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Allen, Jim (1926-99)


Main image of Allen, Jim (1926-99)

For almost 35 years Jim Allen was one of British drama's most persistently radical voices. His writing never wavered in its commitment to socialism, and he was a key collaborator of and influence on the likes of Tony Garnett, Ken Loach and Roland Joffé. More recently, actor Christopher Ecclestone has spoken admiringly of a man who "wrote beautifully about real people's lives".

Allen was born into a Catholic family in the Miles Platting area of Manchester in 1926. His father worked on the railways and his mother was a presser in the clothing trade. Leaving school at 13, he worked in a sheet metal shop and a fish market, before joining his brother John in the local clothing trade. In 1944 he joined the army and served with the Seaforth Highlanders. Finding it hard to readjust to civilian life, he joined the Merchant Navy, where the extremes of poverty and wealth he witnessed around the world made a great impression on him. Back in Manchester, he worked on the docks, in the textiles industry and down the mines.

It was during this period that Allen became involved in the Labour movement, eventually joining the Socialist Labour League (SLL). While working in the pits, he helped found and edited the militant newspaper The Miner. Throughout, he harboured the ambition to become a writer. The opportunity would arrive in the 1960s as broadcasters began to look for authentic working-class voices; none would be so uncompromising as Allen's.

He began his professional writing career in 1965, contributing scripts to Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-). The soap helped him to learn his craft, but he soon became frustrated by its constraints. He would throw some political comment into his scripts where he could, but increasingly he wanted to write more fully-formed political dramas. A much-told anecdote has Allen proposing at a Coronation Street scriptwriters' meeting that the show's principal cast be laid waste in a freak bus-over-a-cliff incident on a day trip to Blackpool. He left the soap soon after, but by now the BBC, and in particular producer Tony Garnett, was interested in producing his more stridently political work.

The first fruit of his collaboration with Garnett, 'The Lump' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 1/2/1967), told of a young student's politicalisation as a worker on a building site and drew - like much of his subsequent work - on Allen's own work experiences. Garnett coupled Allen with director Jack Gold, who employed visual strategies learnt in factual programmes and documentaries. The integration of documentary techniques would be a controversial element of Allen's next major television plays, 'The Big Flame' (The Wednesday Play, tx. 19/2/1969) and 'The Rank and File' (Play for Today, tx. 19/5/1971). 'The Big Flame' united Allen with director Ken Loach, beginning the most significant creative partnership in the writer's career.

Drawing on recent workers' struggles to present an occupation of the Liverpool docks that intensifies into a near revolution, 'The Big Flame' unnerved the BBC hierarchy with its potent blend of Loach's increasingly sophisticated observational documentary techniques and Allen's charged Marxism. The pair's second collaboration, 'The Rank and File', was Allen's response to a recent strike at the Pilkington Glass factory in St. Helens. Relocated to Stoke-on-Trent, the play follows a strike and the workers' subsequent fight against retaliatory dismissals. While less forceful than 'The Big Flame', it typifies the writer and director's determination to make politically driven dramas inspired by contemporary events.

During this period Allen also wrote a number of shorter television dramas, many of which also drew heavily on his own work and life experiences. These included 'The Hard Word' (Thirty Minute Theatre, BBC, tx. 12/5/1966), 'The Pub Fighter' (Half-Hour Story, ITV, tx. 27/2/1968), and 'The Punchy and the Fairy' (Thirty Minute Theatre, BBC, tx. 10/1/1973). The early 1970s also saw Allen back at Granada, collaborating with Leslie Woodhead on In the Heel of the Hunt (ITV, tx. 16/12/1973), another tale of a militant trade unionist.

1975 saw Allen, Loach and Garnett's most ambitious work to date, the four-part historical drama Days of Hope (BBC). It marked a shift in their work in its historical setting and its narrative sweep, progressing from the mid-point of WWI to the 1926 General Strike, which allowed for a re-casting of history from a working-class perspective. With Days of Hope Allen was explicitly challenging the nostalgia of much television costume drama and repurposing the form to uncover the historic betrayal of working-class struggle. The series became the focus of an intense academic debate about what constituted radical television drama.

Following Days of Hope, Allen began a spell on Granada's long-running daytime legal drama Crown Court (ITV, 1972-84). His five stories revealed that he could work within the formal constraints of a popular format, though stories such 'The Extremist' (tx. 3-5/12/1975), 'Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil' (tx. 25-26/2/1976) and 'Those in Peril' (tx. 13-15/10/1976) shared a focus on defendants whose charges arise from political situations.

He returned to the BBC for the studio-bound 'A Choice of Evils' (Play for Today, tx. 19/4/1977), which explored the Catholic Church's passivity in the face of Nazism through the prism of Pope Pius XII's refusal to intervene in the massacre of 335 Italians in Rome in March 1944. 'The Spongers' (tx. 24/1/1978), the first of two Plays for Today directed by Roland Joffé, was a devastating story of a mother of a young Down's Syndrome girl hit by social services cuts. It showed a new concern for community after the industrial focus of much of Allen's earlier writing. The second Allen-Joffé collaboration, 'United Kingdom' (tx. 8/12/1981), blended similar community concerns with the revolution-in-progress approach of 'The Big Flame' in its story of the attempts of residents of a housing estate to resist rent rises and organise themselves.

In retrospect, 'United Kingdom' can be seen as one of the last hurrahs of the strain of committed political drama that had thrived, particularly at the BBC, during the 1960s and 1970s. Ambitious in both scope and length and fiercely anti-government - though its early drafts were written before the 1979 Conservative election victory - it represented the kind of drama that BBC managers would find difficult to defend in the face of constrained budgets and political pressure.

After an entertaining but slight Play for Today about a working-class philanderer, 'Willie's Last Stand' (tx. 23/2/1982), Allen's final work for television was the six-part The Gathering Seed (BBC, 1983), starring a young David Threlfall. It remains one of Allen's least known works and, while it displays familiar settings and themes, it is sluggish and lacks the power of Allen's earlier TV work. At the heart of its problems is the unsuccessful attempt to recreate in the television studio the kind of social realism that directors such as Loach and Joffé had achieved on film, while director Tom Clegg was perhaps more at home on popular series such as The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78) than on the political family drama Allen had written.

Perhaps in response to the less welcoming environment for radical TV drama, in 1987 he made a surprise but shortlived move into stage writing. The Royal Court production of Perdition, which reunited him professionally with Ken Loach for the first time since Days of Hope, ignited the fiercest controversy of Allen's career. A deeply researched but nevertheless incendiary drama which charged Jewish leaders in Nazi-occupied Hungary of abandoning half a million Jews to their deaths in their pursuit of a Zionist state in Palestine, Perdition was met by a storm of protest that led the Royal Court to cancel the production before its first night. Allen went to great lengths to defend himself from accusations of antisemitism.

The renewed Loach-Allen partnership now switched focus from television to cinema for the three feature films that would close Allen's career. Hidden Agenda (1990), Raining Stones (1993) and Land and Freedom (1995) demonstrate that whether dealing with contemporary or historical events Allen's writing had lost none of its commitment to socialism. The Belfast-set political thriller Hidden Agenda proved controversial for its evocations of the Stalker Inquiry into the police's alleged 'shoot to kill' policy in Northern Ireland. Lighter in tone, Raining Stones combined politics, humour and drama in its story of a working-class man whose attempts to make ends meet in the face of economic hardship eventually threaten all he holds dear. It was a box-office success, proving that Allen and Loach's work could still be popular with audiences. The pair's final collaboration, Land and Freedom, follows a Communist Party member who travels from Liverpool to join the Republican cause in the Spanish civil war and who subsequently begins to question the Party's Stalinist line. Here, as in much of Allen's work, he is as concerned to expose the shortcomings of those supposedly representing the interests of the working class as he is to attack those opposing them. Land and Freedom stands as a fitting tesimonial to Allen, and remains one of Loach's best films.

Allen's death in 1999 was no full-stop for political drama on British television. But few dramas since have burned with the sheer commitment, passion and uncompromising spirit that marked his best work. As Tony Garnett put it, "He never wavered in his socialist beliefs or his loyalty to his class." But as well as an unswerving socialist, Allen was also a highly skilled screenwriter, with a sharp ear for working-class language and humour and a gift for rendering stirring rhetoric in natural speech. It is thanks to this combination of political conviction and practical skill that he left behind some of the most powerful drama ever produced for British television or film.

Andy Willis

Further Reading

Bennett, Tony et. al. (ed) Popular Television and Film: A reader(London: British Film Institute)
Garnett, Tony (2000) In 'Memories and Appreciations' part of Jim Allen: Lust for Life, a booklet produced for the Jim Allen Tribute held at Cornerhouse, Manchester in October 2000
Eccleston, Christopher (2011) 'My TV hero: Christopher Eccleston on writer Jim Allen', The Guardian, 24th May 2011
Madden, Paul (1981), 'Jim Allen' in Brandt, George (ed), British Television Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Hidden Agenda (1990)Hidden Agenda (1990)

Tough, Belfast-set thriller about the British army's 'shoot to kill' policy

Thumbnail image of Land and Freedom (1995)Land and Freedom (1995)

Passionate tale of British volunteers fighting the Spanish Civil War

Thumbnail image of Raining Stones (1993)Raining Stones (1993)

Jobless Bob struggles to buy a communion dress for his daughter

Thumbnail image of Big Flame, The (1969)Big Flame, The (1969)

Incendiary drama about a dockers' strike turned workers' takeover

Thumbnail image of Coronation Street - The 1960sCoronation Street - The 1960s

The first decade of TV's longest-running soap opera

Thumbnail image of Crown Court (1972-84)Crown Court (1972-84)

Long-running afternoon court room drama series with a real-life jury

Thumbnail image of Days of Hope (1975)Days of Hope (1975)

Ken Loach TV drama spanning the 1910s and 1920s

Thumbnail image of Rank and File, The (1971)Rank and File, The (1971)

Fictionalised account of a 'wildcat' strike by Jim Allen and Ken Loach

Thumbnail image of Spongers, The (1978)Spongers, The (1978)

Acclaimed dramadoc showing the tragic impact of welfare cuts on a family

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