup-gag structure in the late 1960s and early 1970s by introducing a more laid-back, satirical, personal, storytelling style, in Australia, and later on British TV shows such as Tonight with Dave Allen and the hugely successful Dave Allen at Large, a mixture of elaborate sketches and intimate sit-down comedy.

Behind the calm façade, as he paused to sip his whiskey, or flick cigarette ash off his immaculate suit, he was angry - quietly and humorously furious on the subject of political hypocrisy, or the church's grip on Ireland or, in fact, all forms of authoritarianism. His stance, at its best wholly uncompromising, earned him the role of a godfather of comedy, a cult status of sorts, and the admiration of today's generation of young stand-ups.

Dave Allen always seemed a little like the reporter he once wanted to be: he simply told people about funny things he had seen or experienced, putting the spin of a natural storyteller on them. "I don't know if there's somebody out there, some god of comedy, dropping out little bits saying 'here, use that, that's for you, that's to keep you going'," he said.

He scandalised countless people in the 1970s with a sketch which involved the Pope doing a striptease and was banned from Australian television for a year for telling his producer on a live show to go away and masturbate and leave him in peace to continue an interview instead of going to the adverts.

He upset Mary Whitehouse in 1984 with a humorous account of a post-coital conversation; his use of the word "lavatory" on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s was objected to (innocent days indeed); and the BBC apologised when, in 1990, he used the word "fuck" in the punchline to a joke, an incident about which questions were asked in the Commons.

At the time he explained why it was necessary, in a routine about employees living their lives by the clock and then being presented with one when they retired, to use the word: "It's a disdainful word, because it's not a damn clock, it's not a silly clock, it's not a doo-doo clock. It's a fucking clock!"

Sometimes in the old days Dave Allen just sat there and told straight gags, and sometimes they were sexist and sometimes they smacked a bit of paddywhackery. It would be rewriting comedy history to pretend that his solo material consisted entirely of insightful, observational monologues about life.

But it must be remembered that when he started on television Arthur Askey was still a big name. The top TV stars included Benny Hill and Dick Emery, and "youth comedy" was represented by Jimmy Tarbuck. That was the era in which he was operating, and to a certain extent he had to play by established rules. What was important and ground-breaking about Dave Allen was that there were rules he chose to ignore.

He had wonderful timing. You can usually tell great technical stand-ups when they deliver the punchline just when you think they're going to do something else. And then there's another one, just when you think they've finished.

He was paid large amounts of money to attack institutions in a most subtle and subversive way, and he, along with Billy Connolly, traded in "alternative comedy" long before the now-passé phrase was coined - observational stories laced with satire, or very long versions of old jokes in which he would digress into lots of comedy byways.

"The hierarchy of everything in my life has always bothered me," Allen said. "I'm bothered by power. People, whoever they might be, whether it's the government or the policeman in the uniform or the man on the door - they still irk me a bit. From school, from the first nun that belted me."

These "nice sweet little ladies" would behave in the most cruel manner, he said. "They'd find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain - grabbing you by the ear, or by the nose, and lift you, and say 'Don't cry!' It's very hard not to cry. I mean, not from emotion but pain. The priests were the same. And I sit and watch politicians with great cynicism, total cynicism."

For his hugely successful BBC shows in the 1970s he often impersonated a priest in sketches, and another famous running scenario had him as a condemned man facing a firing squad in some banana republic and delaying his execution with increasingly preposterous last requests. He also enjoyed a successful stint as compere of Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

His interest in journalism was again evident in a number of documentaries, shot in Britain and the United States, in which he sought out oddballs and eccentrics. He took his relaxed style on to the West End stage, too. "In case you wonder what I do," he would tell the audience, "I tend to stroll around and chat. I'd be grateful if you'd refrain from doing the same."

In the 1980s he made several stand-up shows for Carlton Television, minus the trademark cigarette. "I just realised it was crazy spending so much money on killing myself. It would have been cheaper to hire the Jackal to do the job."

From the early 1990s on he retreated from the limelight, partly due to ill-health, but occasionally released videos of earlier material. One such opened with him saying he had retired, but that every so often he had to do a bit of work to keep himself in the style to which he had become accustomed, "a bit of an Irish retirement, actually".

As he grew older he brought a rueful awareness of ageing to his material, about the antics of teenagers and young adults and physical deterioration, sagging skin and sprouting facial hair. He won a Lifetime Comedy Award in 1996.

Dave Allen was born David Tynan O'Mahony, the youngest of three boys, to a Limerick family in 1936. Where he was born is uncertain, as he admitted in a letter to this paper, but the family moved to Dublin when he was very young, and as a child he spent about 18 months in Co Longford after the North Strand bombings in 1941. The family returned to Dublin to Cherryfield, a large house between Firhouse and Templeogue Bridge.

His was a reasonably prosperous, middle-class upbringing. His grandmother was Norah Tynan, the first woman's features editor of the Freeman's Journal; his aunt Katherine (KT) Tynan, was a poet. His father, Cullen "Pussy" O'Mahony, who died when David was 12, was the colourful general manager of The Irish Times, and his brother Peter later worked as a journalist on the paper.

Pussy was also a drinking partner of Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen), then a columnist on The Irish Times, and Allen recalled that his father threw big parties on New Year's Eve (which was also Pussy's birthday), and the boys would watch proceedings from the stairs.

Little Dave loved going in to The Irish Times to see his father at work. "It was always an adventure for me to go because the front office used to be in Westmoreland Street and they had this wonderful desk which was a deep mahogany red of some sort. And all the lights had green shades, so it was kind of night-time, even in the middle of the day.

"And some of the people there used to wear the old green eye-shades. They used to take me up to the compositors' room and we'd watch all the old machines, and the presses going. It was great. And some of the old machine men would type out my name in hot metal, so that I could use it as a stamp."

Speaking when he was in his early 60s, Allen remembered legendary Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie, a friend and drinking companion of his father's, giving him two half-crowns - "a fortune" - one Christmas Eve.

He was brought up a Catholic; his father was agnostic and his mother, from England and previously Anglican, a convert to Catholicism. He was educated at Catholic schools and commented: "Sometimes it's hard to knock that stuff out of your head from a very early drumming." His early religious upbringing, coupled with living in an era dominated by strict State and church control, influenced the direction his material took later on.

Newspapers were in the family, and in those days, said Allen, "you didn't go off and make a career for yourself. You tended to kind of take up what the family did. I suppose it was just easier to follow that line, especially at a time when employment wasn't that easy anyhow."

So he started work as a clerk in the Irish Independent front office, and after a short period on the Drogheda Argus he moved to London, thinking of looking for work in Fleet Street. But journalism wasn't a runner for him and he did a variety of jobs, in factories and a stint in Butlin's, and from there on a career in entertainment beckoned.

Sophie Tucker, the great American vaudeville star who was always billed as "The Last of the Red Hot Mommas", spotted Allen's potential when he played a minor role in a London show she did in the early 1960s and suggested to him that he try his luck in Australia, which is where he first hit the big time in television.

In Australia he met another woman who had a profound influence on his career, the opera singer Helen Traubel. He was working with her in Sydney and used to chat to her about Ireland, his childhood and religion, and she suggested that, instead of telling the corny one-liners he'd been peddling, he use some material based on his own youth.

He took her advice and so a style was born, 40 years ago and halfway around the world, a style that was to make the public, including a generation of comics then in its infancy, think a little differently about humour, about the power of words, about authority, about the world around them.

Allen was divorced from the English actor Juliet Stott in 1983. He is survived by Karin, his second wife, and three children.

Dave Allen: born July 6th, 1936; died March 11th, 2005