Dave Allen at Peace review: unlike his monologues, this biopic lacked a punchline or point
The best biopics go far beyond a nifty impersonation and some time-worn catchphrases; there’s a depth, an ambition, a stretch for wider significance. The worst feel perfunctory, cobbled-together collages of thin drama, box-ticking set pieces and tired life lessons. The BBC has recent form in both, and Dave Allen at Peace (BBC Two) was closer to the latter; distractingly episodic and unsatisfactory.
It could – and should – have been better. Its director Andy De Emmony had steered Michael Sheen’s glorious Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa!, one of the finest biopics of its ilk. Its top-notch supporting cast included Julian Rhind-Tutt, Robert Bathurst and Pauline McLynn, each delivering a brief but telling cameo. And Aiden Gillen had a respectable tilt at his fellow Dubliner, linking the piecemeal narrative to well-turned simulacra of Allen’s gleefully heretical sketches with anecdotes from the comedian’s life and career, perched on the familiar bar stool.
Above all, there was the intriguing subject himself, a mainstream master of barbed subtlety and twinkling iconoclasm in an era of gag merchants and game-show hosts. Dave Allen at Peace, however, lacked anything like the same sophistication, instead settling for some pretty obvious points about religious tyranny in Ireland and moral puritanism at the BBC, while turning over the topsoil of Allen’s family life to no great avail.
Screenwriter Stephen Russell only had an hour to tell the story, so every line had to mean something. Too often this undermined a cast capable of showing rather than telling. We saw Allen’s father tell the young Dave, shortly after the boy had lost half a finger in an accident, “it’ll be a great friend to you, that finger… have a different story every time someone asks you [about it], and never tell the truth,” thus setting up Allen’s notorious tall tales about the incident. “No good comes of laughing,” warned McLynn’s hatchet-faced nun, when of course we knew otherwise. In the most affecting scene, Dave reunited with his alcoholic brother John in hospital, decades after their Butlins double act that got one noticed while the other got left behind. Gillen and Conleth Hill were heartbreaking in their dance of prickly affection, until the latter was dealt the line, “I hate your success, it highlights my failure,” and the whole scene crumbled.
Allen would never have let such one-dimensional material reach the screen. Unlike the man’s apparently meandering monologues, Dave Allen at Peace lacked punchline or point.