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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

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

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week