Tom Allen on comedy, why he loves touring the country and pie-eating in Wakefield

For some comedians, the prospect of going on tour fills them with a frisson of excitement, it’s an opportunity to play in different venues and visit new places.

Tom Allen revisited Wakefield for his Channel 4 show Tom Allen Goes to Town. (Picture: Edward Moore)..

For others, the monotony of being constantly on the road and away from their families is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Tom Allen sits firmly in the first camp. Flamboyant and eccentric, the Bromley-born comedian is a familiar face to TV viewers thanks to shows like The Apprentice: You’re Fired and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice with Jo Brand, and Mock The Week, and is happiest when he’s on one of his stand-up tours.

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“As a comedian you get to go to places like Otley or Southport, places that you might not go to unless you had a reason to go there, and when you’re there working you get to meet people. When I was in Carlisle I got taken out by the audience for a drink, it was great.”

Allen, seen here performing in aid of Stand Up To Cancer at the London Palladium in 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

This gave him the idea of going back to one of these unsung communities for a TV show – Tom Allen Goes To Town. “There are so many great places and it’s easy to just dip in and then never go back and I was just taken aback by how lovely everyone was in the places I went to. So the idea really was to go and do something about the people who were in the audience.”

In the end he plumped for Wakefield which he visited last year – he spent a week in the city where along the way he took in the famous rhubarb crops, explored the city’s cathedral and visited one of the only drive-in fish and chip shops in the world. He also bought a round of steak pies and helped renovate a local Caribbean restaurant for the family he was staying with.

It culminated in a show celebrating the people and places he encountered at the Theatre Royal, where he was joined by his assistant for the night, Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp, in front of a full house of locals.

Allen says he enjoyed his time in Wakey. “The National Coal Mining Museum is fabulous and I met so many interesting people there including ex-miners who were so knowledgeable and such great characters,” he says.

“I’d never been down a mine before and feel what it was like going down in one of those lifts. It was really tough working in those mines and I think it’s important we acknowledge that and what that experience was like… it was nothing like Billy Elliot, which was my main reference.”

He was impressed, too, by The Hepworth Wakefield. “It’s stunning. I was a bit flippant about it but when I went there it was one of those moments that make you take stock and make you realise what we have. I didn’t know anything about Barbara Hepworth and she was amazing.”

He also enjoyed a slice of Wakefield’s lively nightlife and paid a visit to Karen and Sharon’s pie shop. “It’s open till four in the morning and people queue up after a night out on the town, which is known as the Ibiza of the North, and that was fun.”

To atone for his hedonistic pie eating he paid a visit to the cathedral. “I put a tweet out saying ‘I’m going on a bit of tour this afternoon if anyone wants to join me. Meet me outside the cathedral.’ And then this crowd of people turned up and we wandered into the cathedral and one of the volunteers, who wasn’t prepared for any of this, took us on an impromptu tour.”

Allen speaks with a cut glass accent but freely admits he has no idea where that came from, being the son of a coach driver in a working class family in Kent, and having gone to an unremarkable comprehensive.

Once the youngest member of the Noel Coward Society, Allen felt like an outsider growing up and admits in his autobiography, No Shame, he felt engulfed by self-loathing and unhappiness as he endeavoured to stay under the radar of the school bullies who tormented him.

He says he didn’t get into comedy until later. “When I was growing up people didn’t really become comics, it was a very blokey thing. You had people like Jim Davidson on television and it wasn’t something I felt I wanted to be part of. I always loved Victoria Wood but I didn’t know how you became someone like her. It was only later when I was a bit older and working in an office and some friends said ‘you should have a go at stand-up’. I thought it was a stupid idea and didn’t feel like I belonged in comedy clubs, but that was what motivated me to do it.”

He was 22 when he started doing stand-up going on to win So You Think You’re Funny in Edinburgh and the BBC New Comedy Award in the same year.

He’s now been on the comedy circuit for 15 years. “It’s that old cliche of it takes ten years to become an overnight success,” he quips. “I kept going and you learn to be more relaxed. When I started I didn’t really know who I was. I wasn’t ‘out’ and I didn’t talk about being gay on the stage. So I started learning about myself and I think if you’re more comfortable in your own skin people mirror that when they watch you.”

Appearances on the TV shows like 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Mock The Week and Live at The Apollo, brought him to a wider audience.

“I’d been going about ten or 12 years when I started doing shows like that. At the time I didn’t like the fact I was not doing things on television but I don’t think I was ready before then if I’m being honest.

“I started in 2005 and it took me 10 years to get good at it. I had a rule with myself that I wanted to try and perform in every different kind of room that I could, so I’d do working men’s clubs and theatres and rough comedy clubs and also some nice ones.”

He also credits Sarah Millican, who he supported on tour, as helping to push him up the comedy ladder. “Sarah has been so supportive and so generous to me. I feel very lucky to have her as a friend.”

Allen lives with his parents and during lockdown started a podcast that has proved popular. “I wanted to do something that made people laugh. I’ve always maintained that comedy is about making little connections between people,” he says.

And that’s why he still enjoys touring. “I love that about my job because there’s always somewhere new to go to and you get to see the communities there.

“I grew up in London and I think it’s such an anonymous place. I’ve often thought it would be nice to live in another city in the country where people actually say ‘hello’ and are proud of where they live and proud of who they are.”

Somewhere like Wakefield, perhaps?

Tom Allen Goes To Town is on Channel 4, December 30, at 9pm.

No Shame, published by Hodder Studio, is out now.