Keith Allen: From Comic Strip to the Croisette

He made his name as a stand-up, became an infamous party animal– and earned acclaim as a serious actor. Now he's turned movie director, with a controversial documentary about Princess Diana
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Here's a question for the conspiracy theorists: how is it that a onetime 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 part in creating one of the most celebrated pop acts of the Noughties (he's her dad). And now, as a documentarian, Keith Allen claims to have thrown fresh light on what is – depending on whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not – one of the great mysteries of the age, or one of its most straightforward tragedies: the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Allen's new documentary film, Unlawful Killing, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, 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... suppressing uncomfortable evidence or undermining the credibility of witnesses whose evidence contradicts the official narrative." Given that Allen has cultivated a court jester's persona, it's hard to tell if he 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, and when, in 1984, he spent three weeks in Pentonville Prison for wrecking a nightclub, he found himself serving time under the same governor who'd overseen his stay in borstal – much, he says, to the amusement of them both.

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. He was fired in 1976, after rushing onstage naked to attach himself to Max Bygrave's chorus line in revenge for the singer's rudeness. The following year saw the birth of punk, far better suited to Allen's temperament than old-fashioned variety. 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.

The year 1981 is widely cited as the Year Zero of Alternative Comedy and, once again, Allen was there. Despite a fondness for yelling his rivals' punchlines from the stalls, he retained a regular slot at the Comedy Store alongside the likes of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, and eventually became part of the ensemble for seminal Channel 4 series 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 Jonas Chuzzlewit. In the same year he was cast as Hugo, the dead drug dealer, in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave. On stage, he has been acclaimed for his roles in plays by Harold Pinter, David Hare and Trevor Griffiths.

Yet he remains most famous as a Groucho Club stalwart in the 1990s, when the Soho establishment's cultural cachet was at its peak. 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, now 26 and a retired pop singer; and Alfie, who is building his own very respectable career as a character actor.

Following a second failed marriage, Allen now lives with his current partner, actress Tamzin Malleson, and their daughter. Like Hirst and Alex James, he has quit the metropolis and its temptations for the Cotswolds, where – or so he claims – he enjoys yoga and golf. His recent acting roles have been broadly villainous: the Sheriff of Nottingham in BBC1's series Robin Hood, and dastardly Doctor Tony Whitman in the magnificent hospital drama, Bodies.

It's with documentary-making, however, that Allen may have made his most interesting career swerve to date. His first such film happened almost by accident: Travels With My Camera, a 1997 programme for Channel 4 about his varied educational experiences, turned into a portrait of his father and their troubled relationship. His subsequent character studies have been uniformly compelling, with Allen glowing at their core like Louis Theroux's zealous and unabashed uncle. Like Theroux, he spent time with the members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church for a 2007 film, Keith Allen Will Burn in Hell.

In 2004, he had confronted another deluded family, that of Lauren (né James) Harries, who as a child had passed him/herself off as a precocious antiques expert. And in 2006, he made an unexpectedly touching film about Michael Carroll, lottery winner and so-called "King Of Chavs". 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. No British broadcaster was willing to commission Unlawful Killing, which its director describes as an "inquest of the inquest" about Diana's death. And now Allen has decided that, rather than make the cuts demanded by lawyers, he would rather not show it in the UK at all. After France, it will be released in the US, and then in the rest of the world. Those predisposed to have a soft spot for the old rogue will probably admire his chutzpah but, 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."

A life in brief

Born: 2 June 1953, Llanelli, Wales.

Education: 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.

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

Career: Started as a stand-up comic and had his big break in the 1980s with The Comic Strip Presents... In the 1990s he had roles in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, and between 2006-09 he co-starred in Robin Hood. He is the director of Unlawful Killing, concerning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which debuted yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival.

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