Dave Allen at Peace is frustratingly disjointed but Aidan Gillen is excellent
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We see the Star of Bethlehem. The camera pans down, past the silhouettes of the Three Wise Men following it on their camels, and comes to rest on a stable. Inside, the little group familiar from a million Nativity scenes are huddled around a crib.
“He is here!” says the shepherd. “Rejoice! Hallelujah! Peace, love, harmony!” This serene scene is shattered when a posse of jackbooted nuns come barging in.
“We’re in charge now,” snarls their leader, leering madly at the baby, “and we’ll make sure you get a rigorous Catholic education!”
Cut to a close-up of the infant Dave Allen, played by Aidan Gillen wearing a blue bonnet and holding a cigarette. He stares into the camera with a look of horror and says: “Ooooh SHIT!”
It’s clear from this surreal opening that Dave Allen at Peace (the title is a nod to his most famous TV series, Dave Allen at Large) is not going to play by the rules of the BBC’s earlier biopics of comedians. In one way, this is refreshing.
There’s a limit to the number of times you can watch dramas that reveal your comedy heroes were, away from the limelight, deeply flawed or unpleasant individuals with turbulent privates lives.
By all accounts, Allen was neither, while his personal life (two marriages, one divorce, three children) seems to have been fairly humdrum.
In another way, though, the decision to adopt a more irreverent approach frequently works against the drama. The clash of styles in writer Stephen Russell’s peripatetic script makes for a choppy, disjointed, vaguely unsatisfying experience.
Gillen, who does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the comedian at his suave peak, appears most often as 70s-period Allen in his most famous and iconic TV incarnation: sitting on a high stool, smoking Gauloises and sipping from a glass of “whiskey” (depending on which version you believe, it was always either ginger ale or champagne).
These sequences act as both a framing and linking device as Allen takes us through the key points of his life. Inevitably, the brutality of the nuns at Allen’s primary school – a chapter of his life that inspired both brilliantly subversive comedy and a scorching anger that never abated in later life – looms large.
Pauline McLynn is effectively cast against type as the particularly nasty Sister Mary, who offers the boys a choice of being caned on the palms or the knuckles.
These scenes are in sharp contrast to the idyllic, but sometimes financially strained, home life enjoyed by the young Allen, who was born David Tynan O’Mahoney in Dublin’s Firhouse.
Dave’s hero is his warm and loving father, Cullen (an excellent Tommy Tiernan), who instils in him a love of telling stories – and the taller they are, the better.
When Dave loses part of a finger in an unspecified accident, Cullen tells him the missing half-digit
will be “a good friend” to him.
“You’ll never be stuck for a story,” he tells him. “Not the real ones, the ones you make up. Have a different story every times someone asks you, and never tell the truth.” It was a philosophy Allen stuck to.
These scenes, as well as the ones of Allen discovering his natural gift for comedy while working with his older brother, John, as a Butlin’s redcoat in the 1950s, are nicely done.
The same can’t be said of the rest of the drama, which is frustratingly bitty and races through Allen’s career at breakneck speed.
One moment we’re in the mid-70s when he’s at the height of his fame; the next the story has jumped forward to 1985, when his TV has cooled a little, as he escorts John, now a hopeless, homeless alcoholic, to hospital to dry out.
Just as briskly, we’re on 1990 and the F-word joke about a clock that ended his association with the BBC – but not, as it’s suggested here, his television career. He went on to make one more final series for ITV, and then more or less retired.
You get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that an awful lot was left on the cutting room floor.
The use of intermittent sketches, some of them new, some recreations of the originals (including the infamous papal striptease), makes it feel even more disjointed.