Obituaries: Jim Allen
Tuesday 06 July 1999
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.
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