Comedian Keith Allen
PUBLISHED: 23:40 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 01:39 19 September 2013
Keith Allen may not be the hellraiser the tabloids have made him out to be, but he still knows how to have a good time, as Katie jarvis found out when she visited him at his local boozer....Photography by Mark fairhurst
"Some people think I'm a complete arsehole, I don't mind that now. Once upon a time I did. That moment of change from caring what people think of you to not caring is, for me, the defining moment of the 'growing-up' process. With me it was also the realisation, during my various incarcerations in HM prisons, that I wasn't a criminal."
Keith Allen, An autobiography: Grow up
THE FIRST thing that strikes you, staring into this characterful face, is what a rogue this man is. A thief, for sure; a charmer, probably; a man with a belief that life should be led to the full - definitely. A face that shows life isn't always easy, but that you should grab it while you can. Yet intelligence, worldliness, vague disdain, even a slight weariness can be read in its interesting lines.
"Ah," says Keith Allen, noticing I'm weighing up the portrait on the cover of the book he's currently reading. "That's a biography of William Dampier. He was the first Englishman to land in Australia - people don't know that - 60 years before Cook did. Darwin and Cook were always referring to him. Even in the 20th century, they were still using his maps that he drew in the Pacific in the 1600s."
He's in full flow, his enthusiasm fascinating in its own right. "This guy invented travel books. There are 1,000 words in the English dictionary which are solely down to him, like avocado, flamingo - stuff like that. He was a fully paid-up pirate as well."
So that's who he is then, the man with the interesting face. Someone on the fringes; a talented man who ploughed his own furrow; who looked at the rules of society, and stuck two fingers - very visibly - up to them.
I've heard of Cook and Columbus and Magellan. But Dampier? Why did he get so ignored?
"He was buried in that place where TS Eliot's ashes were left (East Coker in Somerset). But when they wanted to erect a monument to him in the early 1900s, some old buffoon from the village said, 'We don't want this blaggard remembered'. I think that will give you a clue as to why he's been ignored."
Well, I guess that can happen when you cock a snoop at society. The Establishment draws all over your portrait, adding devil's horns and red eyes, and you're stuck with an image even you don't recognise.
Because we all know, don't we, that Keith Allen - bad-boy actor, bad-boy comedian, bad-boy musician, bad-boy friend of Damien Hirst, bad-boy Sheriff of Nottingham, and bad-boy dad of bad-girl singer-songwriter Lily Allen - spends most of his time ratted, trashed and wasted; off his trolley; out of his tree. Which is presumably why, when he and I sit and chat at the Woolpack in Slad, he orders... err... well, a ginger beer, actually.
"You have to remember," he says, sounding more reasonable than 100 tabloid journalists welded together, "that the perception of me is usually determined by the media. I constantly read stuff about me that quite simply isn't true. People think I'm a carousing, party-going animal, into drugs and drink; but usually that's the result of one night somewhere years ago. They just go through the files and continuously perpetrate this myth: it's incredibly lazy journalism."
While the papers might allege he enjoys abusing people, Keith Allen would say he enjoys disabusing them - seeing their surprise (consternation maybe? Even deep disappointment in the case of some journalists) when they meet this rather more thoughtful and respectful chap than any of them are keen to acknowledge.
It's a phenomenon that's coming full circle. "It's quite fascinating. Lily was always quoting stuff she'd read in the papers and saying what a continuous source of embarrassment it was to her - and I was always saying it wasn't true. And then she became famous and was suddenly exposed to it herself. Within a fortnight she was on the phone going: 'I can't believe it - they really are like you said!'"
He could be spinning a line, of course. But if he is, it's a pretty convincing one. As we sit outside the Woolpack, eating lunch, other pub regulars passing by stop and exchange a few words with him. It's not celebrity-dom talking. None of that 'How's filming for Robin Hood going?' stuff; it's talk about the 'heroic effort' last night: a jam session where (from the sound of the bar bill) more than ginger beer was consumed.
They know him; they like him. "Well, I work in the bar one night a week."
Why do that?
"I really enjoy it, and I'm good at it as well. And it means I've found out more about what's going on locally than if I'd lived here for 20 years."
Which he hasn't, of course. He moved here three years ago with his girlfriend, the actress Tamzin Malleson, whom he met when they worked together on the dark, often gruesome, and sometimes funny medical series, Bodies. "We fell in love and decided we ought to be together, but we were both in other relationships at the time. So when the time came to tell our respective partners, we actually had nowhere to live. We were both in London: I lived on a boat, which I've still got; but I just sensed we should have somewhere that was not about 'my place'."
He happened to be in Stroud, filming a documentary about his long-time mate, the artist Damien Hirst, when he suddenly remembered Tamzin telling him she'd been brought up in nearby Chalford. That same afternoon, he went to see a cottage down the road in Slad, and they moved in more or less straight away. Just over nine months later, their daughter, Teddy, was born in that same house.
"I really like Stroud; it's not got the kind of snobbishness that you would attach to Cheltenham and Cirencester. It's very, very real. It's only when you've been here for a while that you start talking to musicians, and people who run pubs, and you realise you've seen them staggering about at various festivals over the last 20 years, usually running something really interesting - and they're all from Stroud!
"There is a fantastic, independent spirit about Stroud - and it really is quantifiable. It's not imagination. Before we moved into the cottage, Tamzin took me out and about to show me places like the canal walks, and the beautiful little children's park in Chalford. I looked at it and thought, 'What a brilliant place to bring up a kid'. I take Teds to that park at least twice a week now and it's so charming to see her running about there."
If you still doubt the veracity of the New Improved Keith Allen, then listen to this. There's no sign of the self-centred womaniser the papers love to portray - he doesn't once mention how much of an upheaval it might have been for him to move to a relatively unknown area. Instead, he talks naturally about how he worried - before they hit on Stroud - that Tamzin would feel isolated, leaving all her friends in London: "They were mates of her partner as well - you know what it's like." About how, when they first moved here, they went shopping at Stroud Farmers' Market, "And she bumped into three people she was at school with. It was brilliant - it meant she had some kind of reference."
But what about him? Does he think he's made a change for the better?
"Oh my god, yes. I mean I hate actually going away. I really don't like leaving here at all, and I can't bear going to London."
Does that surprise him?
"Yeah," he says, actively demonstrating that surprise. "Yeah, kind of... It could so easily have been something else, but it ended up like this, and it seems right."
Age changes people (he's now 55) - something he acknowledges in the title of his autobiography, Grow Up. But happiness does, too. And he seems happy; remarkably settled. It's a stage it appears to have taken him a while to reach; something that, for a long while, he fought against achieving. Even the cover he chose for Grow Up is provocatively challenging - confrontational. It shows a young Allen playing Joe Orton. His expression is mockingly sardonic, legs wide open to the reader, clad in the briefest of briefs - as if even those are an irritating sop to decency. It's an 'I didn't recognise you with your clothes on' kind of photograph, and it suits him down to the ground.
If you were to prcis the events he goes on to portray in his life, you'd be left with a bare litany of petty theft, broken relationships, betrayals and, occasionally, acts of utterly cringing folly (or daring, depending on where you stand). In that sense, it could be a gift to his critics. The point is, of course, that such a list does no justice to the man. This is a book of searing honesty that explores those dark corners of the mind we all have, but few of us have the courage to visit. It is, in fact, (as all admissions of truth are) a generous gift to the world, and one that needs to be read with the intelligence with which it was written. It's also very funny.
He was born in south Wales, to a mother from a close-knit Welsh family, and a dad in the Navy who was away for long stretches. They lived in Gosport most of the time, except for the summer holidays when he, his mum and his older sister, Susan, (his brother, Kevin, is nine years his junior), would decamp to his grandparents' farm in Wales. The roundly-drawn characters give his childhood a solid normality - sturdy Nanny John who cooked and cleaned for eight children and 39 grandchildren; Grandad, who stood over the compost heap in the back garden 'like a prisoner of war staring through the fence of a camp' (he'd been one of the first soldiers into Belsen, an experience that had turned his hair white); and the astonishingly flatulent Uncle Gwyn. Yet the events - and the effect they had on him - were far from ordinary; particularly when he was seven and the family were posted to Malta for three years. When he arrived back in Britain, transmogrified into the Child Who'd Been on a Plane - never mind lived in a foreign clime - his exoticism was a mixed blessing. "It was disruptive. And not only that: whatever you've established about yourself in other people's eyes, you have to go through the whole process again in a new world, a new community. You spend an extraordinary amount of time reinventing yourself, which hampers growth.
"There are advantages and disadvantages - of course there are. You become much more worldly wise much quicker. And, as you say, quite exotic. To lots of Welsh kids, I was the only English-speaking person they'd ever met. And when you told them you'd be on an aeroplane... Christ almighty, they nearly fainted. And that gives you an inflated sense of yourself."
On top of this 'differentness', he was always a child who pushed the limits. One of his early memories is of climbing on the non-pedestrian side of a railway bridge and crossing 'blind' as a train went by, emerging triumphantly through the mist to the relief of horrified spectators. Perhaps it was inevitable that this rule-breaker would end up on the wrong side of the law. His father's mantra was: "Depressed? Work your way out of it." His own version went: "Depressed? Steal something."
"But I always knew that I wasn't a criminal. How did I know that? Because I knew enough people who were criminals and they carry it around with them like a shroud. There's a kind of fatalism about it; an acceptance. For me, it was just something to do - having a laugh. And I was hopeless at it."
That hopelessness was a saving grace. For in Borstal, where he ended up, he had the time of his life. "I was the first Borstal trainee to be placed on a community service project in Bethnal Green, building an adventure playground. They also encouraged you to think; I did my O levels in there. That was partly because I couldn't be bothered to learn plastering, or bricklaying or car mechanics. But also there was a part of me that wanted to show my parents: I can do this. And, in fact, I did, which then led on to me going to college. I write in the book about the pleasure of being able to say to someone: yeah, I'm a student. It's something I thought I would never say."
There are high jinx - many, trust me, unprintable in Cotswold Life - which range from keeping a pet lion to starring in his own show Whatever Happened to the AA Man's Salute, where he'd tell off-limit jokes and wander round the stage naked; where his finale (during a performance watched by his parents) was to fill a coffee cup 'en pissant' and drink it. "They loved the show, by the way."
His career pretty much took off from there. He's now a recognised actor, TV presenter and musician (he was a member of Fat Les, which created the football anthem Vindaloo), and a successful comedian: "I knew because I'd been an actor that you didn't have to make people laugh in order to entertain them. And of course, once I knew that, I was streets ahead of everyone else. They were desperately writing gags and trying to be funny; whereas I'd just get on stage and do what I wanted. And it was completely in keeping with the mood of the time."
Currently, he's playing true to supposed-type with his portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC's Robin Hood, which he'll be away shooting in Budapest for most of the summer. The day after he finishes, in October, he's off to the West End to play Long John Silver.
But you can be certain of one thing: wherever he goes, when he talks of coming home, he's referring to Stroud. He's even evangelical about it. "We invite friends down and they just want to move here. My son (the actor Alfie Owen-Allen) and his girlfriend were going to go abroad for their holidays, but they've now decided to book a cottage in Slad for a week.
"This is home for me now, without a doubt. In fact, I'm looking for land."
To build his own house?
"Yeah - it's really hard to find any round here, but where there's a will...
"Hey, Juliet," he calls out, suddenly, on seeing Dan Chadwick's wife, who's sitting at the next table. "You'll be pleased to know there were two eggs again this morning. And it's the second time there's been a double yolk."
"We share chickens," Dan explains. "Keith goes to the shop and buys cockles to feed them on."
"They're the most expensive eggs ever."
Keith Allen? Keeping chickens? He nods. "As I say, they're always calling me a hell raiser, which is hilarious. I mean Danny will tell you that I'm famous: I don't drink. I never drink. Never. I actually don't like it. It's bizarre. I never drink through the day; I never drink at home. Danny gets really upset."
"Well," says Dan, cautiously. "Sometimes you'll get a bit..."
"Oh yeah," Keith Allen agrees. "Sometimes I'll have a really good time."