I've watched Dave Allen: God's Own Comedian (Monday BBC2; iPlayer) twice now. I'll probably watch it another eight or nine times, in the hope that any of Allen's essence can somehow enter my soul. This was less a film about how to be a TV comedian, more a film about how to be.
Dave Allen had a spark, a glint. He had no fear. He knew he had his s**t straight. He trusted his mind. He was always looking for mischief. He was curious. He loved his family. He never stopped thinking. If it was funny, he'd say it.
You could see it as he bounded onto the stage to present his first big TV show, in Sydney in 1963. At 26, in his second foreign country – he'd left Ireland at 16 and left his friends The Beatles behind in England ten years later – he was brazenly flirting with the studio audience. He had it. Soon Australia had given Dave, unutterably sexy at that point with his black hair and charmed eyes, his own chat show, which from the clips in God's Own Comedian seemed to consist of him larking about aimlessly and assuredly with female co-hosts and, in one extended sequence, risking his life to demonstrate how to escape from a submerged car. Advised to stay in Australia and build on his success, Allen followed his first wife back to England and simply repeated it there.
This documentary about one of the best stand-up comedians in British TV history didn't actually contain very much of his stand-up, because what audiences were buying wasn't a series of jokes, but time with Dave Allen - a share of the drink that was normally in his hand, on and off stage. "They wanted him to like them," explained Mark Thomas, a writer for Allen's later shows. Allen's honest independence was alluring but it took him, quite naturally, to extremely controversial places.
The flint inside the laconic exterior was formed young. Allen's newspaper-editor dad, a major local celebrity, had died when his son was 12, leaving the family struggling. But before that, a Catholic education had woken Allen up. "They hit me. They pulled my hair. They punched me. They demeaned me. None of them were qualified teachers."
Allen's material about the Catholic church wasn't revenge, exactly. The Pope stripteasing, the "nuns farting next to lilies" and the rest came more from his fascination with humans at their hypocritical worst. He grinned widely when asked which of his routines about religion had offended the IRA: "Most of them!" If it was true, he'd say it. Allen was a mainstream household name but did sketches about Apartheid, because he wanted to. His popularity kept rising.
Craven celebs would have consolidated with safe options. Allen wandered off to present a series of proto-Theroux documentaries on eccentric and marginalised people, drawing on his equal fascination with humans at their best. He took a straight acting role as a man in mid-life crisis in an Alan Bennett TV play. Allen was "looking for the meaning of life", said one of his collaborators, and that didn't sound ridiculous.
About the only black note in this fantastic programme - which may have glossed over all sorts of monstrous flaws in Allen's character, although I suspect it didn't and don't much care - was his last full series for the BBC in 1990, which was dogged by green-inkers moaning about the swearing. We saw Allen eruditely explain in a Clive James interview that there are more important things in the world to worry about than "rude sounds", but the Beeb caved and Allen was wounded. It was an ironic, pathetic, trivial but illuminating example of what Allen stood against and why he mattered.
Not that he thought he mattered much, Dave Allen being one of the few things in which Dave Allen didn't take too much interest. He made the best show he could but then went home, exchanged his smart stage garb for scruffy linen, and got on with reading, painting, drawing, and hosting sprawling weekenders for his extended family and friends. The ghost stories he would petrify the kids with at the Allen house in Devon sounded like better gigs than any of the TV ones.
"He had these many many abilities but he held them quietly," observed his widow Karin. Allen knew it was just a ride and, as Cyril Connolly ambiguously said, you can't be too serious. Finally, God's Own Comedian dealt with the mystery of the missing forefinger on Allen's left hand, by refusing to answer it. He'd told everyone something different: as his associates related the tale they'd heard, they had his glint in their eye.