'Comedian Dave Allen was truly ahead of his time'
The Irish Examiner, Ellie O’Byrne interviews Bryan Murray
Theatre Public Relations (PR)
Note: The original Text was Published Tuesday, March 07, 2017 The Irish Examiner by Ellie O’Byrne
Dave Allen’s comments on the Church may have shocked some, but he stands as one of the greats of Irish comedy. Ellie O’Byrne talks to Bryan Murray about a man who found fame as an exile.
“Thank God for YouTube,” Bryan Murray laughs. “I’ve been watching him and all his mannerisms and little ways.”The veteran actor is preparing for his role as the legendary comic in Dave At Large, Brian MacAvera’s new play that honours and dissects the life of Allen, a ground-breaking figure often hailed as one of the fathers of modern stand-up.
As well as researching online, Murray, well-known to TV audiences from his roles in Fair City and The Irish RM, has been able to dig deep into experiences he shares with Allen. There’s plenty of common ground: like Allen, Murray left Ireland to forge a career path in the UK, and has presented TV chat shows and documentaries.
A lifelong fan of the Co Dublin-born comedian, Murray is approaching the role with humility. “I’m not even attempting to fill his shoes,” he says.
“The best I can hope for is to bring some kind of a memory back to those who would remember Dave and the kind of stories he’d tell, or the way that he’d do it. It’s a great joy to be working on a play with Dave Allen at the centre of it, and we’re looking forward to bringing him back to life.”
Allen, like Terry Wogan and Val Doonican, was an Irishman whose verbose charm and easy manner brought him broadcasting fame in the UK and further afield. But unlike Wogan or Doonican, he was fervently anti-establishment, and his pot-shots at the Catholic Church and contempt for politicians and figures of authority were too controversial for the deeply conservative Ireland of the 1960s and 70s; he was effectively banned from appearing on RTÉ. His controversial material really was ahead of its time.
Born Dave Tynan O’Mahony, the son of renowned Irish Times editor Cully Tynan O’Mahony, Allen began his stand-up career while working in Butlin’s holiday camp after a failed attempt at following in his father’s footsteps as a journalist on Fleet Street.
The offer of his own show, Tonight With Dave Allen, on Australian TV in the early 1960s brought popularity and controversy; the show was briefly banned after he told a producer who was pressing him to cut to commercial break to “go away and masturbate” during one broadcast.
A return to the UK led to BBC’s The Dave Allen Show, where he cemented his distinctive style: he would sit on a stool, glass of whisky in one hand and cigarette in the other, relaying stories to the audience.
“Up to that point, comedy meant somebody getting up and reeling off a string of jokes,” Murray says. “Dave came along, and he’d tell a story, and you wouldn’t have an idea where it was going but really you were listening to his observations. He was quite a trailblazer in that he was the first comedian, or one of the first, who didn’t tell jokes.”
Murray, who was invited to join the National Theatre in London at 25 and who went from there to the Royal Shakespeare Company before his TV and film career took off, believes the detached, observational stance in Allen’s comedy was in part a result of him being “a kind of international Irishman”.
“Your experience is broadened; you learn more, I think,” he says. “The experience of being an Irish person living abroad makes you even more appreciative of where you come from, but you see yourself living in the world, rather than just what you were brought up to be.”
Dave Allen’s BBC shows in the 1970s were dogged with controversy. Irreverent sketches, such as his infamous depiction of the Pope performing a striptease, would result in flurries of complaint letters, which he seemed to relish, and on one occasion a death threat from the IRA. Yet his humour was warm and playful rather than malicious, and, an atheist himself, Allen always insisted that he respected personal faith. It was his prescient concern for the hierarchy and abuses of power within the church that he objected to.
He always signed off at the end of his shows with “Thank you, goodnight, and may your God go with you”. He died in 2005, at the age of 68, having wound down his broadcasting career in later years in favour of his growing love of painting and a quieter life surrounded by family. Playwright and director Brian MacAvera believes that Allen was years ahead of his time in his comedic unravelling of the position of the church in society. “I had grown up with Dave Allen on the box,” MacAvera says.
“His main subject areas were the Church, sex, language, problems with growing up: very universal subject matter in every sense of the word. Now, we’ve seen scandal after scandal hit the Catholic Church. It got me wondering: how would Dave have responded if he were alive today?”
MacAvera’s play interrogates this by resurrecting different aspects of Allen and returning them to the stage. Allen is represented by three characters: Dave, Davey and Davinia. Corralled by Davinia (Tara Breathnach), Dave (Bryan Murray), who represents Allen’s suave, laid-back TV presence, and Davey (Michael Bates), Allen’s edgier stand-up incarnation, respond to their resurrection with a torrent of fresh, Allen-inspired stand-up material.
“Television Allen was very self-contained, very reined-in,” MacAvera says. “He was the one who sat on the stool telling stories. Stage Allen was a much more aggressive character, roaming the stage. Female Allen represents all of the female aspects in his life.
In the narrative that we’ve created she’s the one who’s essentially in control and is unlocking them, because they’ve arrived on the stage but they don’t know why they’re there.”
The Irishman-in-exile is a frequent theme for Belfast-born MacAvera, who has written, directed and produced plays exploring the lives of Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett in the past. Like Murray and Allen, MacAvera’s own career led him to working in the UK, partly because of the political content of his early work, and he was inspired to write a play on Allen in part because of parallels he saw between their lives.
“I wasn’t into writing a biography per se,” says MacAvera. Surely it was a huge challenge to capture Allen’s distinctive writing style?
MacAvera laughs. “If you can’t aim high don’t aim at all, would be my attitude,” he says.
And capturing the genius of Dave Allen is almost as high as it gets.