'He made a difference. He did something valuable and important' | Comics pay tribute at a wake for alternative comedy pioneer Tony Allen... who's still alive © Jacqui Double

'He made a difference. He did something valuable and important'

Comics pay tribute at a wake for alternative comedy pioneer Tony Allen... who's still alive

Fellow comedians paid their respects to the godfather of alternative comedy, Tony Allen, at his wake last night – even though he is very much alive.

Friends threw the bash in West London so the 78-year-old pioneer, who was recently diagnosed with cancer for the second time, could appreciate the compliments, pre-mortem. However, he had to leave the show early and miss some of the later tributes – although it was livestreamed.

Among the ‘mourners’ was Alexei Sayle, who worked with Allen to plant the seeds of the modern comedy scene by setting up a collective of politically motivated performers called Alternative Cabaret in 1979, with an ethos borrowed from punk and radical theatre. They staged gigs at the Elgin pub on Ladbroke Grove, West London, and began the tradition of comedians taking solo stand-up acts to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1980 (‘Any comic who has ever done Edinburgh festival owes me and Tony a cut,’ he has joked.

The pair first met in 1976, when Sayle was in a Brecht play and Allen heckled him. ‘We were at the dawn of something extraordinary, he said at last night’s ‘woke wake’. ‘It’s an unrepeatable experience that very  few people are granted, to be right at the very creation of an art form. 

‘It was a delirious time to be alive, really. We used to we used to think about ideas, we used to spend all night talking about the theory and what we were going to do. 

‘One night I remember at Tony’s flat, we had a long discussion about how, if a production company sent a limo for you, was it all right to accept it? Or would you have to cycle or walk there or wait for a demonstration to be passing by – that was fairly likely in those days – which would pass the production company. 

‘So me and Tony we stayed up all night arguing this point and consulted all the sacred texts: The Eagle annual for 1957, The Anarchists’ Cookbook… In the end, we decided – and this was the official line – that it would be all right, to accept the limo from the production company to take you to a meeting as long as you sat in the front with the driver… and have a discussion with him about Cuba.’

‘That was one of my many thousands of wonderful recollections of my time with Tony.’

Allen, also a regular at Speakers’ Corner was the second compere at the Comedy Store – after Sayle and before Ben Elton. Elton put money behind the bar of the Quiet Night Inn in Westbourne Park last night to keep those paying tribute to Allen well-lubricated.

Stand-up Nick Revell recalled his first  gig at the original Comedy Store in Dean Street,  Soho, in 1980 hosted by Allen, saying: ‘It was a very, very tough night. But Tony was brilliant. And the only reason I didn't get gonged off is because if it was your first time there doing an open spot, you were immune from being gonged off. I got booed off. I did my five minutes set in about 90 seconds. 

‘But watching Tony run this room, I thought "there is a way of making this work." And so I owe it to him that I persisted as a stand up comedian, but don't hold that against him.’

‘Before the show started, they would play Ethel Merman’s version of There's No Business Like Show Business. And even now when I hear that song, I have post-traumatic stress in the same way that a Vietnamese child of my age would probably get from hearing a helicopter.’

He recalled Allen would be announced as ‘Ladbroke Grove’s best-dressed squatter’ and take to the stage in linen jacket, black T-shirt, red braces, drainpipe trousers and Doc Martens

Revell recalled he would be ‘walking around owning the room’ and repeated some of Allen’s lines from the day:

‘I tell you I'm in such a good mood for the first time in my life I finally got some money. I sold my flat for £50,000. I’m so happy. When the housing association find out they're gonna be fucking furious. 

‘Well look at the state of this room. It looks like it was designed by a pools winner on acid.’

‘Lenny Bruce, my hero, ended his career dying of heroin in a toilet. That's how I'm starting off. ‘

To a heckler: ‘What a lovely thing to call me, a cunt. You might think it's an insult but cans are warm and sensitive and transmit ecstasy and new life. Thank you very much! And by the way, it's cunts like me that make pricks like you stand up straight.

‘A Brechtian joke with the punchline first to deconstruct and dissolve the suspension of disbelief… Bitter? I’m fucking furious. Yasser Arafat walks into a pub and says "I'd like a pint please" Barman says "bitter?"’ 

Fellow comic Mark Kelly who used to perform on the comedy circuit as Mr Nasty, took to the stage to say: ‘Tony said he wanted a sombre atmosphere – so I'm going to do my act. 

‘Tony was one of those rare breeds of comic who could close a show  – and possibly a venue.’

He recalled seeing Allen on the early televised alternative comedy showcase Boom Boom, Out Go The Lights, and him telling the audience that the title of the show was from a song about a guy who goes home and beats up his girlfriend. ‘And this is hardly very alternative, not the sort of thing we want’.

Kelly said: ‘I thought someone who's willing to go on TV and sink his own career on the spot is my kinda guy.’

He also recalled them playing a gig with just four punters, who Allen gathered around the table to turn the show into a pub chat. Kelly joked: ’I always have really, really fond memories of Tony.  I've always thought of Tony as the act who would never sell out – no matter how small the venue.’

Later, Simon Munnery recalled how Allen took the same joke to extremes – and some financial cost to himself – by calling one of his shows Tony Allen: Sold Out. ‘I rang up the theatre and asked, "are there any tickets left?",’ Munnery recalled. ‘And there were. In the end, there were six of us in.’

Oliver Double – a former comic turned academic specialising in recent comedy history – recalled a panel on stand-up they were both on at the University of Wolverhampton in the late 1990s when Allen got involved in a heated and protracted debate with an Italian in the audience about the difference between acting and performance – all conduced through a translator. 

Only later did Allen realise he’d been trading verbal blows with Dario Fo, the Italian Marxist playwright behind Death Of An Anarchist.

Poet and musician Attila The Stockbroker recalled how Allen started him off in the world of alternative cabaret, recalling how in those early days ‘there was this amazing mix of everything - and then it all went shit and corporate’. 

‘He made a difference,’ Atilla added. ‘He did something really valuable and really important. Thank you comrade.’

Later, Atilla formed an ad-hoc double act with Sir Gideon Vein, who led the audience in a dance to Who Pays The Ferrymen by Yannis Markopoulos, played off a phone down the mike. 

An emotional Ivor Dembina told the audience: ‘This is reminding me of an era of which Tony was obviously an amazing part. It's just great to be amongst you all tonight.’

He recalled the first act he ever saw on the Comedy Store stage was Allen, who introduced John Hegley, joking: ‘And I can remember as clear as daylight… that only one of those acts was funny.’

Hegley sang ‘recollections in the form of rhymes’ that concluded: ‘There were the times when we were both performing and you would always put me at my ease, with my own first stabs at cabaret and seeking the applause. The big laugh of encouragement, dear Tony, it was yours.’

Fellow poet Jonny Fluffypunk recalled how he and Allen used to run the cabaret at the Anarchist Book Fair - and one year the organisers insisted they book ‘a load of elderly, International Workers of the World songwriters’.

‘We refused and instead had Sir Gideon berating berating people for having jobs in the audience. We had we had a transvestite go-go troupe, a woman singing a pride song about being a slag. And it culminated in a stripping James Bond, who then ran from the venue and got beaten up by bikers. 

‘After that, the Anarchist Book Fair said that we were just too anarchic and it got taken out of our hands.’

Some other friends sent messages and anecdotes, including his old squat-mate Tom Costello. He recalled their squat being raided by police at 4am , but Allen refusing to put any clothes on ‘to make the cops feel really uncomfortable and really unwelcome – which can't be a bad thing’. At the time the pair were performing a stage show about a mad scientist that included theatrical explosions, and the officers were very interest in Allen’s diary that included entries such as ‘bombs didn't go off today’ at the height of the IRA terror campaign in London  

Costello sent the message: ‘Tony, you’re never going to get to heaven. I don't think they would allow a disruptive free-thinking anarchists in. Although on the other hand you're never going to go to hell either. You've helped and inspired so many people in so many ways.’

Another contributor to recalled how they vandalised 1970 Election campaign posters that read: ‘Wouldn’t Britain be better off Conservative?’ by creating patches in an identical font that could be placed over the word ‘better’ but read ‘pissed’ instead.

Others who appeared included Bob Boyton, Whatsername, Roddy McDevitt, Angus Lindsay,  and Becky Fury, who  organised the event.

Here's the footage of the first two-thirds of the gig:

» Tony Allen and others on the origins of alternative comedy

» Review of Tony Allen’s book Attitude! Wanna Make Something of it? The Secret of Stand-up Comedy

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Published: 28 Jul 2023

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