Keith Allen in Treasure Island: The rogue rides again!
He's better known these days as Lily's dad, but Keith Allen is centre stage once more – as Long John Silver in the West End. Elisa Bray warms to his charms.
Keith Allen, enfant terrible of the acting world and father of pop star Lily Allen, is making his West End stage debut playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island at the age of 55. Allen's love life, which has seen him produce six children with four different women, has been well-documented not least in his own book Grow Up, which came out this spring. Allen has most recently been seen as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC's series Robin Hood, but the family-friendly baddie and well-known charmer is on edge. Perhaps it is in part due to a dry throat which is giving the actor grief in the preview shows, and which he soothes by popping Strepsils (and brandy, though not during the course of this interview).
Is he enjoying the show and being back on the stage? "Could you imagine if I said no?" he bellows. "What would your piece be like, what would the producers be saying!". Go on, Allen, play the game. Then he brightens up: "It's a new thing for me. It's quite a responsibility. It's such a technical show you've got to focus a lot more. You have to be very aware of who's on stage when, especially in the fighting scenes. You've got to be on the ball. You can't go off on your own little trip with a show like this." For someone who can't avoid taking the odd furtive glance at himself in the mirror in his dressing room upstairs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket where we meet, this is definitely something new.
Perhaps playing the baddie in a family-friendly show is a role he feels comfortable with? "They're different." Allen says. "I think in Long John Silver there is something likeable about him. You have to accept that the precedent is set for pirates' living – that's the framework they work under – they're blood-thirsty and murderous, though some say they're the first socialist community in the world, so there are aspects of Long John Silver and the Sheriff of Nottingham that are similar, but with the Sheriff of Nottingham there's nothing likeable about him, although he's great to watch."
Throughout his life, Allen has had a career as a comedian, a musician (he wrote the lyrics for New Order's only No 1 hit and the 1998 Football World Cup theme tune "Vindaloo"), an actor and an author. His stage career began, "aged 27 or 28", as a stand-up comedian. "I've always said that I'm a performer. But I was a late developer. In a way that's been useful, it means as you're older you're more prepared to take time over things and you don't worry about them."
So who does he most admire in comedy? "I don't want to answer that. I always get 'He hates him', 'He hates him'." The reason for his caginess here is the media, a sore subject for Allen. Last year while filming Robin Hood in Budapest, a tabloid newspaper ran a story about him being at an end-of-shoot party. He was said to be propping up the free bar with his son Alfie and the latter's girlfriend, Jaime Winstone, shielding his son from adoring women and separating a fight between the young couple. Only that day, Allen had found out that his ill mother had been taken to hospital. He was unable to book an immediate flight to see her, but meanwhile his father saw the story about him in the bar, so when he did make it to the hospital, he had a lot of explaining to do to his parents. Sadly, it was the last time he saw his mother. She died just days later.
Allen grew up in Wales and was expelled from several schools. All the misbehaving throughout his youth can't have helped him recently to get his parents to see his side of the story rather than the media's. On the upside, his children Lily and Alfie's own experience with the media has helped their relationship with him. "For years they believed what they read in the papers about me, but within three months of being successful themselves they were both exposed to it. In a way, it probably put me in a better light in their eyes."
Does he feel there are things his daughter Lily has done better than him, maybe learning from his mistakes? "No, I think both Alfie and Lily are more than capable of making mistakes in spite of me and learning about them as part of an ongoing journey. And Lily's learning when to keep her trap shut. I guess if there's anything she may have picked up from me, it's not knowing when to shut up. And I know there are times she's regretted saying things."
And which of Lily's talents does he feel come from him? "Ask Lily," he says, with a cheeky laugh. He's not worried about his daughter. "Lily's more than capable, she's a very shrewd operator. She's got the mindset for it all. I just hope she exploits her talent to the full before she tries her hand at anything else, because she certainly will. That's not just me, me and her mum were like that." Allen's former wife and Lily's mother, the film producer Alison Owen, would conjure up their own little business plans when money was short and they were out of work, selling drinks and sandwiches "out of the back of a van" at parties.
Allen heard Lily's songs long before they became a record. "I knew it was going to be good. I was surprised how she took to performing because I don't think she liked it at the beginning. It was something she'd never done. There's a part of Lily that feels embarrassed by success, that thinks she's not worthy of it, certainly when she first started. I watched her first gig and I watched her in Paris and it was amazing, in two or three months, how she'd got a handle on it – and that thing with Glastonbury was fantastic," he smiles.
He himself documented his busy love life in his autobiography, Grow Up. In his book he stated that his first girlfriend was the only one he had ever been faithful to. "It's true at the time I wrote it," he says. "Terrible, isn't it?" Even during the writing of the book he had moved on from one partner to another.
"I was working on [BBC TV drama] Bodies so I was away quite a bit and I fell in love with my current partner [the actress Tamzin Malleson]. When I started the book I was with one woman and when I finished I was with another."
Allen's many hours spent at the Groucho Club over the years with friends such as artist Damien Hirst are rare these days since he moved out of London four years ago to his home in Gloucestershire with Malleson. His two-year-old daughter is also the first child that he has taught how to play the piano. "It's great she knows what it does and she's moved on from banging it with her fists."
Nowadays you are more likely to find him propping up tomato stalks in the family's vegetable plot than propping up a bar. "I just like being at home. I really like gardening. It's the truth. We grow all our own vegetables."
Perhaps that image of the enfant terrible is starting to fade. "Old man terrible" his comic self makes the correction. "What would you call an enfant terrible on a Stannah stair-lift? It's mostly myth."
Has he changed? "I'm not being pedantic here, but a leopard never changes its spots. There is a reason why that is a proverb. You don't. I always think of murderers when I think of questions like that. I don't know if you've ever read the book the biography of Dennis Nilson, Killing For Comfort, it's very interesting. I do remember thinking about how he describes his home life with his boyfriend. For three years he didn't think of killing anyone else and his life started to take on a new meaning. After two years and two months, if you'd have asked him whether he'd changed, he might've said yes, if you'd interviewed him a year later, he'd have said that he hadn't.
"It's in my genes to be a predator and you become less predatory as you get older so that great game which it was, I don't really play it anymore. In fact, it's a great relief."
But he certainly concedes that he has mellowed and as a result has more time for people. In his spare time he writes music, and goes to see small bands playing in local pubs. He and his musical partners are currently finishing off an album of spoken word music. At the moment he is waiting for two keyboards to arrive at his dressing room. "Whenever we filmed Robin Hood I had to take my keyboard with me. I feel lost without it."
Is there much of the rebel left in him? It would seem so. When he has finished the show he will direct a feature-length documentary about the death of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly. "Of course he didn't commit suicide. It's ludicrous. I want to make a film that shows them up. It makes me furious."
Of all his jobs, which has been his favourite? "When you hit something right in the recording studio, it's amazing. If you get something right on stage, you think that's the greatest. I don't have a preference. I really love the fact that I can dabble in them all. I'm not successful in the music and I'm not successful as a writer. If I think I've done well, that's fine by me. With everything I do, once I've finished it, that's it. It's like Silver says to Jim Hawkins in this play: 'Always look forward, never look back. It slows you down.'"
'Treasure Island' is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0845 481 1870), to 28 February