Looking back at 50 years of Dave Allen at Large

Saturday: Dave Allen on Life; (BBC Two, 10pm)

Friday, 5th March 2021, 5:00 pm

No-one ever said that making it to the top was easy.

Dave Allen certainly never took his success for granted – and he had as tricky a ride as anybody.

The ex-Skegness Redcoat, newspaper dogsbody, toy salesman and strip show comedian drifted into showbusiness via a hit Australian series, but success in his native Ireland and the UK was harder to come by.

For years his talents were buried in the ‘flesh and flash’ shows that took him round the northern circuit as a support act to strippers and singers, a nobody who barely managed to make himself heard above the din of audiences clamouring for anyone but him. But Allen, then known by his birth name of Dave O’Mahoney, persevered. His stint in Australia, where he had his own TV show, was a success and he repeated his performance on his return to the UK in 1964 where, at last, the critics sat up and took notice of the man whose only props were a stool, a glass of whisky and a wry smile.

These days we’re used to warts-and-all interviews with our favourite stars, but the real Dave Allen remained a trade secret. He rarely spoke to the press and by and large refused to discuss his family circumstances. During his later years he became an avid painter, but was reluctant to exhibit or sell his works; perhaps he feared they would be subjected to criticism while exposing the inner workings of his mind – something he was keen to keep to himself.

After all, as he repeatedly said to any journalist who pushed the questioning a little too far: “I don’t want to know about the personal life of my doctor when I go to see him, or my butcher when I buy meat from him, so I don’t see why I should talk about my private life.”

Even the reasons for the famous truncated forefinger on his left hand was shrouded in mystery. He lost it above the middle knuckle after the finger was caught in a machine cog, but he spent years coming up with increasingly elaborate stories about what happened.

Those tall tales weren’t quite so near the knuckle (pun intended) as some of his other gags; in 1963 he was briefly banned from Australian TV after making a rather saucy remark live on air, while in 1977, he was banned by Irish broadcaster RTE due to several controversial sketches involving the Catholic church.

Allen made his BBC debut on talent show New Faces in 1959, but it wasn’t until almost a decade later that he was signed up by the corporation to make The Dave Allen Show. Dave Allen at Large followed in 1971 and ran for the next eight years.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the latter’s debut, Allen himself is seen introducing a selection of his favourite monologues. Among the highlights are reflections on the idiocies of life, meditating, the ageing process and the invasive tendencies of what was then the modern telephone.

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