In a deserted office overlooking the Thames, Tom Allen is admiring the view. “They’re building some sort of sewage works down there,” he says brightly, gesturing at the churning machinery below. “How very Les Mis. Do enjoy!” Always dapper, the smooth-headed, neatly bearded standup comedian and panel-show regular is dressed today in a blue double-breasted flannel suit. “And look, this turns out to be a fox,” he gasps, whipping open his patterned pocket square to reveal its animal motif with all the élan of a magician performing a conjuring trick.
Allen was born spiffy in the suburbs of south London. “I used to dress as some kind of millionaire yacht owner, when in fact I was a small child from Bromley,” he says. Evidence that he was different could be found far beyond his wardrobe, as he explains in No Shame, a new memoir that proves him to be an astute observer of class. “I often lay the sense that I was an outsider at the feet of being gay,” he says. “But in truth, it was as much about being an eccentric. I couldn’t fight it so I thought I’d go all the way instead.”
While his peers were listening to garage, he was swooning to Noël Coward, shopping for tableware and inviting school chums over for luncheon. The one time he did show his face at a boozy adolescent party, he took it upon himself to wipe down all the surfaces before leaving. Even his voice set him apart: he spoke as though he’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth rather than a stick of Juicy Fruit. All of which baffled his working-class family who are, as he puts it on stage, “quite ordinary. Almost too ordinary.”
In common with two of his heroes, Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett, Allen spritzes the most withering observations with affection, his scrutiny itself a form of love. That skill can currently be seen on The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, the weekly postprandial analysis he co-hosts with Jo Brand on All 4. Allen purses his lips as he keeps guests at a safe arm’s length (“Don’t blame me, it’s the Panny D!” he trills splendidly, referring to the pandemic) and savages their dubious homemade treats: breeze-block banana breads, mashed-potato doughnuts. The nastier his barbs, the wider his smile: these hapless bakers must feel as though they are being kissed and clawed simultaneously.
At 37, he still lives with his parents. The plan, seven years ago, was to move back in while he saved for his own place, except that he liked it so much he never left. “I love being around my family,” he says sweetly. And this set-up provides a wealth of material. “They hate spending money on anything. They saved up to buy a kitchen but then they walked into Homebase and saw a display one that was being sold off, and just bought that without measuring it. So now they’ve got this kitchen that doesn’t fit!
“And I’m exasperated by that. I said, ‘Why didn’t you just get the one you wanted?’ They said, ‘No, this is fine for us.’ Even now my dad will bring Pyrex straight from the oven to the table. I’m like, ‘I bought all these serving dishes!’” He throws his hands up. “My dad is like, ‘It saves on the washing up. Don’t make a fuss.’”
The horror of making a fuss runs through No Shame, along with other variations on the theme. Throughout his childhood, he is forever being warned not to be silly or to show off. “I remember,” he tuts, “actually being told by an adult, ‘You’ve got ideas above your station.’ Sticking out is a vulnerability that I think my parents wanted me to avoid. A big part of that is to do with class because if people notice you, you may be picked on and judged. Flamboyance becomes a dangerous thing. Comparing yourself to others is the hallmark of the suburban experience – and it’s rooted in that fear of what people might think. If you don’t have a lot of agency, money or cultural capital, then all you have is the regard of the people around you. The prospect of losing that can feel hugely difficult.”
He is eloquent in the book on the way feelings of inferiority, guilt and shame are passed needlessly from one generation to the next. “The bill gets sent to the wrong address,” he writes, “yet there’s still a feeling it must be paid.” Tensions surrounding class and sexuality during his “unspent youth” fed into his fine-grained observational humour. “I find the theatre of the everyday electrifying,” he beams. But these tensions also contributed to a seam of complex self-loathing that he has not soft-pedalled on the page.
Take the scene where he is beaten up at school by a fellow pupil, only to blame himself afterwards for failing to conceal those tell-tale signs of gayness that inflamed his attacker. “My parents found that chapter very difficult to read,” he says. “They never knew about it at the time.”
He also walked off stage during his early standup years in response to homophobic abuse from a heckler. “I’d feel more confident dealing with it now because I’m much happier in myself. But at the time I thought, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’ It was 2005, clubs were very macho and hetero-normative. I just left and got the last train home. My dad said, ‘You’ve got to learn some putdowns.’ But I never wanted to do a set based around pleasing that sort of person.”
Before he became a standup, Allen gained some acting experience with the National Youth Theatre, and has appeared in films, including the comedy Starter for Ten, based on David Nicholls’ book. There’s still the occasional audition, such as an unsuccessful one recently to play Charles and Diana’s assistant in The Crown. Looking back on his teens, he says: “I wanted to be an actor but it turned out I was just gay. Standup is not something you really do as a teenager. You do plays instead. I was like, ‘Hmm. All these plays seem to be about other people.’”
His initial stabs at standup met with instant success, when he won two competitions, including the BBC New Comedy award, at the age of 22. These triumphs are dealt with briskly in the book. Does he have mixed feelings about them? “I didn’t like myself at the time, and winning the competitions didn’t change that. I only got good as a standup once I learned to understand myself and celebrate my quirks and insecurities.” That meant confronting the big pink elephant in the room. These days he tackles his sexuality on stage with a declaration (“Yes, I’m gay”) followed by a “Who knew?” look and a throwaway aside: “I’m a Gemini as well, but they don’t get a parade.”
One of the most valuable aspects of No Shame is its admission that self-doubt can linger even after coming out. “It doesn’t go away overnight,” he says. “While it’s wonderful that we have made great steps in terms of law and visibility, it can be difficult to catch up with that positivity if you carry internalised negativity after all those years.” Take that Pride slogan, Love Is Love. “It’s wonderful, and so true. But I, for one, have never been in love and so I feel, ‘Oh, that’s something else I can’t join in with.’ Because I’ve found it impossible to have a meaningful long-term relationship.”
Anything to do with being under the same roof as mum and dad? “No,” he says, gently but firmly. Then he adjusts his answer: “To some extent, it has probably hampered it. It could be the self-saboteur in me, or not wanting to be heartbroken. In my experience, it’s difficult to walk out on stage and go, ‘Hey, I’m the fun person!’ when what you really want to say is, ‘Just give me a minute.’”
Now he’s concerned that he’s said something upsetting, that his remarks might be spun into a clickbait controversy. “Love is love,” he adds. “It’s just that there are lots of other aspects to what it is to be a queer person. Does that make sense?” He looks worried. “I do hope you won’t turn that into something for people to be angry about.”
The machinery outside gives a rude protracted belch that rings across the river. “Charming!” Allen exclaims. He must have been getting ideas above his station, I suggest. “Yes, it’s reminding me where I’m from,” he says, feigning dismay. “The actual sewers.”