Remembering the comic with 9-and-a-half fingers – and why he still matters

The man looks so cool and self-assured: sleekly besuited, seated on stage, cigarette in one hand, glass of whiskey on the rocks (except it wasn’t – it was actually ginger ale with ice, but hey, that’s television mythmaking for you) on a small side table, utterly confident of his audience’s attention. David Tynan O’Mahony – or, to give him his more familiar professional name, Dave Allen – may have left us exactly ten years ago, but the image and memory of a bold and forthright yet unfailingly down-to-earth and un-diva-like entertainer remain as unbendingly powerful and inspiring as ever.

Dave Allen (1936-2005): ‘I don’t ridicule religion. I ridicule some concepts of what people believe religion is.’
Dave Allen (1936-2005): ‘I don’t ridicule religion. I ridicule some concepts of what people believe religion is.’

Ahead of, as well as alongside, his time, Allen remains an inspiration to many of today’s top comics, from both Ireland and Britain – to the extent that it has become a cliche to assert that he was an Alternative Comedian long before the term even existed. Originally a journalist by trade, his transition from a mere gagsmith to an entertaining and witty storyteller came during his early years as a comedian in Australia in the mid-1960s, when a more experienced performer advised him to slow down, relax, and recount his experiences from his native Co Dublin.

Alternative Allen certainly was, as well as more prepared than most other comics to cover sensitive areas. The comedian and political activist Mark Thomas, for example, who wrote material for Allen in the 1980s and ’90s, has told of how he first learned about apartheid in South Africa from a sketch by his hero. In the skit Allen portrays a South African priest who happens upon a black boy kneeling in his church, and bellows at him:

PRIEST: What on earth are you doing here?!
BOY: I’m cleaning the floor.
PRIEST: Oh, that’s all right, then. But don’t let me catch you here praying!

Allen was a comedian who frequently pushed boundaries. Questions were asked in Westminster after a show in his January 1990 stand-up TV series led to complaints, when, in a routine about the irony of receiving a clock as a retirement present when you’ve been doing everything To The Clock all your life, he used the f-word. The complainant, a Conservative MP who in his spare time refereed rugby matches, claimed, rather unrealistically, that Allen’s language was ‘worse than anything I have ever heard on the field of play.’

It was, of course, in the area of religion where Allen could really touch the nerves. On his TV shows priests would be portrayed as having games of hide and seek in church, playing dominoes with pews, supplying pints of Guinness in confessionals, and even unashamedly breaking wind during Mass. In one sketch – which really outraged TV viewers on both sides of the Irish Sea when it came out – Allen impersonated the Pope performing a striptease on the church steps. This total lack of reverence may well have stemmed from Allen’s unhappy experience at a Church-run Co Dublin school:

I was educated by the Carmelite nuns – the Gestapo in drag… I was terrified, totally terrified…
‘What do you want, little boy?’
‘My-my mummy and daddy say I have to come to school here.’
‘Yes. Well, if you come here you have to be a good little boy. Are you going to be a good little boy?’
And I looked past her, and there was this fella nailed to a cross. I thought, you’re damn right, I’ll be a good little boy!

Allen’s unflattering portrayal of the Catholic Church certainly raised plenty of hackles in Ireland and Britain, although the story that the Provisional IRA wanted him dead has been revealed to be a myth. Nor was Allen content solely to parody the Catholic Church – he frequently had a go at Paisley-style Presbyterians, as well:

PREACHER: So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire; and there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth!
WOMAN IN CONGREGATION: Rev, what shall I do? I have no teeth.
PREACHER: Teeth will be provided!

It would be a mistake to suppose that Dave was somehow anti-religion: he insisted in several interviews that he was not. His main problem was not with religion per se, but with the abuse of power and dogma, whether of the religious or political kind. He was also exercised by jobsworths and the general idiocies of daily life. One recurring theme to which Allen returned many times was that of the vagaries of the English language:

I was in Lancaster recently, and I went past this hairdresser’s, and the name of the hairdresser’s was “Curl Up and Dye”. Now, that’s nice. It makes you smile. I’ve also seen a poodle parlour called “Pride and Groom”, and another one called “Paws for Thought”… But if you actually take that train of thought onwards: an undertakers would be “His and Hearse”; you could call a bank “A Place of Interest” or “Buy Myself a Loan”; the House of Commons would be “The House of MP Promises”; the House of Lords would be “God’s Waiting Room”; the Ministry of Fisheries would be “Finders Kippers”; the Welsh Office would be “Whitehall Leeks”; and the Scottish Office would be “Ministry of Sporran Affairs”; and Family Planning would be “Buy Me and Stop One”!

Why does all this matter, I hear you ask (well, I did allude to the point of the article in the title, after all). Probably because Dave was one of those comedic talents who not only liked to make his audience think as well as laugh, but also proffered the idea that, actually, none of us has the right not to be offended. The point about comic offence, and how it is given and taken (or not, as the case may be) will doubtless continue to be debated for many years to come, particularly in the light of events like the Charlie Hebdo killings in January.

On the subject of giving and taking offence, particularly over jokes about religion, Allen himself offered his own thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1975, in this exchange with Roy Plomley:

PLOMLEY: You’re an Irishman working in a Protestant country. Doesn’t this get your audience laughing at, rather than with, you?
ALLEN: You might be very right. I have never given that any thought at all. I do know that I am an Irishman, and I do know that the Irish people, as a whole, generally laugh at religion, whether it be theirs or somebody else’s.
PLOMLEY: Do you get many complaints? One reads the odd piece in the paper about “Dave Allen goes over the top again”…?
ALLEN: I get a fair amount, but what I do have is a tremendous amount of friends within the clergy, both Church of England and Roman Catholic, and, I hope, rabbis and various other people, and I’ve yet to find, really, the priest who gets angry or the nun who gets angry. In general, they can laugh where people think they shouldn’t laugh, and they do have senses of humour… it becomes an inside gag, and they understand that more than the layperson.

In the meantime, in the words of this article’s subject, thanks for reading, Good night, and may your God go with you…