The perfect TV villainess: Fiona Allen finally makes her stand-up debut | Celebrity News | Showbiz & TV
Fiona Allen debuts in stand-up comedy
What is it that makes Fiona Allen such a perfect TV villainess? Is it the dark Spanish eyes, the wicked smile, or those cheeks like sun-blushed apples? “I think I look quite happy,” the fast-talking comedienne and actress tells me with a grin. “But clearly other people see my face and think ‘Yeah, she could do that, she could play that evil role’.”
Fiona, 58, was Mike Baldwin’s blackmailer on Coronation Street, luckless Whitney’s kidnapper on EastEnders, she impregnated herself with her ex-teacher’s stolen sperm on Waterloo Road.
Infamy had a downside. On Corrie, people used to shout at her in the streets. “I was in Covent Garden and a couple of builders hollered, ‘Oi, Mike’s looking for you!’”
She didn’t mind the catcalling, but, things took an unsettling turn when she was trying on clothes in a Manchester store. “Someone followed me into the changing room, and pulled back the curtains to say ‘I really love your character.’ There are lines people should realise they shouldn’t cross.”
Bury-born Fiona’s first proper job was in the box office at the Hacienda nightclub, the throbbing heart of Manchester’s then-vibrant music scene. “It was so exciting, we had the best DJs, Graeme Park, Mike Pickering…People came from everywhere. I used to sneak in underage; in my early 20s I got a job there.
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Sally Phillips with Fiona Allen
“It was a really refreshing scene but it got too big. At the club’s height, the demise started. It became difficult to control the gangs.
“There are gangs in every major city but it was bad in Manchester then. I’d be ringing up for ambulances every week because of stabbings, I’d be driving doorman to A&E because the ambulance took too long to arrive, there were guns being brought in.”
Eventually, she quit to carve out an acting career in London.
Her TV credits began with nineties sketch shows, including Goodness Gracious Me. Her breakthrough came in 1999 with Smack The Pony, the multi-award-winning Channel 4 sketch show she created with Sally Phillips and Doon Mackichan.
It mixed observational comedy with surreal silliness – her favourite skit was The Matador & The Bull, about a cross-species love affair – shot with a real bull. She played The Matador.
“The Matador fell in love with the bull and they ran off to Wigan; I’m half-Spanish so it was like performing with family,” jokes Fiona, whose first stand-up show, On The Run, just opened at the Edinburgh Festival.
Doon Mackichan and Fiona Allen
“Smack The Pony was three women being very silly. It was a bit surprising it worked. We won two Emmys, we flew to Canada to do a massive festival, we won a bronze at the Rose d’Or in Montreux…it was worldwide.”
She was due to stay at a Californian detox clinic with a friend, but ended up alone after a diary mix-up. “I was on my own with all these bonkers people in the Colorado Desert, tumbleweed everywhere…and even there a lady recognised me.”
The women pulled the plug on the show in 2002 after three series, three Bafta nominations, a film and a TV special. “It was the right time to stop, we needed a break, but I think we should do another series now; it’s been long enough.”
Fiona’s father, a psychiatric nurse, was the son of Harry Allen, one of Britain’s last hangmen (he hanged Hanratty). Her Spanish mother was a nurse.
“They spent their lives helping others. Mum was born in Toledo” – she puts on a Cockney accent when I mishear that, pronouncing it “Toe-lay-dough”.
“I have two older sisters, both in the north; nobody in my family does what I do. I had the performance gene at school. I was that one, the class clown, full of energy, full of mischief, nothing bad, a likeable rogue.”
She was so lousy at Latin at her Catholic convent grammar school, she was made to stand and read in class.
“That was my first stand-up performance!” she laughs. “Sister Maureen used to look at me like she was watching the ballet. She liked my voice, my accent, my intonation…and funnily enough I went on to do voiceovers in my 20s, but we weren’t even told that was a job possibility.”
In her first week there, her strictest teacher, Mrs Ashton, asked the class what they could do for other people. “I put my hand up and said, ‘I think it’d be really lovely to cheer up other people every day by giving them a smile.’
And then I did a huge exaggerated smile, and the whole class burst out laughing. Mrs Ashton was not impressed obviously.
Fiona Allen as Julia Stone in Coronation Street, with Amanda Barrie and Johnny Briggs
“I used to make my mum laugh but not my teachers.”
Fiona was always a grafter. “I got my first Saturday job at 11. At 16 I was working in a country pub – I was quite a tall kid – and next day doing shifts in Top Shop.
“I’d turn up every day full of beans and work all day for a fiver. I like working and I like earning money.”
She spent much of it on music. “I was really into David Bowie and the B-52s, that kind of vibe, nothing poppy. I had a hairstyle like Phil Oakey from the Human League.”
Fiona met her producer-writer husband Michael Parkinson, son of Sir Michael Parkinson, on a TV set. “I talked to him for ten minutes then didn’t see him again until the Smack The Pony pilot.
“I was a little bit smitten. It was mostly women there and by tea-break, I knew everything about him. I cracked my head on the floor that day, so when he asked me out, I was in a daze and said yes.” They’ve been married for 22 years and have three children.
Working mum Fiona notched up credits ranging from sitcom Happiness, with Paul Whitehouse, to dramas like Dalziel & Pascoe and Death In Paradise – “It was idyllic, a beautiful breeze, waves, palm trees…after day five I felt like Robinson Crusoe.
“Everyone else is wearing tiny shorts and t-shirts, I chose a full a white full-length nylon trouser suit. It was 50 degrees. I nearly fainted.”
Now her youngest is 18, comedy is back on the agenda, full-time.
“Kids! I love them all but I’m sick to death of doing all the tidying up every day. Kids need you constantly now. I feel like Alexa, everyone asks me everything.
“It’s amazing how many ‘last-minute gigs’ I’ve done where I just go and sit in a layby.
“That’s a joke!” she says hastily, adding, “I might set off early and come back later…Maybe.
Fiona Allen attends the National Comedy Awards 2023
“I wanted to do something for myself. So it was a choice between cage-fighting or stand-up…”
She started doing five-minute spots in 2019. “My debut show in Edinburgh will be my actual debut, it’s the first time I’ve done fifty minutes.”
There is no chance she’ll run out of material. Fiona talks like a recently released Trappist monk and gets comically annoyed about everything from passive-aggressive school-gate mothers to the vagaries of the speed limit on the M4 (she lives in Berkshire).
“What’s the limit? Nobody knows! It changes all the time. It’s a money-grabbing thing; if not, why aren’t there massive signs all along the M4?”
Her show isn’t agenda-driven, Allen insists, but her many irritations also include parking apps, her local council building highrise flats nobody can afford to buy, and people who go out in pyjamas.
“When did that become a thing? If I want to see what you sleep in, I’ll follow you home and watch you get into bed. We’ve all gone out of the house in a hurry but you never go out in pyjamas!”
She was weaned on TV comedy – “Dave Allen, Morecambe & Wise, whatever dad was watching.”
One young male stand-up had the cheek to tell her, “You’ve got your awards, you should stand aside for us.”
Fiona seethes. “I’m in my 50s, why should I be told I can’t do comedy? If I sit in an audience listening to someone telling you about life, I want someone I can relate to, someone my age.
“Brilliant Joan Rivers believed that she only became a great comic in her 70s. I love that. She was still going in her eighties.”
Fiona’s happy places are in her car, “coming home from a gig, listening to Pete Tong,” cooking, and “going on the river on my father-in-law’s boat. It’s so relaxing.”
She claims she wants to get a job on the tech side of a company that makes sex robots in order to change the settings, but adds, “My serious ambition is to learn to take longer to react to things. I have got a bit of a big gob…”
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