Saturday profile: Keith allen

He's been at the eye of many British cultural storms. Now he has directed a film about Princess Diana for the establishment's bête noire Mohamed al Fayed, Tim Walker writes
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The Independent Online

Here's a question for the conspiracy theorists: how is it that a one-time borstal boy, whose reputation as an actor is outstripped by his notoriety as a hellraiser, has been present for so many of the most significant moments in British culture over the past quarter-century?

He was the dead body in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave, kickstarting the plot of a film that, arguably, kickstarted the nation's film industry in the mid-Nineties. He was hanging out with Damien Hirst just as he and his friends became the biggest thing in British art. He gatecrashed Britpop, starring in the video for Blur's number one single "Country House"; and he co-wrote two chart-topping England football anthems, "World in Motion" in 1990 and "Vindaloo" (with Hirst and Blur bassist Alex James) in 1998. He played a significant part in creating one of the most celebrated pop acts of the Noughties (he's Lily's dad). And now, as a documentarian, Keith Allen claims to have thrown fresh light on what is one of the great mysteries of the age: the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Allen's new documentary film, Unlawful Killing, alleges that "dark forces" were responsible for a cover-up of the facts surrounding Diana's death. It draws on interviews with many of those who knew the princess and Dodi Fayed – including Dodi's father Mohamed, who funded its production – to debunk the conclusions of the official inquest into the crash that killed the couple. Most controversially, it shows, for the first time in public, a graphic paparazzi photograph of Diana taken just moments after the accident.

While Allen doesn't single out any senior royals, former Prime Ministers or American intelligence agencies as being responsible for causing the crash, he does claim "a conspiracy organised... collectively by the British establishment" after the fact. "Judges, lawyers, politicians, police chiefs, secret services, even newspaper editors... quietly suppressing uncomfortable evidence or undermining the credibility of witnesses whose evidence contradicts the official narrative." It's hard to tell whether he truly believes the claims made by his motley crew of interviewees, or is merely out to upset the sensibilities of the establishment. "At a time when the mindless sugar rush of the royal wedding has been sending British republicans into a diabetic coma," he recently wrote, "it could act as a welcome antidote."

Even as a child, Allen had a talent for troublemaking. Born in Llanelli in 1953, he was the son of a waitress and a submariner. His brother Kevin is a film director, whose debut feature Twin Town (1997) was, appropriately enough, a black comedy about two brothers raising hell in Swansea. When their father sailed for Singapore in 1964, Keith was packed off to boarding school. Expelled for swapping all the organ pipes in the school chapel, and later caught stealing, he was sent to a youth prison aged 15, an experience he still claims to have enjoyed. "I love institutionalism," he once said, "and borstal is tailor-made for you to buck against." While there, he passed six O-levels.

Acting up remained his forte – and acting seemed a natural pursuit. Characteristically ejected from drama school, one of Allen's first forays into professional showbusiness was as a stagehand at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The following year saw the birth of punk, far better suited to Allen's temperament. Already possessed of a Zelig-like knack for appearing at the heart of the culture, he began to make a modest living as a stand-up comic, and was soon a support act on tour with The Clash.

In 1981, widely cited as the Year Zero of Alternative Comedy, Allen was there. A regular at the Comedy Store alongside the likes of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, he eventually became part of the ensemble for The Comic Strip Presents...

Allen's high watermark as an actor came with the BBC's 1994 adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he played the malign Jonas Chuzzlewit, in the same year as Shallow Grave. On stage he has been acclaimed for his performances in plays by Harold Pinter and David Hare. Yet he remains most famous as a Groucho Club stalwart in the 1990s. Many and varied are the tales of Allen's carousing, some of them doubtless apocryphal, others doubtless true. He and Hirst, it's said, once spent the night in the Groucho and ambushed the first customer of the following day with their trousers down. The unlucky soul was Stephen Fry, to whom Hirst offered his penis on a plate with the words, "Sausage, sir?"

With his chequered sexual past, not to mention his allegedly dubious recall, it's perhaps no wonder that the precise number of Allen offspring is disputed. Allen himself says he has six children (not eight, as has been claimed) by four different mothers. The best-known are his daughter and son by his first wife, film producer Alison Owen: Lily and Alfie.

Allen now lives with his partner, Tamzin Malleson, and their daughter. He has quit the metropolis and its temptations for the Cotswolds. His recent acting roles have been broadly villainous: the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, and dastardly Doctor Tony Whitman in the hospital drama Bodies.

It's with documentary-making, however, that Allen may have made his most interesting career swerve to date. It must have been either his fondness for unloved outsiders, or his enduring support for Fulham FC, that took him to Mohamed Fayed's door for his 2005 programme about the Egyptian businessman, You're Fayed. Fayed, for his part, must have liked that film enough to give Allen his blessing – and his cash – to allow him to pursue his latest project. Unlawful Killing, will not be shown in the UK, Allen having decided he was not willing to make the cuts demanded by lawyers. In this summer of royal love, it is unlikely to win Allen many new fans. No matter.

"I don't want to be loved," he has said. "No interest in being loved whatsoever. Actually, I don't mind being misunderstood either."

Born 2 June 1953, Llanelli, Wales.

Family The second of three children, his father was a Royal Navy submariner. Allen's first marriage to producer Alison Owen produced two children, Lily and Alfie. He also has a daughter with his current partner, Tamzin Malleson.

Education He went to boarding school at 11, was expelled aged 13, and sent to borstal at 15.

Career Started as a stand-up. In the 1990s he had roles in Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and Robin Hood. He is the director of Unlawful Killing.

He says "Obviously I have propagated the occasional myth about myself, because the real me, I'm not worth knowing. I'm actually a rather dull man."

They say "My attitude to life comes from Dad. He's very blunt – we're both direct about how we feel." Lily Allen