Dave Allen, comedian, dies aged 68. May his god go with him

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Of the many tributes paid to Dave Allen yesterday, following his death at the age of 68, the shrewdest came from another Irish comic, Dylan Moran: "When he adjusted his waistcoat or shot his cuffs, dragons of unreason gasped and died at his feet."

That catches brilliantly Allen's offhandedness, the slightly dandyish impeccability of his dress, and the way he built comic effects out of tiny movements and grimaces - no effort wasted.

It catches, too, his air of supreme reasonableness. The image that abides is of Allen draped comfortably over his bar stool, whiskey at his right elbow, cigarette at ease between his fingers.

His indignation was frequently directed at religious silliness of one sort or another - he was always careful to refer to "your god" ("May your god go with you"), never a particular god. He was greeted as an iconoclast, and he has been hailed as the godfather of alternative comedy.

Like the alternative comics of the 1980s, he eschewed racial stereotypes - surely he was the first Irish comedian to make a hit in this country without telling thick-Paddy jokes. Like them, too, he sometimes liked to shock - in 1990, he created a minor stir with a single use of the F-word on television (15 years on, the idea of a comic who only uses the F-word once in a routine sounds naive).

But in other ways, Allen was out of tune with the alternative ethos: he wasn't averse to gags based on sexual stereotypes; and when the frank, unrestrained rage of Ben Elton, Rik Mayall or Alexei Sayle came into fashion, Allen's restraint started to look a little staid. Before that, though, he had enjoyed more than a decade unchallenged as most intelligent, the coolest and just about the funniest comic on British television.

Perhaps the air of urbanity sprang from a sense he had nothing prove, that he didn't need to be doing this. His background was improbably grand for a stand-up - born David Tynan O'Mahoney in Tallaght, Ireland, on 6 July 1936, he was the son of the managing editor of the Irish Times. After leaving school, he started work in newspapers but soon quit for England and a career in comedy.

He made his first TV appearance on New Faces in 1959; in the early Sixties, he toured as part of a package with the unknown Beatles.

His first big break came in Australia, where he was picked out at a club and given his own TV show. Returning to England, he found more TV work - a regular spot on Val Doonican's show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium - before landing his own series first with ITV, then the BBC.

My own memories of Allen date from the mid to late Seventies, when I watched Dave Allen at Large religiously - which was surely the wrong spirit - in the hope of picking up comic material to use at school.

I can't remember any of the jokes now and, in any case, they were usually too long and involved, and the manner of the telling so subdued that they were impossible to reproduce, except for a brilliant routine he did about sitting in traffic jams, trying to freak out other drivers: part of this involved picking his nose with the stump of his missing left index finger, so that it looked as if he had jammed the entire finger up his nostril. The way he did it, it seemed subtle.

In those days, pure stand-up wasn't allowed on television: the monologues were always interspersed with slapstick sketches. Some of these were hilarious but they were always rather coarse compared to the monologues.

He was extraordinarily natural in front of cameras, creating a sense that, left to himself, he'd be sitting in exactly the same position, drinking the same drink and telling the same stories in a bar.

He made occasional forays into straight acting, with some success: on stage, he was in a Royal Court adaptation of Edna O'Brien's novel A Pagan Place, and was Captain Hook in Peter Pan opposite Maggie Smith.

On television, he starred in One Fine Day (1979), a TV play written by Alan Bennett and directed by Stephen Frears and was given rapturous applause for his performance.

Perhaps the knowledge he was smart enough and gifted enough not to have to do comedy is what made him such a casually great comic. In his later years, he geared down, preferring to concentrate on painting. His death was, it is good to report, sudden and painless. May his god go with him.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

  • I still think of myself as I was 25 years ago. Then I look in a mirror and see an old bastard and realise it's me."
  • Am I the Irish comedian with half a finger? No, I'm the Irish comedian with nine and a half fingers."
  • "A good storyteller never lets the facts get in the way."
  • "We spend our lives on the run: we get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, get up again, go to work - and then we retire. And what do they give us? A clock."
  • "I don't go out of my way to be outrageous, I just go out of my way to look at things."
  • "I'm an atheist ... thank God."
  • "I've stopped smoking ... I think the cost was a lot of it, and not being able to breathe. I first gave up smoking when I was eight."
  • "If it's sent by ship then it's a cargo, if it's sent by road then it's a shipment."
  • "Don't mourn for me now, don't mourn for me never - I'm going to do nothing for ever and ever (what Allen said he would like to have inscribed on his tombstone)."
  • "Goodnight, thank you, and may your god go with you" (Allen's trademark sign-off).

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