Last night the BBC screened a documentary about the late Anglo-Irish comedian, Dave Allen. It was ironically entitled, ‘God’s Comedian’ as Allen was an outspoken atheist, who took a certain delight in mocking religion and particularly the Roman Catholic church. The show began with the great man himself saying ‘I’m an atheist – thank God!’ Despite his lampooning of the Church, he didn’t really sneer at its adherents. He always ended his show with the farewell, ‘Goodnight, and may your God go with you’. You can’t imagine any of the loudly anti-religious comedians who have emerged over the past decade, such as Paul Sina, uttering such a farewell of goodwill to the theists in their audiences. Allen’s wife stated that he wasn’t against religion. In fact, he had enormous respect for it. He just hated bigotry and being told what to think.
Allen’s Early Career in Australia and British Independent Television
The son of an English nurse and a Dublin journalist, Allen’s family moved to England after his father’s death. Allen’s father was a talented story-teller, and Allen hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a leading gentleman of the press. When this didn’t happen, he became a Butlin’s redcoat. His television career began when he was given a job hosting a chat show Down Under in the 1960s. Moving to England with his new wife, Allen was fortunate enough to get a similar job for ITV. This involved performing all manner of daft, and potentially lethal stunts in the studio. In one edition he demonstrated how to get out of a car underwater. To show how to do this, a car with him in it and the cameraman were dumped in a tank. Luckily nothing went wrong, and the show even helped to save the life of a young boy. A family wrote to him to say how appalled they were when their parked car fell into the sea with their son in it. Fearing that the boy was dead, they were amazed when he reappeared on the surface alive and well. He told them he knew how to get out of the car after watching Allen’s programme. Allen said that he was still in touch with the family.
Dave Allen At Large and Anti-Religious Sketches
He then moved over on to the BBC to star in his own comedy show, Dave Allen at Large, which ran from 1971 to 1976. Allen had turned against religion and the Church because of the cruelty he experienced at the hands of the Carmelite nuns who taught him at school. The show had a clip of Allen, sitting on his trademark bar stool, saying ‘I was taught by Carmelite nuns – the SS in drag!’ This contrasted strongly with the love and warmth he was given at home by his parents and siblings. As a result, he lampooned the Church and its clergy in sketches that were shocking in their day. Several of these involved sex, such as the sketch in which the crozier held by a seated bishop straightens out when his ring is kissed by an attractive nun, only to collapse again when it was kissed by a plainer, older nun. One sketch was particularly shocking and generated outrage and denunciations by the Roman Catholic church. This involved Allen, dressed as the Pope, doing a striptease in front of a chorus line of priests and nuns in front of St. Peter’s. The BBC was inundated with letters condemning the sketch and the Roman Catholic church boycotted his show. He even received death threats from the IRA and Provisional IRA. Various commentators described just how extremely shocking the sketch was at the time. Ireland in the 1970s was an extremely conservative society, and in the villages in the south and west of Ireland the priest was the most important person in the community. At the same time Allen caused further religious outrage by starring in a controversial play, A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. Footage was shown of Allen stating that the BBC took the death threats very seriously. Mercifully, the terrorists never carried out there threat, and Allen carried on to entertain and provoke Britain.
Documentary Work and Controversy for Swearing on ITV
The programme noted how, when alternative comedy emerged in the 1980s it didn’t really affect Allen. His material was very different from the other comedians of his generation against whom the alternative crowd, Alexei Sayle, Clive Anderson, Rik Mayall and Adrain Edmondson, reacted. Indeed, it’s been remarked before on a BBC arts show a long time ago in the 1980s that these angry, Politically Correct comics, actually like Allen and his observational humour. Allen also continued his career as a straight actor, appearing in a drama about a man undergoing a mid-life crisis who takes up home in an office block. He also tried his hand at making documentaries. One of the first was about British eccentrics, some of whom were very bizarre indeed. One of the eccentrics interviewed effectively lived in what looked like the main chassis of an old-fashioned coach. This tiny room was so small he couldn’t lie down, so he had built a small, box-like compartment bolted on to it in which he could put his feet when he wanted to sleep. Another wore a red top hot with white mice scurrying on its brim. This fellow lived only on what he grew himself, which seemed to be mostly cabbages. Allen and the other producers had decided beforehand not to interview anyone who was insane. The commentators – Allen’s wife, children, and writers – said how Allen didn’t judge them. Indeed, he seemed to like an admire the passion with which they lived their lives without giving a dam’ about what anyone thought about them. In his quiet questioning of these eccentrics and non-judgmental approach to their lives, the programme said, Allen paved the way for later explorers of the weird like Louis Theroux. I also remember that sometime in the 80s he appeared in a straight role as the title character in a production of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya on Radio 4.The programme noted that Allen was off the air for many years during the 1980s, concentrating on his career as a stand-up comedian. In 1990 he returned to television, this time to ITV. This show lacked the music, actors and sketches of his BBC shows: ‘Let’s face it’, he joked, ‘it’s cheap’. He then managed to outrage public opinion again during a monologue in which he used the ‘F’ word. The actual subject was clocks, and Allen joke was about how, after forty years of doing everything to the clock, when you retired they gave you ‘an f===ing clock’. The letters poured in condemning Allen’s foul language.
I remember this incident from when it happened. A Conservative MP got involved and attacked ITV for broadcasting such filth. Contemporary comedians are far more foul-mouthed, so it’s hard to remember just how shocking this was over twenty years ago. In the early 80s Jools Holland’s career on the great Channel 4 pop show, The Tube, ended after he said the ‘F’ word on air. He was suspended, but returned after a couple of weeks, only to say it again. This time the ban was permanent. In Allen’s case, I wondered if the attack by the Tory MP weren’t actually because of something else he’d said earlier in the show. 1990 was the tail end of the Thatcher administration. Just before the clock monologue, Allen had told another monologue attacking the Leadereen and her policies. It struck me that this was what really outraged the Tory MP. He couldn’t criticise Allen for that, however, without appearing humourless and an opponent of free speech. He could, however, join in the outrage at Allen’s foul language. Allen more or less retired from television after this. He devoted his life to his family and hobbies. He was, amongst other things, a talented painter. He died in 2005 at the age of 68.
Allen’s Anti-Religious Material Reconsidered
Watching the documentary about Allen I was impressed by his great talent, but also felt unease at his constant attack on religion and the Roman Catholic church. I’d seen some of his ant-religious sketches along with the rest of the programme when I was younger, and I never found them particularly blasphemous or shocking, though I was very much aware of his reputation. Some of this was simply denominational. I’m Protestant, and Allen was attacking Roman Catholicism, and so it didn’t really affect my church or offend my faith. Another reason was simply because many of the sketches simply didn’t have any relationship to the Catholic Church or doctrine, except that it was simply another group of authority figures who were shown behaving ridiculously. For example, in one of his sketches Allen plays a priest. Coming into the church, he kneels down and leans against a pillar. This falls over and knocks against the next pillar, setting off a chain of pillars falling over like dominoes until the entire church collapses. Is it blasphemous? Not really. The programme showed a later, but similar sketch in which a tourist leans against one of the great trilithons at Stonehenge, only to topple that and the entire monument over in a similar domino effect. Others seemed inventive, and based on rather mundane and inoffensive truths. In another sketch, a bishop is shown dozing off during a particularly boring sermon. His crozier then gives a beep, and he takes it off like a telephone to receive a wake-up call. Now sermons can be notoriously boring, so that sketch is actually a rather playful treatment of a simple reality, and the perceived similarity between the shape of a crozier and a telephone handset. Another reason why I wasn’t really concerned by the anti-religious content of his show at the time was because of the political background in Northern Ireland. This was at the height of the Troubles when bombings and assassinations occurred regularly. Against this backdrop of sectarian violence between Roman Catholic and Protestant, one could sympathise with his anti-religious stance. Speaking on Radio 4 in the early 90s, Allen said that he had played in Lebanon, and was critical of the role religion there played in dividing society and the country’s civil war.
Legacy of Anti-Religious Material in General Attitude of Contempt for Religion and Christians in General
Looking at his material now, however, I feel rather more uneasy. Church attendance has declined dramatically since the 1970s and there is, in certain sections of society and the media considerable hostility to religion and Christianity. While much of Allen’s material is actually far less offensive than it was considered to be at the time, I do feel that it contributed to the modern climate of indifference and hostility. It can produce a superficial familiarity with religion, a feeling that one knows all about it and is free to sneer at it, based on something a few comedians have said on TV or the radio. This extends to Christianity as a whole, not just to the Roman Catholic Church. I feel strongly that against the bitter attacks Christians now face, the churches – Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, need to support each other.
The way to combat these attacks on Christianity should be through good humour, and polite and witty rebuttal. No-one deserves death threats for their religious or political opinions, no matter how offensive they may be. The only decent way to combat anti-religious attacks, like those you can hear regularly on the Beeb or Channel 4, should be through rational counterargument. The churches are capable of this, and should use it more to rebut their critics. It doesn’t have to be very difficult. Quite often all the New Atheist crowd do is trade in prejudice and received opinion, without any background in philosophy, theology or history.
Dave Allen: One of the Great British Comic Geniuses
As for Dave Allen, it was brilliant being reminded just how good a comedian he was. One of his younger writers said that it was Allen’s monologue about explaining how to tell the time, in which the comic master was shown saying, ‘And the third hand on the watch is the second hand’ – that really he couldn’t teach Allen anything about comedy in a million years. Much of Allen’s material is about how absurd life can be. In one of his monologues he talked about how he went past a building. Painted on the door was the sign, ‘This is neither an entrance nor an exit, and should be kept closed at all times’. ‘Why then, ‘ asked Allen rhetorically, ‘don’t you just brick the dam’ thing up!’ Some of the sketches are simply morality plays on greed and vanity. There’s one which features Allen as a city gent. Walking past a car, he notices a ten-pound note jammed under its wheels. This sketch was made in the early 1970s, when ten pounds was worth far more than it is today. Unable to pull the note out, the gent spots a cafe over the road and walks to it to wait for the car to drive away. The gent is shown sitting in the cafe, ordering more and more cups of tea, having false starts when it just looks that the car is about to be driven away, only for the supposed driver to continue walking past. Finally the driver comes back, gets in the car and drives away. At last the commuter sees his chance, gets up to go to the door, only to be beaten by everyone else in the cafe. Another sketch was set during the Russian Revolution. Against a backdrop of stirring music and a map of Russia in flames, the streets are full of rioting mobs. The limousine of one of the capitalist masters and his chaffeur pulls into one of these streets, only to be halted. The two are pulled out of the vehicle and lynched. Two of the mob, played by Dave Allen and his long-time supporting star, Peter Vincent, take the duo’s clothes. Amid mocking cheers Allen puts on the capitalist’s fur coat and monocle, while Vincent dons the chauffeurs hat and jacket. Amid shouts of applause from their fellow workers they get in the car and drive off. They then turn a corner into the next street, where they meet another band of revolting workers, who take them out and lynch them in turn.
Despite his mockery of religion, Allen was indeed a comic genius. Nearly three decades later, I still find him far funnier than some of the comics who replaced him. Goodnight, Dave, and I hope the Almighty was with you in the end.