David Rayvern Allen: Broadcaster and cricket historian whose radio work won over 20 awards

The award-winning radio producer wrote John Arlott’s biography

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David Rayvern Allen was a pre-eminently talented radio producer, cricket historian, musician, lecturer, and author or joint author of more than 40 books, many about the really beautiful game. Like his hero, John Arlott, he lived life to the full, enjoying wine, food, music, conversation, literature, friendship, and family life with equal relish. He was, as Sir Richard Stilgoe, with whom he made some prize-winning radio programmes, reminded the congregation at his funeral, a man with a wonderful ear and perfect taste. 

He was born David Leonard Allen in Streatham, South London, in 1938, the year 20-year-old Denis Compton scored his first Test century, Ella Fitzgerald recorded “A-Tisket A-Tasket” and Orson Welles scared America silly with The War of the Worlds. In one way or another he was to work with all three of them. His father, an amateur musician, organist and choirmaster at Streatham Baptist Church, premiered cantatas by, among others, William Lloyd-Webber, who brought his sons Andrew and Julian down for the occasion.

This was clearly where Rayvern Allen’s musical gifts came from and he was soon mastering the piano under the firm hand of local music teacher, Mrs Wood. His love of cricket seems to have sprung up almost as soon as he could walk and his brother Keith remembers him as being an unsettling bowler in ad hoc games played in the garage drive.

Educated at Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School (Sinjuns) in Battersea, where he excelled in English, history, music, and – naturally – cricket, Rayvern Allen was able to develop the music during his National Service, playing in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers military band, while studying piano part-time at nearby Reading University. He became a brilliant accompanist, able to sight-read anything put in front of him – a gift which was to gain him a silver medal at the 1965 Munich International sight-reading competition – and went on to study composition and performance externally at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. The classics, show tunes, swing, and jazz, Rayvern Allen could do them all. So he was faced with a big decision one autumn morning in the late 1950s: join band leader Geraldo’s luxury cruise-line orchestra as resident pianist or take a job in the BBC TV Music Library. He chose library over liner.

From painstaking TV studio librarian, Rayvern Allen moved to the BBC Radio Light Music Department in the mid-’60s and began the production career that was to earn him a Prix Italia and more than 20 other awards and lasted till his retirement in 1993. About this time he met and married his wife Rosemary, a dancer appearing in the musical Passion Flower Hotel – the Bechstein she bought him wouldn’t fit into their Manchester Street flat – and changed his name. He’d never liked “Leonard”, and there were far too many David Allens about – not all of them sitting on high stools and telling jokes. The story is that the young couple were passing a shop selling Rayburn cookers but not wanting to be known as “cookie” Allen played a musical variation on the name.

He began his production career just as Radios 1, 2, 3, and 4 were launched and he was to work for all four networks, in particular, Radio 2: everything from Friday Night is Music Night to features on André Previn, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. A great interviewer, he took his microphone to Hollywood legends including Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Rosalind Russell, and King Vidor, incorporating the interviews into the blockbuster 1979 Radio 4 series The Movie Moguls, written by Benny Green and presented by Orson Welles.

Getting hold of the elusive Welles was a movie in itself, involving messages left in milk bottles on a remote American dirt-track. And there were other adventures: arriving to interview Tippi Hedren about Alfred Hitchcock, he was greeted not by the star but by a fully grown tiger who kept him rooted to his chair till she arrived.

His many gifts: musician, interviewer, unflappable producer of epic – often live – shows, came to rich fruition in his collaborations with the songwriter, musician, poet, and presenter, Richard Stilgoe. Together they won the 1984 Monaco Radio Prize, the 1989 New York International Radio Prize, and in 1991 their radio feature Who Pays the Piper? scooped both a Prix Italia and a Prix Monte Carlo.

Meanwhile, the cricket hadn’t gone away. In the 1990s Rayvern Allen devised and presented programmes on commentators John Arlott, EW Swanton, and Peter West, following these with the series Cricketing Legends and Lost Voices. Arlott in particular became a great friend and Rayvern Allen was the obvious person to write the authorised biography (2004). Arlott’s blend of literary knowledge, winemanship and magnificent descriptive powers fascinated him. BBC colleagues remember Allen creeping up behind them, assuming his best Hampshire burr, and murmuring “...and the pigeons move dutifully to a fine leg position for the appearance of the left-hander.”

Elected to the MCC in 1982, Rayvern-Allen was twice member of the Arts and Library Committee and in 2003 began the club’s Audio Archive Project, accumulating more than 250 interviews with cricketing greats, many of which he conducted himself. After his retirement he became a popular and charismatic after-dinner and cruise line speaker on subjects ranging from an unofficial history of the BBC to John Arlott’s friendship with Dylan Thomas. This versatility and creative energy was recognised in January this year when De Montfort University awarded him an Hon DLitt.

When terminal oesophageal cancer was diagnosed, Rayvern Allen carried on as usual: lectures, journalism, frequent visits to Lords, and appearances at the Dylan Thomas celebrations in Laugharne this April and the Winchester Poetry Festival in September. He lived just long enough to see his younger daughter married in the Buckinghamshire church where nine weeks later his funeral took place.

David Leonard Allen (David Rayvern Allen), radio producer, biographer, cricket historian and musician: born 5 February 1938; married Rosemary (two daughters); died 9 October 2014.