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Initially becoming known in Australia during 1963–64, Dave Allen made regular television appearances in the United Kingdom in the later 1960s and 1970s. His career had a major resurgence during the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the height of his career he was Britain's most controversial comedian, regularly provoking indignation at his frequent highlighting of political hypocrisy and his disregard for religious authority. He also became known in the United States and Canada through broadcasts of his shows on television there.
Allen's act was typified by a relaxed, rueful and intimate style; he would sit on a high bar stool facing his audience, smoking and occasionally sipping from a glass of what he always allowed people to assume was whiskey, but in fact was merely ginger ale with ice. Literally and metaphorically, he was a sober-minded man who, though sometimes appearing deliberately crotchety and irritable on stage, always gave off an air of charm and serene melancholy both in his act and in real life. Each day he would pore over the newspapers, constantly scribbling notes and ideas which he then expanded for his routines.
He was a religious sceptic (according to Allen, "what you might call a practising atheist", and often joked, "I'm an atheist, thank God") as a result of his deeply held objections to the rigidity of his strict Catholic schooling. Consequently, religion became an important subject for his humour, especially the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, generally mocking church customs and rituals rather than beliefs. In 1998 he stated:
"The hierarchy of everything in my life has always bothered me. 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 - people used to think of the nice sweet little ladies … they used to knock the fuck out of you, in the most cruel way that they could. 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."
At the end of his act Allen would always raise his glass and quietly toast his audience with the words "Thank you, goodnight and may your God go with you", an original and inclusive catchphrase that typified Allen's amiable style.
Along with his seated stand-up routines, his television shows were interspersed with filmed sketch comedy.
Highly regarded in Britain, Allen's comic technique and style had a lasting influence on many young British comedians. His targets were often figures of authority, his style was observational rather than gag-driven, and his language frequently ripe; as such he was a progenitor for the "alternative" comedians of the 1980s. In his native Ireland, he always remained somewhat controversial. His mocking of the Catholic Church made him unpopular amongst Irish Catholics, while his mocking of the extremist Ulster Protestant leader Ian Paisley made him unpopular amongst many Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Born in Firhouse, Dublin, Ireland, the youngest of three sons of Cully Tynan O'Mahony, managing editor of The Irish Times, and an English mother, Jean Archer. His brothers were John and Peter. David Tynan O'Mahony left school aged sixteen, after attending the secondary schools Newbridge College, Terenure College and the Catholic University School and followed his father into journalism. He joined the Drogheda Argus as a copy-boy, and went to London, aged nineteen. He drifted through a series of jobs, before becoming a Butlins Redcoat at Skegness in a troupe that also included the British jazz trumpeter and writer John Chilton. At the end of each summer season, he did stand-ups at strip clubs and for the next four years he appeared in night clubs, theatres and working men's clubs. When entertainment work was slow he sold toys in a Sheffield store and also worked as a door-to-door draught excluder salesman. He changed his stage surname to "Allen" on the prompting of his agent, who believed that few British people would be able to pronounce "O'Mahony" correctly. Allen himself hoped that a surname beginning with "A" would put him at the top of any agent's list.
Allen lost the top of his left forefinger above the middle knuckle, after catching it in a machine cog. However, he enjoyed telling many differing stories as to how that happened and this became a minor part of his act. One version was that his brother John had surprised him by snapping his jaw shut when they were children, resulting in him biting it off. A further explanation he gave on his programme Dave Allen at Large was that he often stuck his finger in his whiskey glass and it had been eaten away by "strong drink". He also said the cause was repeated brushing down the dust from his suit with his hand causing the finger to be worn away. One of his stand-up jokes was that, when he was a boy, he and his friends would go see a cowboy movie at the local cinema, then come out all ready to play "Cowboys and Indians". Staring down at his truncated finger, he would mutter, "I had a sawn-off shotgun." On his show he told a long, elaborate ghost story, ending with "something evil" attacking Allen in a dark and haunted house. Allen grabbed and bit the attacker, the studio lights came back up, and it was his own left hand.
Allen had his first television appearance on the BBC talent show New Faces in 1959. He hosted pop music shows in the early 1960s, including tours by Adam Faith and Helen Shapiro, and in early 1963 was the compère of a tour of Britain headlined by Helen Shapiro that also included The Beatles, then starting to become well-known. In 1962 he toured South Africa with American vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, whom he described as "one of the most charming and delightful performers with whom I have ever worked". Tucker was impressed with him and suggested to him that he try his luck in Australia. Moving there, he worked with Digby Wolfe on Australian television, becoming Wolfe's resident comedian.
While on tour in Australia in 1963, he quickly proved successful and accepted an offer to headline a television talk show with Channel 9, Tonight with Dave Allen, which proved successful. However, only six months after his television début he was banned from the Australian airwaves when, during a live broadcast, he told his show's producer — who had been pressing him to go to a commercial break — to "go away and masturbate" so that he could continue an entertaining interview with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The ban was dropped quietly when Allen's popularity continued unabated.
Allen returned to the United Kingdom in 1964 and made a variety of appearances on ITV, including The Blackpool Show, Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium and on the BBC on The Val Doonican Show. In 1967 Allen hosted his own comedy/chat series, Tonight with Dave Allen, made by ATV, which earned him the Variety Club's ITV Personality of the Year Award.
He signed with the BBC in 1968 and appeared on The Dave Allen Show, a variety/comedy sketch series. This was followed, 1971–79, by Dave Allen at Large.
The shows introduced his solo joke-telling-while-sitting-on-a-stool-and-drinking routine. This stand-up routine by Allen led to sketches that continued the themes touched on in the preceding monologues. Meanwhile he began to appear in the legitimate theatre. In 1972 he acted as a Doctor in the Royal Court's production of Edna O'Brien's play A Pagan Place. With family friend Maggie Smith in the lead, he appeared in Peter Pan in a run during 1973 and 1974. Allen performed as both Mr Darling and Captain Hook in the production at the London Coliseum. Allen made The Dave Allen Show in Australia (1975–1977) for his old employers, Channel 9.
As well as being a comedian, Allen also made several serious television documentaries for ITV, beginning with Dave Allen in the Melting Pot (1969), looking at life in New York and dealing with issues such as racism and drugs. Later programmes included Dave Allen in Search of the Great English Eccentric (1974) and Eccentrics at Play (1974), in which he looked at colourful characters with idiosyncratic passions.
Allen's satirising of religious ritual, especially Catholic, throughout each episode of Dave Allen at Large caused minor controversy, which coupled with sometimes comparatively frank material, earned the show a risqué reputation. In 1977, the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ placed a de facto ban on Allen. Routines included sketches showing the pope (played by Allen) and his cardinals doing a striptease to music ("The Stripper") on the steps of St Peter's, aggressive priests beating their parishioners and other priests, priests who spoke like Daleks through electronic confessionals, and an extremely excitable Pope who spoke in a Chico Marx style accent as he ordered Allen to "getta your bum outta Roma!" In 1979 he played a troubled property man suffering a mid-life crisis in Alan Bennett's television play One Fine Day. New seasons of the comedy series, now titled Dave Allen, were broadcast from 1981 until 1990.
His final series for the BBC in 1990 caused controversy with a joke: "We spend our lives on the run. We get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, go to work by the clock, get up again, go to work – and then we retire. And what do they F****** give us? A clock." This prompted MP Robert Hayward to ask a parliamentary question about "offensive language" in broadcasting. In 1993, Allen returned to ITV, where he starred in the Dave Allen Show, which was his final regular television series.
By the late 1990s, Allen was living quietly in semi-retirement at home in Holland Park, west London. A keen amateur artist, he continued to exhibit his paintings. He had given up cigarettes in the 1980s, having smoked regularly during earlier television appearances. A comedy skit in 1984 talked not only about quitting smoking, but hating the smell of smoke. The 90s saw him make occasional chat show appearances and discussed his career in the six-part The Unique Dave Allen (BBC, 1998), in between clips from his past BBC series.
As he grew older, he brought a rueful awareness of ageing to his material, with reflections on the antics of teenagers and the sagging skin and sprouting facial hair of age. He was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the British Comedy Awards in 1996.
In 1964, Allen married actress Judith Stott, whom he had met in Australia. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983. Their son, Edward James Tynan O'Mahony (professionally Ed Allen), is also a comedian.
Allen's hobbies included painting, which he became increasingly enthusiastic about in his later years. His first exhibition, Private Views, was held in Edinburgh in 2001.
He died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Kensington, London, in 2005 at the age of 68. He was survived by Karin Tynan O'Mahony (née Stark), his wife of eighteen months but who had been his partner since 1986, and his three children from his first marriage: his children Edward and Jane, and his stepson Jonathan, a son of his first wife. Three weeks after Allen's death, Karin gave birth to their son, Cullen.