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Date: 11/03/05

The End Of Another Story...

There was great excitement in our house in about 1972. We finally rented a television set (those were the days when you had to rent because they were expensive and not very reliable) which could receive BBC2, the Corporation's flagship 'serious' channel.

(This was still black & white for us, though, not colour; although our slightly scatty neighbour Ada said that they were going to get a 'BBC2 aerial' "so we can watch The Queen in colour". No matter that they still only had a black & white set....)

Starting to watch BBC2 was a true opening of the eyes. There were documentary series, such as Horizon (mostly science and technology) or The World About Us (natural history and anthropology); rather 'highbrow' (remember that term?) quiz programmes like Call My Bluff (only a truly meritocratic network could host a programme about words where one team captain lisped (Frank Muir) and the other (Patrick Campbell) had a terrible stammer) or Face The Music (including that cultural icon, Joseph Cooper's dummy keyboard).

There were other strange delights, too. As a boy with what would now be called geekish tendencies (I can't quite recall what it was called at the time....Ah, yes! 'Weird'...), I was drawn to the Transmitter Information bulletins broadcast up to three times a day, and the Trade Test Colour Films, which didn't entirely fulfil their remit on a 20" monochrome Pye set, but it's the thought that counts. These films were often made by companies such as Shell or Philips as sort-of-but-not-quite promotional movies. Philips' Evoluon, about the technology exhibition the company staged in Eindhoven, was a particular favourite.

There were entertainment programmes too, mind. But whereas BBC1's and ITV's tended to be either down-home tat (The Generation Game) or just sitcoms from hell (Love Thy Neighbour), BBC2's had at least the veneer of sophistication and/or daring. The former quality was shown by the variety programmes which always seemed to be hosted by Kenneth Williams or Lulu, and which expressed their suaveness by featuring French singers and gave off the overwhelming aura of a boîte de nuit.

The daring, however, at least to my 10-year-old understanding of it, was exemplified by this man:

Photo of Dave Allen

Dave Allen was a revelation. Here, instead of the standard stand-up schtick about mothers-in-law, frigid wives and (how one rightly recoils from the word today!) 'Pakis', was a man who told jokes about priests and nuns, who wasn't averse to letting out the odd 'bloody', and whose on-screen persona was that not of the comedian, but of the storyteller; relaxed on his leatherette high-stool, with the glass of whisky (although he claimed it was ginger ale!) and the ashtray and packet of cigarettes on the arm-ledge of it.

But then, that was the milieu from which David Tynan O'Mahony had sprung. The son of a Dublin newspaper editor, brought up in the miserably spartan and circumscribed Ireland of the De Valera era, educated (if that word can be used) by a particularly brutal sect of Catholic priests ("They literally beat the fear of God into me!"), who succeeded only in making the young O'Mahony a convinced atheist for the rest of this days. There was no television, scarcely any electricity even. Entertainment was what you could make for yourself. In the O'Mahony household, this took the form of Cully O'Mahony gathering his children around him of an evening, by the light of the fire and one, solitary candle, and spinning his yarns.

That's where Dave got it from. Because he was a storyteller, with the great storyteller's talent of drawing you in to the tale, making you believe it implicitly, and then cutting you loose to laugh almost in shock at the twist at the end. Anyone who ever heard Dave Allen tell one of the many shaggy-dog tales of how he came to lose the tip of one of his fingers would testify to that ability.

His straightforward jokes had the underpinnings of a deep love of language, a sharp eye for our absurdities and a profound anger at human credulousness and stupidity. His talent was such that he could make us see those weaknesses in ourselves and make us laugh at them at the same time.

Let's not forget the sketches. In the Dave Allen At Large series which ran through most of the 1970s, the sketches (featuring what was, in effect, the Dave Allen Repertory Company, such as Jacqueline Clarke, Peter Hawkins, Ronnie Brody and the splendidly-named Michael Sharvell-Martin) were eagerly awaited, and always worth waiting for. They displayed Allen's irreverence (for once, the right word) and his sense of the surreal. No-one, having seem them, could forget the sight of two rival funerals racing (whilst trying to make it appear that they weren't) to be the first funeral at a particular churchyard that day; nor the sketch where a newly-crowned Pope does a footballer-style, cartwheeling celebration of his new status; or, best of all, the sketch in which a boys' choir and their choirmaster try to find out just who has farted. The sketch was devoid of dialogue, with the accusation merely mouthed to each suspected culprit in turn.

Of course, such material led him to get up the noses of the pompous and the prudish, but that's a recommendation rather than a rebuke in my book.

To a child (such as I was when I first watched his shows), the whole idea of being able to joke openly about religion, death and sex and on television too was a truly thrilling one. I'd like to think that he helped make me broad-minded about what is funny and what is allowed to be funny.

Dave Allen died last night, at the age of 68. A lot of honest laughter passed with him.

Dave: Goodnight, thank you, and may the sound of our grateful laughter go with you.