Dave Lanning meets Dave Allen in 1967
HE should be extrovert, rip-roaring, wise-cracking, gaily knocking back foaming pints of stout with the boyohs each lunchtime. That has to be the popular conception of a man with a name like David Tynan O’Mahony. Who simply has to be an Irish comedian.
And, of course, he is. The stage name is Dave Allen. But somehow the image is all wrong. He’s lunching, frugally, on cheese, pickles, French bread, and shandy in a pub called The Carpenter’s Arms, London, W.1. A solitary figure in a plum-coloured, plush corner seat, unobtrusive, virtually unrecognised.
Now I have always felt Dave Allen, under the surface, is a rather lonely, rather angry young man.
Lonely… because, well, he always seems to be working on his own. Or just with a stool on a huge stage. Just by himself. No trimmings. And now he is the one-man inquisitor every Sunday in Tonight with Dave Allen.
Angry. Hard to explain this, particularly about a successful comedian with an abounding propensity for making all sorts of people laugh. Yet his joking and humour has always struck me as slightly barbed. Having a prod about… oh, Irishmen, drinking, life, himself. Not malicious. Nor satirical. But a dig just the same.
He lights a French cigarette (he virtually chain-smokes during conversations) and considers my analysis. “Lonely? Not really. No, not at all. I have a fairly large circle of friends, mostly outside show business.
“They’re the same people I’ve known for years. Knew them when I started in the business 12 years ago; we still have the same sort of friendship going now that I’m better known.
“Friendship to me is like an interrupted conversation you pick up six months later. It should happen automatically. It shouldn’t follow any course or take a consistent shape. No, I don’t feel lonely, anyway. And surely that’s the worst part of loneliness?”
The quiet, confident manner that hallmarks Dave Allen performances in front of audiences and television cameras isn’t an act. It’s his natural manner. It comes through in all his conversations. His voice is little more than a whisper: very rarely a trace of any expected Irish ebullience.
“Angry? Many things make me angry. I’m not very pleased when lorry drivers lean out of their cabs and hail me with ‘Hiya, Paddy.’ But that’s to be expected.
“I’m always a little worried about reacting impulsively on the programme, if ever anything that makes me angry comes up.
“All kinds of intolerance make me angry. The colour question. All the infighting that goes on within the various denominations of the Christian Church. People who hoot their horns at traffic lights.”
When he talks, his hands become expressive. The inevitable cigarette burns away, unpuffed. The cheese and pickles are forgotten.
“Yes, people who hoot unnecessarily. They get me. There’s a lovely story about the cool type who, when hooted at, waits until the lights turn green, switches off the engine, leaves the car and approaches the fellow behind, politely asking: “Excuse me, am I bothering you in some way?”
“Of course, by this time the lights have changed back to red!
“I could never be that cool, though I’d love to be. I’m impulsive. If I could press a button that would make a whopping crane swoop in and carry off the offending hooter, I’d press it on the spot.
“But I can’t. So I swallow the reaction and do nothing. So I can’t be that angry, can I?” His programme, Tonight with Dave Allen was not hotly bally-hooed. It sort of crept in and was allowed to make its own impression on people.
“I didn’t want the show to start with a great fanfare of trumpets. It takes time for a show like this to gain shape, character. I just hope people appreciate this and don’t prejudge. Personalities are always wary about appearing in a new show; they like to see how it is developing first.
“I see the programme as a kind of newspaper. Picking up anything that is interesting and invevstigating [sic], probing. Okay, so maybe we get a crank or two. I love cranks. Life needs them. Otherwise, everything becomes regimented, a great grey mass and awful.”
Most mornings, Dave is in the research office, batting ideas back and forth with the production team. “I could sit at home and communicate by phone. But it’s my show. It means something to me. I want to be part of everything within it.”
He wants to get to know each person who is going to appear. Personally. He will whip them out for a steak lunch or a drink in this very corner seat. “Give us an hour alone and I think I’ll have pinned down their interesting points.”
In Ireland he once worked as a junior reporter (“wedding receptions, football matches and, thank goodness, it was a weekly paper — it gave me time to organise reports properly! ”). There’s still plenty of basic newspaperman in him.
“I’m interested in people. Very, very few conversations bore me. I like to let people go on because even though they might be boring, you never know if they’re going to come up with something good later.
“On the show I’ve got to try to analyse public taste, and occasionally cut people short. I’m not really worried what people think of me. I don’t think many will leave the programme thinking I’m a rotten swine.”
Tonight with Dave Allen is his full-time job for the moment. He does not wish to accept any other bookings, although he keeps faith with a few long-standing invitations to speak at dinners.
He’s intense, but enormously conscientious; serious, but not depressing.
“I enjoy controversy and appreciate the need for people to get angry, to let off steam,” he says.