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Allen, William Ernest (Chesney) (1894–1982), comedian and singer, was born at 7 Hamballa Road, Battersea, London, on 5 April 1894, the son of Edwin Allen, a prosperous builder, and his wife, Louisa, née Cridland. Allen's first employment on leaving school was as a solicitor's clerk. In 1912, at the age of eighteen, he made his début as an actor in repertory at the Grand Theatre, West Hartlepool. His first appearance as an actor on the London stage came the following year when he appeared at the Bedford, Camden Town. During the First World War he was commissioned in the cavalry and served on the western front with the Royal West Kents, meeting his future partner in Flanders, at an estaminet in Poperinghe in 1917. After the war he returned to the stage. He had a brief spell as a hypnotist's stooge and appeared as Rugby in the farce You Never Know you Know at the Criterion Theatre in London before joining the touring variety company of Florrie Forde as a straight man to Stan Stanford in the double act of Stanford and Allen. On 6 March 1926 he married Aleta Cosette Turner (b. 1905), daughter of Fred Turner, fish merchant. She was a variety artist and principal boy in Forde's company.

After Stanford's departure from the double act in 1924, Allen met Flanagan again in Glasgow and the two formed a double act which first appeared at the Keighley Hippodrome in 1926. Flanagan and Allen toured with Forde's company, Flo & Co., until its dissolution in 1930. Temporarily short of engagements, the two considered leaving the stage to go into business as bookmakers. However, after a triumphant appearance in variety at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in January 1931 they found themselves in demand in London. Appearances at the Holborn Empire and the London Palladium consolidated their reputations and established them as the ‘Oi!’ comedians, working an act of sentimental songs and a cross-talk routine in which Allen's corrections of Flanagan's ridiculous periphrases would be met with an ‘Oi!’ from Flanagan, orchestra, and audience.

In 1932 Flanagan and Allen were invited to join the cast of a successful ‘crazy week’ at the Palladium to form what would come to be the . Allen appeared with the Crazy Gang in a series of highly popular variety shows and revues throughout the thirties and into the early war years. With Flanagan, he added a dimension of emotional warmth to the robust vulgarity and slapstick of the gang. Allen was a dapper, sophisticated straightman to Flanagan's streetwise but tender-hearted scamp; their enormous appeal was based in a warm companionability that transcended the obviously wide difference in social class between them. Their songs, sung in a characteristic soft, syncopated manner as they swayed together on stage, were sentimental affirmations of the persistence of human warmth in troubled times: Allen's Times obituary called their most celebrated hit, ‘Underneath the Arches’, ‘the theme-song of the depression’.

Flanagan and Allen continued their enormous pre-war success as recording artists and as performers on stage and screen throughout the Second World War. Allen appeared in the wartime films Gasbags (1940) with the Crazy Gang and We'll Smile Again (1942), Theatre Royal (1943), and Here Comes the Sun (1945) with Flanagan, and appeared with Flanagan on stage, popularizing songs such as ‘Run, rabbit run’, ‘We're gonna Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’, and ‘Umbrella Man’. He toured with Flanagan in the Entertainments National Service Association, including a spell in France shortly after D-day.

At the end of 1945 Allen announced his retirement from the stage, citing ill health and particularly arthritis as his reason. He did not, however, sever his connections with the Crazy Gang, who re-formed in 1947. Allen, who had acted as business manager for Florrie Forde and had looked after many of the affairs of the Crazy Gang, became their agent and manager. He continued in this role, and appeared on stage with the gang in their frequent royal variety performances, until the group's final show in 1962. He was the last survivor of the Crazy Gang and late in life benefited from revived interest in the group—appearing as himself in a nostalgic musical tribute, Underneath the Arches, at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1981 and the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, in 1982 and making his seventeenth appearance in a royal variety show. He died on 13 November 1982 in the King Edward VII Hospital, Easebourne, Midhurst, Sussex.

David Goldie

Sources  

M. Owen, The Crazy Gang: a personal reminiscence (1986) · J. Fisher, Funny way to be a hero (1973) · R. Wilmut, Kindly leave the stage! (1985) · B. Flanagan, My crazy life (1961) · The Times (15 Nov 1982) · Sunday Times (14 Nov 1982) · R. Busby, British music hall: an illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (1976) · R. Hudd, Roy Hudd's cavalcade of variety acts (1997) · I. Bevan, Top of the bill (1952) · B. Green, ed., The last empires: a music hall companion (1986) · Who's who in the theatre · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1983) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, oral history interviews · BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

photographs, 1933–82, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£92,823: probate, 5 May 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales