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 & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit