Obituaries: Jim Allen

VERY LITTLE about Jim Allen's interest as a writer can ever be fashionable. Political struggle, class betrayal and what he saw as the perennial injustices dropped on ordinary people hardly make for "entertainment" - multiplex or multi-channelled. But the best of his work will survive because it has the qualities of the man: heroic, unflinching, committed to putting art strictly at the service of raw life and struggle.

My first professional involvement with him was as an ingenue script editor, with a director just as green, on a 30-minute television play of his, The Hard Word (1966). The experience was a miniature of the dares Jim Allen always threw to his blanching media trusties - to make a smug medium tell a revolutionary message, to bring off a miracle, and to elicit a promise that he wouldn't have to spend a night in London.

In the case of The Hard Word, the miracle was to create the sprawling, crowded chaos of an angry building site in the smallest studio of TV Centre, using mammoth old colliding cameras - and broadcast it live. Watching it go out, safely back in his local in Middleton, Manchester, Allen was impressed and thought we should try out "that Geordie director bloke" on something more ambitious, "perhaps a bit of a film". But Ridley Scott never became one of Allen's regular guerrillas, like Ken Loach and Roland Joffe.

Many of the major writers who defined the so-called golden age of television drama had "impeccable working-class origins", the open brief of The Wednesday Play being to banish the French-windowed, anyone-for-tennis school in favour of the scholarship of street-life angst and agitation. The first writing icon of this local new wave (someone prolifically directed by Ken Loach well before he tackled Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home), was Jimmy O'Connor, whose pedigree as an unjustly convicted murderer from Notting Hill (a part of London branded then more for petty crime than luvviedom), made him the first vibrant symbol of the movement's intentions.

Jim Allen, however, was an altogether different challenge. An early life as labourer, conscript, prisoner and always maverick socialist troublemaker eventually led him in his late thirties to learn the basic writer's craft, turning out scripts for Coronation Street - but rather unhappily, since he had no patience with the programme's diluted and manipulative mythologising of his own people or with the suffocating and paternalist bear-hug which the old Granada lavished on its employees.

His play The Talking Head (1969) is about a talented house writer who runs away from the pressure of his episode delivery dates. When the benevolent corporate police track him down drying out in some humble ancestor of the Priory he pleads, "Please at least let me pay for my own nervous breakdown!"

Allen himself was rescued from these deadly career comforts (to which many succumbed) by a BBC so dazed and confused in the headlights of its own sudden Sixties expansion - more sets, more licence money, more channels - that it began to forget to press the button labelled "dull control" and fully motivated producers such as Tony Garnett were able to take risks with startling new voices and scary ventures.

The Lump (1967) and The Big Flame (1969), Allen's films set in the building trade and the old Liverpool Docks, were at once exposes, epic tales - and attempts in themselves at political action. A powerful "what if . . ." parable about workers' occupation seen by a vast unfragmented audience on Wednesday night could maybe start a walkout around the country on Thursday morning. That was the heady fantasy.

There never was quite a march that far of course and the irony is that by the time of Days of Hope (1976), Allen's seven-hour saga of working people from the First World War to the General Strike, while his powers and subjects were by now fully focused, the real influence of his kind of Leftism was already heading for a low Thatcherite ebb. So, the later Spongers (1978) and United Kingdom (1981), magnificent, compassionate and prescient polemics directed by Roland Joffe, look now like defiant afterglows in a world which had decided to harden and deafen itself against what Allen was and said.

He was something of a one-man tradition, titanically both further out and more fundamentalist in style and attitude than other radical contemporaries, making them seem rather wimpish in their moderation. As the Special Patrol Group finally closes in on the rebels in United Kingdom someone says, "The pen is mightier than the sword, but a sword is handy sometimes since they always come with swords."

Allen never stopped believing and scheming on a grand scale. I remember him, Joffe and me beating our way across all the German television stations trying to sell them a sort of Days of Hope-type series about the rise of Hitler. The vain and glorious chutzpah of three British upstarts thinking that we could flog that nation Allen's uncompromisingly socialist reading of their most sensitive historical moments only dawned on us after we had returned empty-handed. But throughout the trip itself, through a series of icy meetings, Jim Allen never doubted that his analysis and passion would be completely irresistible to those Panzer executives.

In 1987 when the Royal Court disgracefully abandoned his play Perdition, about Nazi/Zionist deals made during the Holocaust, I tried to get the BBC to do a modest studio version with Ken Loach directing, followed by the balancing act of a studio discussion, but the dull control button was now back on every scared little boss's desk and it was left to Film Four to help keep their partnership going with the movies Hidden Agenda (1990) and Raining Stones (1993).

Allen's Spanish Civil War project was a nearly film for a very long time but when Land and Freedom did get made (in 1995) it joined Days of Hope as comprising the essential Jim Allen, obsessive warts and all. A "remote" subject becomes immediate and accessible without nervous dilution, succeeding in fact, because Allen's (and Loach's) agenda remains at the full strength of its inherent emotional and dramatic paradoxes.

Idealism may itself be the seed of disenchantment, but the "if only" gene is irrepressible and barricades only fall to stand again. "We could have changed the world," says the disgusted hero of Land and Freedom, and Jim Allen, still planning revolutionary sagas on his deathbed, always believed he would.

Jim Allen, playwright and script-writer: born Manchester 7 October 1926; married (two sons, three daughters); died Manchester 24 June 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game