Of the number, quality and character of personable actors provided by Imperial Chemical Industries in the early 1930s, theatrical history has no official record; still less of those coming from its younger branch of labour management. Whatever it was, though, that provoked Jack Allen in those difficult economic times to quit industry for the stage, it proved of immense benefit both to him and to the theatre and cinema for the next half-century or more.
Not that his name was to go up often in lights, or his reputation to reverberate through the collections of dramatic criticism as a model of the style of acting which typified the West End stage before the era of subsidy changed the values not only of acting but also of actors.
Allen came from a theatrical period which relished personality. The art of light comedy when he began was reaching its zenith in the West End, which a few connoisseurs still recall with pleasure for its lightness, charm, humour and precision. Allen had all those qualities, especially the personality.
He was interesting the moment he came on stage, not as a "scene stealer" but as an actor to whose presence an audience at a light comedy or a thriller could respond, unthinkingly, with warmth. Such acting has never been as easy as it looks. Indeed, the trick of it was to make the performance look so natural that it was scorned in certain intellectually superior quarters as mere behaviour. All the player had to do was to "come on" in a drawing-room and look at ease.
As all the great exponents of light comedy knew, it was indeed more difficult; but they had usually endured or relished at least several years in nightly rep in the Provinces; and that taught them the rudiments of timing, poise, pace and projection.
After his Rugby and Cambridge education, Allen began more or less at the bottom in rep at Liverpool Playhouse and Oxford. Indeed, he got his first part as a butler in the days when all comedies began with butlers answering telephones; and with his first London part four years later he played a butler in Terence Rattigan's first and long-forgotten play, First Episode (Comedy), now perhaps due for revival.
Allen was established by the mid-1930s as one of the West End's most reliable practitioners of drawing-room manners - the click of a cigarette case, the flash of a petrol lighter, the timing of an exit of entrance, or throwaway line.
Among his better-known pre-war plays were such comedies as Sweet Alloes (Wyndham's, 1934) in which he played the Honourable Robert Melford, Bulldog Drummond Hits Out (People's Palace, 1937), Poison Pen (Embassy and Shaftesbury, 1938) and Three Blind Mice (Embassy and Duke of York's).
After the Second World War Allen remained a regular at the Embassy, Swiss Cottage, now a drama school but for many years a valuable try-out house under the management of Antony Hawtrey, which continued to send to the West End many of its most amusing and topical plays, among them Fit For Heroes (1945) which dealt with post-war social problems and in which Allen was again at ease among those who we would now call the upper-class twits.
In Ronald Millar's Frieda (Westminster, 1946) he was cast as a high- minded English RAF pilot who brought home to England a young German girl with a view to marrying her in defiance of post-war prejudice.
Having been type-cast in so many frivolities, Allen rose to the occasion of a serious drama with widely recognised credit, somewhat in the manner of Kenneth More, six or seven years later, in Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea. Among other well-remembered plays were Message For Margaret (Westminster, 1946), in which he appeared opposite Flora Robson, Meet Mr Callaghan (Garrick, 1952), Felicien Marceau's boulevard comedy The Egg (Saville 1957), in which he had four parts, Goodnight Mrs Puffin (Strand), and Pride and Prejudice (Arts, 1961), in which he brought the right touch of sardonic humour to Mr Bennet.
Allen belonged to a breed of gentlemanly actor which has almost vanished since the post-war changes in social and dramatic values, but it was a breed with a wider range and more emotional force than the stereotype roles which usually came its way. It was also a breed which cared deeply for the stage and its practitioners; and no one proved his dedication more deeply than Jack Allen who was a long-serving member of the Actors' Benevolent Fund and its Vice-President from 1983 until his death.Reuse content