Saturday 18 January 2020

Sadistic nuns given the credit for comedian's 'daring' career

Poking fun at the church: Aiden Gillen as Dave Allen. Photo: Helen Sloan
Poking fun at the church: Aiden Gillen as Dave Allen. Photo: Helen Sloan

John Boland

It's fashionable these days to insist that Dave Allen was a comic genius whose bravery in joking openly about sex and religion is only now being recognised, but was he ever really that daring?

Yes, he poked fun at the Catholic Church and at sexual hypocrisy, and it's true that some of his gags offended the pietistic and the easily shocked, but most older viewers recall these gags as cheeky rather than outrageous, while a younger generation hearing them for the first time - and with no memory of Allen's television career - would think them so tame as to be positively quaint.

And I can't imagine what these younger viewers made of Dave Allen at Peace (RTÉ1/BBC2), a drama about his life and times that ignored most of his television heyday along with his two marriages.

Instead, as written by Stephen Russell, it opted to emphasise the "rigorous Catholic education" to which he was apparently subjected and that was enforced by a sadistic teaching nun, played with such cartoonish relish by Pauline McLynn that you felt you were in a Dave Allen skit.

And it sat oddly with the portrayal of Allen's father, who was a noted newspaperman and who, in Tommy Tiernan's cameo, came across as so genial and kindly you couldn't imagine how he'd tolerate any nun's abuse of his son.

The adult Allen was portrayed by Aidan Gillen, who previously had made a decent fist of impersonating Charlie Haughey for an RTÉ drama but who here never quite caught the sardonic insouciance of the onscreen comedian - though he had a fine extended hospital scene with his alcoholic older brother, affectingly played by Conleth Hill.

This scene was set during Allen's wilderness years, though we never really learned what made them so - chiefly, as I recall, the advent of Ben Elton and other purveyors of an "alternative comedy" scene that suddenly made entertainers like Allen and Mike Yarwood seem fatally old-fashioned.

Oh, and there was far too much attention given to the loss of the comedian's index finger, an accident about which Allen provided many jokey explanations throughout his career, none of them very amusing.

Drama at a different level and with another notable Dublin actor performing on a different plane came in the form of Hamlet, a three-hour BBC2 televised version of the Robert Icke production that was acclaimed when staged at London's Almeida and Harold Pinter theatres last year.

This Shakespeare for our time was very persuasively set in a contemporary surveillance state, with late-period Bob Dylan providing the brooding musical soundtrack and with Andrew Scott as its tormented yet teasing hero grappling with the skulduggery all around him.

Scott shot to fame as Benedict Cumberbatch's nemesis in the BBC series Sherlock, but his bravura turn as Moriarty gave little indication of the range and depth of his playing here, not least in his locating of sardonic comedy amidst the madness and tragedy.

And I've seldom heard the blank verse rendered with such colloquial ease and accessibility that you might well have been listening to a bunch of people having an argument down in your local pub. A tremendous production and a terrific central performance, this was Shakespeare both intact and for everyone.

Arresting drama could also be found in Ordeal by Innocence (BBC1), parts of which had to be reshot after one of its actors was accused of sexually assaulting a number of women - just as Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer in Ridley Scott's recent Getty movie, All the Money in the World.

This three-part Agatha Christie adaptation (the second episode is tomorrow night) is directed by Sarah Phelps, who previously brought considerable style to two other Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution, and looks just in command here.

So who killed bullying family matriarch Rachel? Was it adopted son Jack, who died in prison for the crime? Or was it one of the other waifs and strays she'd adopted, all of whom had reasons to see her dead?

You'll find out on Sunday week, but in the meantime you can enjoy the performances of Anna Chancellor, Bill Nighy, Eleanor Tomlinson, Matthew Goode and Luke Treadaway as they reveal more and more about themselves and each other.

Meanwhile, that most genial of actors, Hugh Bonneville, enlivened Easter by fronting Countdown to Calvary (RTÉ1), in which he set out to find out exactly what happened in the final six days of Jesus's life and why he was crucified.

Bonneville, who graduated in theology from Cambridge, was an unfussily engrossed host and in Gerry Hoban's absorbing film he brought urgency and fresh insights to Christ's last days and to the question of who most wanted to see him dead, with good contributions from a variety of scholars,

The clueless Philomena Cunk was invented by Charlie Brooker and featured in five-minute sketches in his Screenwipe shows, where she brought her daft ignorance to bear on a variety of topics.

Now she's got her own series, Cunk on Britain (BBC2), where she's yet again played by Diane Morgan and yet again displaying her complete idiocy. Dinosaurs, she informed us in this week's opener, were "a race of monsters so scary that human beings didn't dare exist until they were all gone". As for King Arthur, she wondered why he "came a lot".

The gags were relentless, but the best of them were very funny.

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