The BBC screened a selection of Dave Allen’s best bits at the weekend. The Irish comedian, whose trademarks were drinking, smoking and an iconic high stool, remains something of a hero of mine.
To the extent that when, 20 years ago this year, The Sunday Post decided their coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe would be improved by getting yours truly to perform a stand-up spot at one of the festival’s most infamous comedy nights, I signed off to silence with a nod to Dave Allen’s parting words at the end of each of his episodes: “Good night, thank you, and may your god go with you.”
But I still tuned in at the weekend with trepidation. Those of us of a certain vintage, schooled in the comedies of the 1970s and 80s, must invariably watch re-runs through our fingers for fear our heroes turn out to be creepy, racist or spiteful in hindsight. For example the Beeb is also re-running The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin at the moment. It hasn’t aged well. Leering over the secretary may have been a staple of 70s humour but it’s not funny at all in the age of #MeToo. Of course, it wasn’t funny then if you were the half of the population on the receiving end of unwanted attention at best and downright abuse at worst. But then women didn’t commission, write or star in sitcoms 50 years ago. We’ve much to thank feminism for, including Fleabag.
There were, however, no such concerns with Dave Allen. Even his routine on Adam and Eve is delivered with such class as to forgive the rather hackneyed gender stereotypes. The show finished and was followed by the 10pm news. A juxtaposition that crashed my mood, but piqued my interest. The top item was the Westminster government effectively cutting NHS wages.
The way this decision was sneaked out says nearly as much about the way this administration operates as the policy itself.
Budget documents showed inflation at 0.75% and an NHS pay rise of 1%. On the face of it, more money for the heroes that fronted up as coronavirus battered the nation and its health services. But the same Budget figures also predict inflation shooting past 1% in the near future, leaving doctors and nurses worse off.
It’s almost as if the government hid their meanness in plain sight, assuming everyone else in the UK is too daft to spot it.
The decision itself is staggering. The PM’s most powerful turn in the last 12 months came when he addressed the nation after being discharged from hospital after suffering from Covid-19 and spoke of his genuine gratitude to those that stood by him and saved his life.
That speech now sounds as insincere as the ministers sent out to insist the nation can’t afford to reward NHS workers more. And those Scottish Tories kicking up a stink before Christmas over whether the Scottish Government’s bonus for NHS workers should be taxed or not must feel their Westminster team-mates have delivered yet another hospital pass.
A government that can find even a few coppers to waste on looking into whether to build a tunnel to Northern Ireland is not using its money in the most efficient way. A government that gave Dominic Cummings a giant pay rise even though he was rubbish, and then sacked him, is not one careful with the public coffers.
A government that can’t fund a tangible reward for the people who have gone into work not knowing if they’ll bring home with them a disease that could kill them or their loved ones is one open to the charge that it is fuelled by arrogance and pomposity.
And that’s where comedian Dave Allen comes in. His humour was driven by the fundamental feature of all good jokes – punching up. As an Irishman he enjoyed mocking the English for their pomposity. A former pupil of Catholic schools, he was almost obsessed with jokes at the expense of the Pope. However, his targets were never cheap. He never patronised his audience. And that’s why his routines stand the test of time. His material still shines. His reputation is intact.
It’s something the Westminster administration ought to ponder.
If Chancellor Rishi Sunak wants to be admired, respected and to make his mark he ought to bin the apparent arrogance and the attitude that dogs the decision to deny NHS workers proper recognition.
It all brings to mind a classic Dave Allen sketch. Set in church during a service, Allen is the vicar suspiciously sniffing the air and silently accusing each of the members of the choir before the punchline in which a bishop sitting nearby admits it was he who passed wind.
Spending decisions at the expense of the NHS are like the set-up to that joke – something stinks.
James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post.