An Englishman and an Irishman: two TV tributes to Seventies light entertainers

BBC Two remembers Dave Allen in a disappointingly flat biopic, while ITV3 pays homage to the enduringly funny Larry Grayson.

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A man dies, and goes to heaven. When he gets there, he’s overwhelmed: the place is vast. But then an angel appears, offering help. “Are you lost?” asks the angel. “Let me show you round.” So, they go for a walk. “This is the Sikh area,” the angel tells him. “And this is where the Hindus are. Over there are the Jews, and in that corner are the Anglicans.” Finally, he lowers his voice to a whisper, and says: “And now we’ll just tip-toe past this room, which is where the Catholics are.” The man is confused: why the need for hush? “Well, they think they’re the only ones in here,” says the angel.

Does this joke work for you? It does for me but then, I am in possession both of massed ranks of Catholic in-laws and a weird personal kink for Milton. Either way, though, it’s hard to imagine a comedian telling it, and a lot of other religious gags besides, nowadays – and on BBC Two on a Saturday night – for the simple reason that people might not get it (even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care enough to find it funny; laughter usually involves jeopardy). Was this why Stephen Russell’s Dave Allen biopic (9pm, 2 April), starring Aidan Gillen as the beloved but controversial Irish comedian, fell so disappointingly flat? It might have been: that, and the sticky sentimentality with which Russell depicted Allen’s childhood, all spiteful nuns and adorable-but-bad-with-money parents (his entire career was revenge for the former).

Everything else was, after all, perfect in its way. Gillen, a great and singular actor, was well able to ride out the bad wigs, and when he did the monologues, glass of whisky in hand, his resemblance to Allen was striking. Conleth Hill, Gillen’s Game of Thrones colleague, put in a lovely turn as the alcoholic brother to whom Allen was devoted (Hill, I increasingly feel, should be in everything). But somehow I couldn’t connect this Allen – no, not even when Gillen ecstatically performed the famous Papal striptease – with the memories I have of my parents and step-parents clutching each other, weeping semi-hysterical tears, whenever the real thing was on screen (at the time, I was dismissive, being in thrall to Ben Elton and various other smug members of the next generation of comedians). A lot of people, younger than me or less nostalgic, must have been entirely baffled by the whole thing, if they tuned in at all.

Larry Grayson, though: there’s enduringly funny. I’m not kidding. As a child, I adored him. Those unimprovable split-second glances to camera: he looked like a stoat about to swallow a field mouse. “You laughed before he said a word,” as Lionel Blair noted in ITV3’s exhaustive (and, at 90 minutes, slightly exhausting) tribute to the comedian (9pm, 1 April). Once he did open his mouth, though, timing was everything. Having got his start in working men’s clubs, Grayson understood that all most lines needed for the roof to lift was a half-second pause and a raised eyebrow. “Love the dress,” we heard him say to a woman in the audience at The Good Old Days (hard to believe, now, that until 1983 the BBC still put out an Edwardian-style music hall variety show). “It’s got Hull all over it.” After this, one of the tiny, aforementioned pauses. And then: “Did you come on a trawler?”

He was never mean. People forget that when he took over from Bruce Forsyth as the presenter of The Generation Game in 1978, the ratings went up (at its peak, 20 million were watching). But while Forsyth was always edged with malice, Grayson was essentially kind; if the contestants were ninnies, the butt of his campest jokes, he was always going to be more stupid, vastly more clumsy. Such gentleness was born, perhaps, of his childhood, which involved a foster sister called Fan with whom he lived until he died, and who gave up her job and a boyfriend to bring him up; and of the presumed, though never confirmed, gayness (“It frightens my dog,” he once told Terry Wogan, protesting that he couldn’t be doing with going to bed with people). He was ever humble, sticking with Nuneaton even once he was famous; keeping salt and vinegar in the glove compartment of his Roller in case he stopped for chips on the way home.

But again, I say it: he was so very funny. Thanks to Jimmy Savile and others, the words “light entertainment” seem now always to trail a shadow. Larry Grayson, though, really did put the light into entertainment: to watch him disco dance or fight with Emu is, even in the 21st century, to feel your heart lift, effortlessly up and away. 

Dave Allen at Peace (BBC Two)
Larry Grayson: Shut That Door! (ITV3)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire