Jacob's Ladder: People...You Are The Reason I Am...

Tony Allan


I was born in London , actually I wasn't born in London . I was very proud of the fact that I wasn't born in London ; I was born in the City of Westminster ( laughs ) so there. The rest are Londoners, I'm not.

Went to school in London , nice school in Chelsea . Full of famous people. What's his name, Brian Auger, was in my school, from the Trinity. He was about four years ahead of me. Sitting next to me in my class was Malcolm McDonald the footballer, also Steve Hackett who was the first lead guitarist with Genesis. There was the three of us in the one class, and we all turned out to be total nutters.

The way I got into radio was very simple; I ( pauses ), it was all Ronan O'Rahilly's fault. I used to…I was a real anorak, I mean you know, things don't change, but I was a real anorak. I used to go up to Caroline House and help the two girls who ran the Caroline Club. So I got to know all the people there you know and after I left school and everything, I just wanted to go. So I grabbed O'Rahilly one day and said to him “Oh, by the way I wanna go out to the ship and be a jock” and he said “ah well er, we don't have any experience do we Tony” I said no, but you know, you start somewhere. “Ah well” I was so pissed off with him, I was absolutely furious with him. So I sat round and thought what will I do.

Radio London obviously wouldn't take on anybody that didn't have experience. I might have got on Radio City or Essex , or whatever, but those were a bit sort of down market for me. Um, there was a possibility for me to get onto Radio 390, but that involved sexual favours and I was having none of that ( laughs ). Radio 270, again, it was nice but it was like, you know, a bit parochial really, and then there was Radio Scotland . Different country, sufficiently far away, so I literally packed my bags, took me money out of me post office savings, jumped on the train, went to Glasgow , arrived in Glasgow . Overnight train, got out, went into the shower, changed, put my suit on, went down, banged on the door and said, er, “I'm here”. Um…so they said “oh, okay fair enough, come in an' do an audition”. So I went in, went in and did this ten-minute audition, and they liked my voice so I went out to the ship the following day, and that was it. That's how I got there.

And after all that closed down. I worked for a while in a place in Glasgow ; casinos had just been licensed at this stage. There was a big casino up there and er; myself and a guy called Jack McLaughlin, he did the onstage presentation for the cabaret, right, in a monkey suit, and I was stage manager um, and there was some great people, Brook Benton, Dave Allan, Tommy Cooper, and a vast amount of people I worked with, you know. And it was my job to chaperone them, make sure people were called, everything, make sure the girls were alright, the dancing girls, the band, make sure the band weren't to drunk. ( Laughs )

And then, Jack and I funnily enough, there were two positions came up in Grampian Television in Aberdeen for continuity newsreaders. So, er, we went up, applied for them and got them. I was, what, not quite 19 at this time. And thank God they didn't ask how old I was cos if they'd known I'm sure they wouldn't have given me the job, you know.

So I stayed with them for a while. And whilst I was there, London Weekend asked me to go down and do stuff for them. So I was doing a seven-day week at one stage, cos I was doing Monday to Friday up in Aberdeen, jumping on the train and coming down to London, doing Saturday and Sunday at LWT in Wembley, and then going back up and doing, ya know.

I also did a kids programme, there was this great director called Tony Bacon, a little, Jewish London guy. Smashing geezer. And they wanted to do a local 15 minute, five day a week thing, against the Magic Roundabout, so they set Tony Bacon on this idea, and he said, “Will you do it for me?” And I said yeah, no problem. So he said what would we call it, and I said I dunno, call it whatever you want, he said well let's call it “Tony's Time.” Can you imagine right? ( Laughs ).

So it was one of these, each day we had a different person who came in, you know, there was like a woman who came in and made paper jock straps, you know, origami paper jock straps, and that kind of stuff. A bloke that came in and painted, and I would try and do it with them, and of course kids loved me, cos I'm useless at painting, useless at drawing, can't fold paper, can't do nothing like that. So kids identified with me, cos they couldn't do it either, you know.

And then we um, the last five minutes of the programme every day we, um, we bought the entire stock of Buster Keaton's Silent Movies and serialised them, for the last five minutes. It was a great idea, you know. I think the only reason we did it, was ‘cause there was a free trip to Paris to buy them from Pathe. ( Laughs )

So then I went down to Granada , because my head of presentation at Grampian, was a guy called Joe Bellini and he went down to work for Granada , as head of pres down there. So he rang me up and said, “Do you wanna come down?” so I went down and did a year at Granada , in Manchester , which was nice.

But although it was nice, I didn't like it. Telly, I was getting fed up with telly, I'd realised by this time I didn't like television, I wanted to get out of television and get back into radio. But um, the only radio was around was BBC . And I probably could of got myself the job in it, but whilst I was at Granada , Radio Northsea came on the air and went through all that number in 1970, you know, went through all the general election and all that kind of thing and then they went off the air.

I can't remember who it was that rang me, but somebody rang me and said, “RNI's coming back on, you know that?” and I said no. And they said “oh yeah!” So they gave me the number of, what was his name? The little pretty guy that use to work as programme director RNI… Pele. Pele, Victor. Victor Pele.

So I rang them and said “What's this about you coming back on?” and he said “its very hush, hush.” he said. Then I said “its so hush, hush I've heard about it here in Manchester, so what's going on?” So I then rang Graham Gill, who was living in Amsterdam at this time, I said I'm coming over, chucked in the job, and went. Went to work for RNI.


Stayed with them for a long while, and then um, I'd, I'd been in touch with Abie Nathan at this time as well, because I knew of what he was doing in trying to get this ship together in New York, you know. So, I was constantly in contact with him and then the Caroline came back. So I left Northsea and went to Caroline, actually I can't remember whether I was fired from Northsea or whether I left, but one of the two - I think I left, yeah, yeah. It's difficult to know with those ships, you know, you were fired one day then you left the next and then you came back the following, d'ya know what I mean, and it didn't matter who you were, that's the way it worked.

Um, so we got the Caroline back out, and that was nice, that was mad. I was working with some amazing people, just some, an amazing bunch of people. All of them, I mean Andy Archer particularly, Cary , you know the lovely Chris Cary and his mad first wife Kate. Um, Howard, Crispian St John of course you know from Northsea and Caroline, one of our boys, um, Johnny Jason, Mike Hagler, Mickey Mercer, Chicago, Peter Chicago of course, who I also know from Northsea, Bob Noakes of whom it has been said, often um, a lady called Ellen Krall, Samantha Dubois….and then all the Dutch people, all the mad Dutch people, you know.

Going back to Northsea, it's interesting the way things follow on, um, the guy who ran the…publishing company, the Basart publishing company which ran the Dutch service, was a guy called John de Mol. He and I got on really well actually, when we weren't fighting. He had a son called Jon, Jon junior…and me and him got on really well cos I think was about 21 at the time and he was about 17 or 18, you know. He was a nice young fellow, we were just mates. He's now the guy who runs Endemol Productions, the guy who thought up Big Brother, quite amazing.

Also, something that came out of Northsea was that we launched um, Robbie and Ferdy Bolland, two young fellows who turned out to be huge international superstars, although they're not very well known in this country apart from one song called ‘You're In The Army Now' which Status Quo recorded and Amadeus, of course, yeah, the German stuff, that's right yeah, they're known for him. So I'm pleased for them, as well, they've come a long way.

So, then I went over to, they had the ship ready in New York and it was ready to go, so I went over to New York and then we sailed on the, I could have killed Abie, we sailed on the 16 th of March 1973. I didn't want to go ‘til'18 th March, ‘cos I wanted, I've never seen a St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York and I wanted to see St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York and we could've quite easily gone on the 18 th but Abie was slightly worried that we would all go out and get drunk and we would never sail the ship; and actually we should've gone on the 18 th because we left on the 16 th and got about six hours out and ran into a bloody hurricane and started taking water, it took us longer to cross the Atlantic than it took Columbus, it really did.

So we had to head South, there was only, um, there was 16 of us on the ship and there were 1, 2, the Captain, 1 st Mate, 1 st Engineer, 2 nd Engineer and a Priest, who'd been on the American Navy ships in the 2nd World War, and myself were the only 6 people who'd ever been on a ship in their life, right, and here we are in the middle of the Atlantic in a hurricane, which is great stuff.

So we headed South, and uh, stopped in at Bermuda , to get some repairs ‘cos we lost some stays and things. That was great, we spent a few days there. And then, we sailed back over and stopped in Madeira , and Abie was going ahead to raise some more funds for us. We were gonna meet him in Cadiz and so we arrived in Cadiz , yeah Cadiz . I parked the ship and backed it into an American Navy Submarine, which went down very well! Um, Abie rang and said, uh, there was a whole bunch of fanatics in Portugal who'd decided Abie was a threat to society and they put a price on his life, they were gonna kill him. So Abie said get the ship out of Cadiz , go down to Malaga , I'll meet you there.

So we went down to Malaga, and it was uh, I don't know what it was, it must have been Ascension Day or something, but there was a big Christian festival on that weekend, an' unbeknownst to us General Franco was there, was coming down for the weekend. So our ship parked, with Peace written all over it, a white ship with Peace written all over it, in fascist Spain!

The Customs came aboard, cleared us, said yeah you can go ashore, we went ashore, left two guys on board. And, they done this deliberately, no sooner than we were off the ship, that they went on board and tore the place apart, looking for guns or drugs or whatever - they didn't find anything. In the meantime they've arrested Abie in Madrid , they arrest all of us, put us on the ship and say get out.

So the following morning, we, we…Abie was released from prison and he was gonna come down and join us in Malaga , um, but the authorities said no, you have to sail now otherwise we will impound the ship and put you in the nick. The, uh, the poor old captain and the first mate, Norwegian guys, lovely guys, by this time they were completely freaked by the whole situation, you know, they couldn't handle it at all.

So we left Malaga and Abie came on the radio, on the radio telephone and said, “look just get outside the three mile limit and wait there and I'll get a boat out to you.” That was cool, we did that and then the Spanish local army commander came on, or navy commander, can't remember which, and said ‘We know you're outside the three mile limit but unless you up anchor now within the next 15 minutes and set sail we're going to blow you out of the water.” Right, um, so you kinda tend to go along with those things, y' know.

So we sailed up the coast, and thought where are we fucking going, let's go to Marseille. We rang Abie and said, uh, we're gonna try and put in at Marseille and he said alright I meet you in Marseille.

So we sail into Marseille, and uh, as we're sailing in, the um, the chap who's the, he's what they call the Master of Lights, he's the guy that runs the harbour, right (coughs), effectively the Senior Harbour Master, a French guy called François, and he saw us come in and dock so he wandered over to check us out y' know.

The Norwegians quit, that was it they were gone (chuckle). So we were effectively left without engineers and a Captain. Um, and François looked after us. We had, we'd had a big problem with the oil and water, they'd mixed so we had to take all the, had to get rid of all the water, all the oil and thoroughly clean the water tanks and the oil tanks, so we were there for nearly a month, in Marseille.


So we were there for nearly a month in Marseille, during which time François decided he was going to take a year sabbatical and he was going to master the ship to Israel . Off the top of his head, “this is a good idea, I'll come wiz you, yeah”, zap. Um, and then he set up, we were trying to raise money as we had no money at all, so François, um, managed to get some pimps to get their … donations, donate their nights taking to us. So I think we raised $20,000, or something, in one night, you know. Which is pretty good.

Then we went to Israel .

We started a …..Great laugh.

Oh, I did some stuff in, I was back and forth with the Caroline lot. I was also doing some stuff on land with the ILR people. It was the summer of '76, I went up to work at Radio Forth in Edinburgh doing summaries for people, that was nice ‘cos it was when the festivals were on, things like that, it's, kept doing odds & sods.

Then, um, Brian McKenzie, who I'd known from Radio Scotland and known from Nordzee, had moved to Dublin and set up a recording studio to make commercials, and another guy called Dave C, who used to work on the voice of Peace, who was back in Dublin, he's from Dublin; and there was this thriving pirate scene going on in Dublin.

Um, so Brian, I was talking to Brian one day and he said, “You should come over, it's a right laugh.” I said “Well ya know, do they get raided?” and he said, “They've stopped raiding now, they've got fed up with it.” Then the next thing Brian says to me, uh, “Cary and Robbie Dale are thinking of setting up a station over here, see if they can get away with it.”

So came o…I went over, and sure enough they did, they set up Sunshine Radio, which was just AM, as they didn't want to put too much money in, in case they were raided and closed down. But it was the first one that came on that had a proper decent jingle package, proper traffic control, proper playlist, nicely done, proper studios, professional studios ‘cause all the pirates, up until then, were using domestic equipment. Um, so that ran for quite a while and, uh, it was ticking over really nicely and making some money.

So the next stage was to put it on FM, right. But there was a bit of a row between Chris and Robbie, I think Robbie was satisfied with the way it was going and didn't want it to go any further, and Chris wanted to for the FM.

So they split and Chris decided to set up Nova, so I went with Chris, to work with Chris and we set up Nova. And it became the most successful radio station ever in Ireland , just enormous, enormous station.

So I stayed over there, I worked for everybody really, I mean I was with Nova most of the time, but, like, I'd go off to places like Cork and do a days voiceovers or whatever I got away with, up North and whatever.

And then I came back here and I've been back here ever since, doing not a lot.

[Why did you move to the Camden Town , rather than your home area?]

I had a chance to get a place there, simple. It's not easy to get a place in London, um so, you know, I just had a chance to get a place there so took it and its nice, it's nice and er, it's central enough, I can be in Tottenham Court Road, I can walk to Tottenham Court Road in ten minutes, right, and I can walk to Regents Park in 5, which is great, you know, got this huge vast expanse of greenery. I can jump on the 24 bus or get on the tube and in 15 minutes I can be on Hampstead Heath, you know, with all that vast amount of space, as well, so, it's nice and it's also….

Pimlico's a cultural desert. I mean there's nothing there, apart from, like, it's residential and there's pubs and restaurants and that's it, and businesses. Um, Camden Town's got all the clubs, I mean, Camden Town is where Oasis started, Camden Town is where Blur started, you know places like the Underworld and The Dublin Castle, all the new, young bands, that's where they play. There's a couple of pub theatres there as well. It's just, culturally there's a lot going on, a lot of galleries, there's the Stables Market, just a hub of excitement, of young people's excitement, ya know. It's great for that ya know.

[And when did you find about the cancer, when was that?]

Oh, two, three years ago, two, two and a half years, something like that.

[And how have you dealt with that?]

Ha, ha, I haven't. I haven't dealt with it. You can never deal with it. You can, you can put on a brave face and you can ignore it but you can never deal with it. It's inevitable.

But what you can do is do what I have done. Just um….once, once it was, um, once it had become incurable, terminal, you just have to say right, well that, there's absolutely sod all you can do about it, there's no point winging, although, you know, I get days when I do wanna winge and I feel miserable and whatever, but overall you can't, you just have to get on with it. You just have to get on with it, because, you'll, up, you'll only just end up, upsetting up yourself, um, you'll end up upsetting everybody around you, ‘cause, you'll put them on a bloody downer as well, you know. So no, you just gotta keep, whatever time you got left you've gotta get in there and enjoy every, every minute of it you can and do whatever you want, whatever you can, you know. It's that simple, it really is.


Look, you've got two choices, one moan, two enjoy. I prefer to enjoy, it's that simple, it really is that simple. I am in a position where, I'm in a very lucky position whereby er, I've got an awful lot of people that I know are there for me and that gives you strength, to know that they really give a shit and it does make a difference, you know. So yeah, why not, just got on and do it.

As you well know, I'm a stubborn bastard. The prognosis was that I should not be alive now; I should have gone a long time ago. Um, my doctors are still amazed that the tumour in my neck is not out here, you know, this is where it should be, because I will not let it happen, no way. You know, I'm just gonna just keep going as long as I can. I know I sound like an ageing hippy but its true, it's mind over matter. When it's something that important, you can do it, you can really do it and make a difference, um, and I believe that anyway, and whether it's medically not true or it is true I don't care as long as I believe it. That's all that's important, exactly.

[If you were in a position to do something to change the world, what one thing would you do?]

Make sure everybody always had enough food because there is enough food in the world, it's just that it's all in the wrong place and I'm still essentially a very, I'm still essentially very much a socialist. The idea that, er, what is it I don't know what the exact numbers are, the idea that sort of, 4% of the world's people own 90% of the world's wealth, I find that somewhat, not just disheartening but obscene. What's going on in Southern Africa at the moment, not just now but all the time, everyday thousands of kids die because they don't have enough food. Yet in this country, I watch people walking down the road with a half eaten McDonalds burger and they just throw it on the ground, They're so full of their own consumerism they don't even put it in the bin anymore they just shove it on the floor. I find that obscene I really do. So that's it, enable people to feed themselves.

[Music Tony, any particular ones that really stand out?]

My favourite piece of music is Tosca; no question of that, since I was a kid and in particular the aria from the first act, Visi d'arte , Vivo per l'arte, io vivo per amore. I live for art, I live for love, which Tosca sings. Tosca has always been my number one, as I love opera. I suppose there's all the standard things like yer Beethovens, yer Mozarts and stuff like that. I don't know, it's difficult, I've been asked this before, what eight records would you take to a desert island. You think “Oh my god! Eight wouldn't be any good”. I recently hit on um, a guy called Nick Oh, I've forgotten his name. Anyway he works under the name of ‘The Streets' and he put out an album, about two or three months ago called ‘Original Pirate Material', which I kind of really like, its kind of really cool. Who else do I like, Floyd of course, the wonderful Pink Floyd. I still love Hawkwind., I do, I still love Hawkwind, I'm sorry, I can't help it ya know. I still love the Status Quo. I adore Nat King Cole. There's that, um, that three way connection. In the sixties one of my biggest heroes was, right back from '62, was Stevie Wonder, right. His hero was Ray Charles, which I also grew up with in the fifties right, and loved - and Ray Charles' hero was Nat King Cole. So there's that connection there ya know.

I love um, obviously cos of my age, Tamla Motown and Stax and blues, you know. John Mayall and all that lot er, and The Who. I don't think I ever missed a performance of The Who at the Marquee club. I used to beg, borrow or steal the money to see them on a Thursday night in the sixties. I used to go to the 100 Club as well, in Oxford Street , as there was a lot of really good bands down there as well. You see I was lucky being in London cos, at 14, um, even 13, I looked about 18. I could go in anywhere no problems. Nobody ever questioned me, ‘cause I had a very deep voice and all that. Just wandered in. I had the opportunity to see all these things.

I had a little job as well, when I was at school, I was about, I was thirteen or fourteen. I did, er, two nights a week behind the bar, washing up in the Players Theatre which is a music hall, underneath the Arches at Charing Cross, right. So I met people like, er, I don't know, Hattie Jacques. I always remember the first night she was on this one week, I knew she was on, I was looking really forward to seeing her, she came in, and the two guys who worked in the bar, I dunno where they were, they were out the back somewhere. I was sorta just washing up and cleaning and getting things ready, this is before the show, I look up and she's standing in front of me at the bar. I just remember my mouth dropping open. And she sorta looked at me and I said, “Yes, Miss Jacques can I help you?” Just a charming lady ya know, charming lady. So there were lots of people like that. And I loved that show. The one thing that I had to do just before the show started, just as the show started, before the chairman came on to his little pedestal, it was my job to take his big pewter tankard of ale down to him. The bar was at the back of the auditorium, so I had to walk all the way down, up the steps onto the stage and hand him his pint ya know. It was great, I always got a round of applause which was fabulous ya know, terrific that. So that was a little job I had.

So through that, I'd also had, that extended my knowledge of music hall music because my father, he was 50 when I was born. He was born in 1900. So all that stuff was his music from before the First World War, right. So I knew all those songs, ‘cos he used to sing them as well, ya know, I knew all the Harry Laws and all the, the lot, you know. So working in a music hall as well, I got to learn them all the more and learn the staging of them as well. That's why I've got such a, I think, such a wide interest in music. I also, I remember I was about 9, couldn't be about more than 9, there was a jumble sale on in the local church hall, which we went to, and I bought, I wish I had it now it would be worth a bloody fortune, I bought a portable wind-up 78 gramophone, right, and a pile of records. I used to collect 78's. I had hundreds of the damn things, going way back. I had original um, I had a lot of original stuff. Oh, I can't remember, just lots of stuff, you know, one sided stuff that didn't run at 78 it ran at 80 because it was made before 1899, things like that. So I had all that background in music, you know, that's why I just love listening to music.

There’s two things I do; if there’s a piece of music I’ll listen to it and if there’s something with writing on it I’ll pick it up and read it. You wanna see me in the supermarket, terrible! I pick things up you know, I wonder what that is and then I read the entire label, every single word, all the way round the box, you know, cos it’s printed word. Music and words, that’s all I am.


Tony Allan
Tony at work...
Tony at Sloane Grammar School (click picture to expand)

Tony was such a character. I think he was the most straight talking person I've ever met, he was never afraid to say what was on his mind and it was usually hilariously frank. His courage with managing his illness was dealt with in his typical "sod you" manner. I remember he travelled down to Luton by train to see us play at some dingy pub and by that stage it was fairly obvious how ill he was. All that way on a grotty train on his own - I wish more people had that enthusiasm for music and fun. When someone is ill, you tend not to bring up the subject in case of offending them, but Tony told me on a few seperate occasions about how he was dealing with it, how he had his on and off days. I found this openness and courage very touching. I'll remember him as one of the old school rockers ...one of the good guys ...sitting at the back of a pub in the corner with his shaggy haircut, rolling cigarette's and cackling away with that infectious laugh. Knowing Tony, he's probably looking down on us now, telling us not to be so stupid and wondering what all the fuss is about!!!

Paul Mead

Of all of the people I met and worked with during my "pirate" radio years, Tony Allan was the most extraordinary. He was charming, erudite - and wickedly witty. Like many talented people  - and Tony was VERY talented - he could have his temperamental moments and throw the odd "wobbly". These were largely as a result of his own professionalism which would not allow him to suffer amateurs gladly. For reasons that have always eluded me, he did not class me in that category, and we never ended up kicking the shit out of each other.  It is well known that Tony did not know the meaning of the word "abstemious", and it was during a shore leave from Radio Caroline that he and Graeme Gill visited me at a well-known hotel in Amsterdam. I had been given a room with a very large private bar, stocked with every drink imaginable. During the course of what should have been a highly memorable evening (I wish I COULD remember it) we drank late into the night. It was only when I woke in the morning (late) that I realised the impact we had made on the stock of brandy, whisky, vodka, gin etc. As the remaining contents of the bar were due to be measured, and the amount missing added to my bill, I had no choice but to top the bottles back up again ... the vodka and gin from the bathroom tap .. and the other spirits with various strengths of diluted coffee and tea. When I told Tony afterwards, his only reaction was: "Thank fuck I wasn't the next guest in THAT room!" Sadly Tony and I lost touch for the better part of 20 years but, thanks to our mutual friend Elija van den Berg, we recently met up again and remained in close contact for the last couple of months of his life. We three spent a joyous afternoon together in London which, despite his frailty, was an event marked not by sadness but by laughter. Lots and lots of it. Andy Archer


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