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Keith Allen: mad, bad and dangerous to know?
Last Updated: 12:03am BST 04/04/2008
He's 54, but dresses like Pete Doherty, thinks marriages should only last two years and believes Diana was murdered. Bryony Gordon meets actor and hellraiser Keith Allen
Keith Allen's colourful life has provided so many anecdotes that it is almost impossible to pick the most memorable.
Just a very naughty boy: Allen (right) is rumoured to have eight children, one of whom is pop star Lily Allen
There was the time he had sex with Janet Street Porter on a snooker table, the occasion he left the mother of his two children in one breath and introduced the kids to his new girlfriend in the next, and the moment he persuaded Damien Hirst to serve up his private parts on a plate to Stephen Fry (don't ask how).
He has been a pop star, the father of a pop star (Lily Allen), an actor, a comedian, and a celebrity chum to snort cocaine with at the Groucho Club. But mostly, his life has been one dedicated to the art of anarchy and rebellion, just for the sake of it.
"I always do things for myself and I don't care about what people think."
Don't you think that's a bit selfish?
"No. Though I imagine there are a few women who think I am."
I meet him in the drawing room of the Covent Garden Hotel to discuss his autobiography, Grow Up (he is nothing if not self-aware). He is short - though not of opinions - and dressed in a Ben Sherman shirt, jeans, and a jacket by Goi Goi, a label favoured by Pete Doherty. Allen is 54.
Originally he wanted to write an A to Z of life according to him - "I would do A for Arsehole, and then under that write see C for..." - but his girlfriend at the time, a writer, encouraged him to make something more of his experiences.
"She had to put up with listening to me. And she didn't have a job and I thought, you write it and I'll give you some of the money. But then we, er, split. I started the book with one girlfriend and finished it with another girlfriend and a baby, which is, hahaha, so typical. It made it very tricky. But respect to her, she wanted to hit the deadline."
Respect to her indeed, because however distasteful one might find Allen, he has had a life that makes for eye-popping reading.
Born in South Wales, the son of a submariner who was either absent or ignoring him, as a small child he used to walk across the parapet on the local railway bridge when steam from the trains reduced visibility to zero in order to get attention and kudos, a pattern that would follow him into later life.
"This was what it was all about - people adoring me, people loving me," he writes in the book after the bridge episode.
He lost his virginity at 11 - of Nick Clegg's recent admission that he has slept with "no more than 30 women" Allen jibes, "What? In a week?" - and was expelled from numerous schools.
He was sent to Borstal for theft at 15 (later in 1984 he was sentenced to three months in Pentonville for destroying a bar) and then went to drama college "for no other reason than to sleep with women, really".
Is that what has informed most of your decisions in life?
"Hahaha. No." He picks at his Dover sole. "Well, not what you'd call career-shaped decisions. More 'what am I going to do tonight?' decisions. But anyway, I had no intention of becoming an actor.
I didn't really do any acting until I was about 28. I just did odd jobs. I have no ambition whatsoever. I don't know whether that's because I'm afraid of losing, or of failure - of not being the best."
Ah. A brief moment of vulnerability. It soon goes. "I remember about nine years ago, Tony Wilson [the late record label boss] said, 'A lot of people consider that you could have been a lot more successful than you are'.
And I said, 'well, not really'. I've written two of the best football songs ever [New Order's "World in Motion" for the 1990 World Cup and the hooligans' anthem "Vindaloo" for the 1998 competition].
I was on The Comic Strip. I've been on stage at the National [in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming]." He was acclaimed for his role as the sinister doctor in the BBC3 series Bodies, and he is currently playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood on BBC1.
He has also done a series of documentaries for Channel 4, about subjects ranging from Tourette's Syndrome to the Westboro Baptist Church in America, who believe that homosexuals will burn in hell. (Allen, for the record, doesn't.)
But the truth is that he is mostly known for his hellraising - though he prefers to call it being "naughty". He says he feels misrepresented, as he has never been a big drinker - he is sipping a coffee when we meet - and "can go for months without taking drugs - months and months".
Still, throughout the Eighties and Nineties his second home was the media hangout, the Groucho Club; a friend tells me that he once saw Allen on the bus with his kids, who were pleading, "Do we have to go to the Groucho again?"
His partner in crime was Damien Hirst. He was very much part of the whole Britpop/Young British Artist scene that lit up the country around the time New Labour came to power (his thoughts on which later).
He seduced a lot of women, among them Dawn French (pre-Lenny Henry) and the actress Julia Sawalha (post-Absolutely Fabulous), and has no qualms about reprinting the more intimate details of these liaisons. Have they been bothered by that? "No, not at all. It's not that important." But what if they valued their privacy? "Well, maybe they should move on and think about something else."
He met his daughter Lily's mother, the film producer Alison Owen, in the early 1980s, but left her when Lily was five. He then immediately took Lily and her younger brother Alfie to meet his new girlfriend, the film and television producer Nira Park, whom he married shortly after. They are now divorced. Today he lives with the actress Tamzin Malleson, whom he met on the set of Bodies, and their one-year-old daughter, Teddie.
He is rumoured to have eight children in total, but he is cagey about his progeny, other than Lily and Alfie, of whom he is proud. "I look at them and thank God they've got talent.
I couldn't have done what Lily has at her age... a miscarriage, splitting up with her boyfriend, and then going out and facing the backlash against her [BBC3 chat] show." Of Alfie, who is dating the daughter of Ray Winstone and has had brilliant turns in Atonement and onstage in Equus, he says: "He is very focused. He's confident in his talent and knows his position, unlike me."
Leaving Alison, he says, was "horrible, awful, but absolutely the right thing to do, and Alison would tell you it was. I have always maintained that people should by law have to remarry every two years. You can't do that hanging about for the kids s---. It's damaging for them, all that information is being assimilated."
If you think that marriage is a sacred institution he would like to tell you to go away "and read the Bible". He believes that you should be able to sleep with who you want, when you want, but he says that he knows that that comes at a price.
I say that the only people who seem to be paying the price are the women, not him. "What do you mean?" He goes quiet and mutters about some situations being fortunate and others not.
Lately, he seems to have realised that falling out of the Groucho at his age would be a little unbecoming, and has channelled his energy into getting angry about the state of the world. He hates this country when it comes to tax.
He hates the "despicable f------ rise of Tesco" and how "the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, and I mean that culturally as well. We are governed by consumerism and it's terrible when that is all that life is geared to".
He actually seems pained when he mentions Tony Blair. "I loathe him. He is despicable. And Alastair Campbell. I know he was only doing his job, but..." Gordon Brown fares no better. "He's got even less gravitas than Blair, if that's possible."
I ask him what he thinks of David Cameron and expect further bile, but no, provocateur that he is, he tells me: "I actually quite like him. It's come to something when I think David Cameron is all right! And William Hague, I think he is the best Prime Minister we will never have.
He's a very honest person and a brilliant orator, but just because he's bald and has this persona, we can't have him. How pathetic."
For a moment Keith Allen is finally sounding like a grown-up. Until he starts talking about Diana, Princess of Wales (he hopes to show his new documentary about the Diana inquest at the Cannes Film Festival). Despite all evidence to the contrary, he thinks she was murdered.
"To this day I absolutely believe that it wasn't an accident."
How do you know?
"I just know. Do you seriously mean to tell me that David Kelly [the UN weapons inspector] committed suicide? There is no way on God's earth that man committed suicide.
He was murdered. " He says he is writing an album called I'm Gay But Not In a Gay Way about a detective who used to be a punk, which he says "ties up with the death of David Kelly, but it's not David Kelly, it's Alastair Campbell".
"You ask me how I have got away with being so naughty," he says towards the end of his meal. "And it's because I honed a very, very quick wit from a very young age. It's allowed me to defend any position even if it is based on the most ludicrous foundations.
It's all masquerade, you know. All f------ lies." And then he laughs again, and I can't help thinking that the joke might be on me.