Tony Allen, who has died aged 78, was known as the “godfather of alternative comedy”, having played a pivotal role in the birth of that movement as well as being credited with naming it. He helped to change the nature of British standup, rejecting the formulaic jokes and bigoted stereotypes of some comedians of an earlier generation in favour of a more individual style based on worldview and lived experience.
Tony was an anarchist bohemian when he performed his debut set at the Oval House theatre, Kennington, south London, in April 1979. The following month, the Comedy Store opened in Soho, compered by Alexei Sayle. Tony made his first appearance there a few weeks later, and Sayle immediately recognised him as a kindred spirit: “This was who I’d been waiting for: another comic like me, but not like me.”
Tony helped Sayle to shape the Comedy Store’s groundbreaking character, imposing an informal non-sexist, non-racist policy and encouraging likeminded actor friends including Jim Barclay, Andy de la Tour, Keith Allen and Pauline Melville to perform there.
Realising that they needed more opportunities, Tony organised these comedians into a group called Alternative Cabaret, staging their first show at The Pindar of Wakefield pub, near King’s Cross, in August 1979 and starting a 10-month residency at The Elgin, Ladbroke Grove, the following night. They performed in pubs, theatres and students’ unions in London and beyond. This was effectively the beginning of the UK’s live comedy circuit, which continues to thrive to this day.
Tony made regular guest appearances at the Comic Strip and – appropriately – played an anarchist called Fisher in an episode of the BBC Two sitcom The Young Ones. In 1980, he became one of the first standups to perform at the Edinburgh fringe, in a double bill with Sayle called Late Night Alternative.
His standup material reflected his anarchist perspective, satirising anything from sexist male attitudes to multinational corporations, from the Falklands war to the drugs squad. His freewheeling style allowed him to conjure up laughs from such unpromising comic subjects as the financial markets, rainforest tribes and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. His radical approach could divide audiences and an early gag recounted his reaction to a bad gig: “‘Tone,’ I thought. ‘Lenny Bruce – he finished his career – out of his head on drugs, hassled by the police, and dying in a toilet. And that’s how you’re starting off.’”
Born in Hillingdon, then in Middlesex, he was the only child of Maggie (nee Fixter) and George Allen, a French polisher. He grew up in Hayes, but did not enjoy his time at Townfield school, playing truant to watch matinees at the local cinema or hang out at the Lucania snooker club, where he won trophies.
In the early 1970s, he moved to Ladbroke Grove, where he became a leading figure in the squatting scene. With the poet Heathcote Williams, he set up the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, a newsletter advertising empty properties available for squatting, and made an art of spray-painting slogans such as “SQUAT NOW WHILE STOCKS LAST” on the corrugated iron used to keep potential squatters out.
He started acting with the West London Theatre Workshop, later breaking off in 1973 to form Rough Theatre. He co-wrote all of their plays, as well as a handful of BBC radio plays, notably Two Fingers Finnegan Comes Again (1975), which starred Wilfrid Brambell. He was also a political activist, and was in Torness, East Lothian, protesting against the building of a nuclear power station just before the Comedy Store opened.
Tony was involved with the British counterculture at many points. Rough Theatre once shared a bill with Joe Strummer’s pub rock band, the 101ers, and later Tony performed standup as a support act for the Clash and Killing Joke, as well as touring with Poison Girls. He scripted comic strips for the 2000AD spinoffs Crisis and Judge Dredd Megazine, and helped to relaunch the International Times in 1986.
He adopted the name Tofu the Zany to perform as a street clown, and his book A Summer in the Park (2004) reflects on his experiences as a regular at Speakers’ Corner. In 2015, he was enlisted by Banksy to train the staff at his Dismaland theme park parody to be as miserable as possible while dealing with customers.
Tony’s performance philosophy is engagingly articulated in his book Attitude (2002), and he was a skilled teacher of standup technique – as I found when he came in to teach my students at the University of Kent for more than a decade. After his cancer diagnosis in 2022 he was cared for by a dedicated group of friends.
He had a daughter from a marriage in his 20s.