I’m not sure when I became aware of Keith Allen and the fact that he had some Welsh ancestry; it was certainly by 1994 when he played Jonas Chuzzlewit in the TV series "Martin Chuzzlewit". Around the time that "Twin Town" was released in 1997 – in which he had a part and which his brother Kevin directed and co-wrote, as well as possibly launching the career of one Rhys Ifans – I recall a Sunday newspaper magazine article that reflected on Keith Allen’s unconventional past, if indeed "unconventional" is the right word to describe it. But my overriding memory from reading that article remains. This was an actor who had been to borstal and prison and who had been involved with drugs. He’d had 7 children by 5 women (which, if updated is now an 8 to 6 ratio); however, this is something he neither confirms nor denies and is one of the reasons he has little time for the red tops in this country (a subject which came up in his Hay Festival interview this year).
And so, in 2007, just as he’s achieving another level of fame as Lily Allen’s dad, we see what might be the first volume of his memoirs "An Autobiography: Grow Up". One thing’s for certain, when this man is on screen in an acting capacity, he’s a charismatic magnet of great acting talent, stealing the scenes but somehow managing not to overpower his fellow actors – even as the short lived character, and later corpse of Hugo, in "Shallow Grave". All of the above is what led me to this year’s Hay Festival, where Allen was interviewed by oneword radio’s Paul Blezard. And then I read the book. So what does this memoir bring to the table?
In that Hay interview, Paul Blezard was very careful to ensure that the audience knew that it was "the most open and honest autobiography I’ve ever read". I’ve not read that many autobiographies, but this one is very open and honest; some may even find it "too much information" for them. The main way in which this basic (and welcome) honesty and openness comes through is in family and family relationships.
Family is sacrosanct – "Don’t you dare air dirty laundry in public!", we often hear, or did – we are all quiet, if not silent on what goes on in the family home. Not so for Keith Allen in this book. It’s a big part of what made him today; it’s something that influenced his relationships with his own children and led to a sort of reconciliation with his own father (a submariner who knew only discipline and adherence to convention, which was not to be Allen’s style at all). He is indeed far more open than you could imagine. Allen’s childhood and adolescence took him to Llanelli, Portsmouth and Malta; but the Welsh element of his upbringing comes across strongly. It seems like it was home to him, even with an ever-farting uncle on hand to share a bed with, when in Llanelli…
People may say this academically, but you can also appreciate this from Allen’s memoirs – we make the best parents we can, based on our own heritage and experience. We’re not all square pegs to fit square holes; none of us is perfect as parents or children, but we do the best we can, given our make-up. Realising this and sometimes letting down our front, can only lead to an eventual reconciliation with our past, if we are lucky. Allen’s cathartic moment came when his father said something to his own children, for which he did not approve – the message instigated by his then partner, Nira. There then followed a meeting of the ways between Allen, the son and Allen, the father, a reconciliation and sort of mutual understanding. He does not say how this developed further, but perhaps this is for "memoirs" part two?
There are many, many stories from his varied professional life, including some quite salacious gossip. Many are very funny. Not surprisingly, there has already been some controversy. One story has Allen, in the book, confirming the actor Dame to whom he referred was not Judi Dench – she had threatened to sue. Another story has Allen and his good friend Damien Hirst meeting Trevor Nunn at an event to open a play, where they discussed a painting of Hirst’s that Nunn had bought for £27,000. Hirst informed Nunn that the painting had been done by "… Keith’s son Alfie and my son Connor". Nunn apparently sold the painting a few years later at £20,000 more than it cost.
Allen comes across as someone with plenty of zest for life; very resourceful; inquisitive and with the passion of a teenager for seeking new experiences. Has he grown up yet? I think the clue is in the title.
He’s said that he doesn’t understand the interest in his life and his biography, that he did it for the money. Here, I refrain from previous politeness in my missives on this site and say "Bollocks to that!". More please, Mr Allen…