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Tony Allen, pioneer of alternative comedy, lifelong squatter and Speakers’ Corner veteran – obituary

Tony Allen on stage at the Glastonbury Festival, 1990
Tony Allen on stage at the Glastonbury Festival, 1990 - Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Tony Allen, who has died of cancer aged 78, was one of the founders of the “alternative comedy” movement and credited by other practitioners with pioneering the opinionated, politically correct anti-Thatcher radicalism that became its hallmark in the 1980s.

He began as a resident comedian in the early days of the Comedy Store, the venue above a Soho strip club founded in 1979 by insurance salesman, Peter Rosengard, and Don Ward, a club owner and a former comedian, to bring the humour of American stand-up icons such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl to the UK. Allen took over from Alexei Sayle as resident emcee early in 1981.

He and Sayle formed Alternative Cabaret, described by Allen as “a sort of collective of comedians, musicians – dope smokers, dole scroungers, tax evaders, sexual deviants, political extremists”, to which they recruited other comedians, along with jazz and folk musicians, and performed in the function rooms of London pubs such as the Elgin, Ladbroke Grove. “You’re watching alternative comedy,” the comedian Pauline Melville would say. “It’s an alternative to having a bloody good time somewhere else.”

In 1980, Allen and Sayle became the first alternative comedians to take their solo stand-up acts to the Edinburgh Fringe under the title “Late Night Alternative”, and Allen would continue to appear at the Fringe until the mid-1990s.

But unlike Sayle and other “alternative” comedians such as Rik Mayall and Ben Elton, Allen never became a household name, preferring, as a lifelong squatter and veteran of Speakers’ Corner, to remain true to his anarchistic, agitprop ideals, rather than join the lucrative light entertainment circus.

His appearances on television, a medium he dismissed as “the greatest breakthrough in anaesthetic since chloroform,” were rare, though he contributed material to shows such as Alas Smith & Jones, Naked Video, Week Ending and Spitting Image, and wrote a handful of radio plays.

For Allen, alternative comedy needed to be both “serious and funny,” embracing radical thinking and tackling controversial subjects that challenged “Old” Labour as much as the Conservatives. He was one of the first comedians to eschew sexist and racist jokes, dropping the mother-in-law and Irish gags – except when, in a rare foray on to the small screen, he began with a parody of one: “This drunk homosexual Pakistani squatter trade unionist takes my mother-in-law to an Irish restaurant,” before pulling a face and refusing to offer a punch-line in disgust.

Tony Allen in 2019 introducing a gig celebrating 40 years of Alternative Cabaret
Tony Allen in 2019 introducing a gig celebrating 40 years of Alternative Cabaret - Alamy

Allen insisted on what he called “free-forming,” a high-risk, unscripted approach to stand-up involving much audience participation, with results that were inevitably hit or miss.

In a 2001 article in The Sunday Times, Dominic Dromgoole recalled compering an evening of alternative cabaret as a student at Cambridge in 1982: “Top of the bill... is an outsize, moon-faced, long-haired shamble called Tony Allen... Allen’s act... rambles between insight and imagination, but there’s an independence to it, a lack of neediness, that marks it out from the craven laugh-hounds on the telly.”

A few years later, at a pub in Balham, Dromgoole recalled, Allen’s act was “a spectacular disaster... Not a titter...”. Yet on another occasion, above a pub in Ladbroke Grove, “he gives one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen. Invoking stars and black holes, he floats us up to the furthest galaxy to look back down on earth and see how insignificant we are... silly, rumbly, continuous laughter echoes gently around.”

Instead of seeking celebrity, from 1982 Allen gave workshops in alternative comedy designed to equip would-be comedians with enough technique, understanding and self-confidence to get up on stage and hold forth. He even created stand-up comedy modules for the drama departments of Middlesex University and the University of Kent.

Like other alternative comedians, Allen strongly identified with the proletariat, though he experienced some discomfort when faced with the realities of working-class tastes and values, telling an audience in a northern working men’s club that its atmosphere felt like “Margaret Thatcher’s living room”.

For as much as he resisted “incorporation” into capitalism, Allen’s alternative comedy was at heart a middle-class critique for mainly metropolitan bourgeois audiences.

Tony Allen was born into a working class family on March 4 1945 in Hayes, Middlesex. After leaving school he did odd jobs including working as a “pool shark”, tempting the unwary and unskilled to chance their luck in local pool halls, before embracing the revolutionary counter-culture of the 1960s.

He began living in a squat in North London, and in the mid-1970s helped to set up the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency which, over a decade, matched 3,000 homeless people with empty homes. “We broke into places and we gave them to people, basically,” he recalled.

Until his death Allen lived in a housing co-operative in Ladbroke Grove that he and fellow squatters had created in a row of abandoned Georgian houses they had been given by the council at a time when house prices in Notting Hill were a fraction of what they are today.

In the 1970s Allen wrote for underground newspapers, including the “Situationist” journal International Times, founded a performance troupe called Rough Theatre, described by Heathcote Williams as “a street theatre group from the Ladbroke Archipelago which specialises in low comedy, political satire, ham oratory and spontaneous busking”. He became notorious for his “Full-Frontal Anarchy Platform” at Speakers’ Corner, where he honed his free-form technique, and his skills at dealing with hecklers, into what eventually became his stand-up routine.

In his heyday Allen toured solo shows and performed warm-up acts for bands such as the Clash and Killing Joke. He did make some television appearances, including as an anarchist party guest in an episode of The Young Ones, and on Boom, Boom... Out Go The Lights (BBC2, 1980-81), the show that brought alternative comedy to British television for the first time.

He published his autobiography, Attitude! Wanna Make Something of it? The Secret of Stand-up Comedy, in 2002, and A Summer In The Park: A Journal Of Speakers’ Corner, in 2004.

Allen had been terminally ill for a while and in July this year friends threw him a “woke wake” as a “going-away party”. Alexei Sayle and John Hegley were among those who paid tribute.

Tony Allen, born March 4 1945, died December 1 2023