Comedian Tom Allen: ‘All high ceremony is camp. In a way, church is like Drag Race’ – The Guardian
The Bake Off regular on the complexity of grief, the importance of dressing well and why he’s always fancied himself as a vicar
Comedian Tom Allen, 39, grew up in Bromley and trained with the National Youth theatre. He started standup aged 22, winning So You Think You’re Funny and the BBC New Comedy award in the same year. He regularly appears on TV series including The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, and as a host on The Apprentice: You’re Fired and Cooking With the Stars. He’s currently performing warm-up gigs before going on the road in February with a new standup tour, Completely. His second memoir, Too Much, is published this week.
Bake Off is nearing the end of its 13th series. What’s its enduring appeal?
Solace, I think. The tent is a world where people of all backgrounds and identities come together, get along and concentrate on making something lovely. I think that’s very welcome in an age that feels so overwhelming and beyond our control. Cakes tend to be something you don’t just make for yourself; you cut them into slices and share. Inherently, that’s a kind, altruistic act. And then to stop it getting too saccharine, we can have a bit of fun on Extra Slice.
You seem very keen on Sandro in the current series…
I don’t think I’m the only one! I think half the viewers are slightly enamoured with Sandro.
Who’s your all-time favourite Bake Off contestant?
I love talking to the slightly more mature bakers, partly because that’s kind of how I see myself. So I enjoyed Carole and Dawn this year, Maggie last year, Linda and Rowan the year before. The older bakers are always fun.
You’re very waspish with the home bakers who appear on Extra Slice. Do they ever get upset?
I’m amazed I’ve never had a cake in my face! No, they’re lovely people and seem to enjoy me poking fun. I like to think my faux-meanness is a way of taking all the angry voices on social media or in the tabloids, and laughing at their negativity. That wink or raised eyebrow is very ingrained in camp culture; it’s about playing with meanness so it loses its power. A lot of queer people experience the world as quite a harsh place. Laughing at it is an act of subversion that makes it more bearable. There’s great comfort in laughter.
Your new book is inspired by your father’s death last year. Were you hesitant about being so honest?
Writing my first book, No Shame, I tried to be as honest and vulnerable as I could. I found that the more you talk about being an outsider or feeling different, you realise everybody’s an outsider in some way. In a world of social media filters, it’s refreshing to strip that away. Honesty seemed to work, so even though it was a seismic change that I went through with losing my dad – and also getting a boyfriend and finally moving out of my parents’ house – I decided to write about it in a similar way.
What have you learned about grief, and what advice would you give?
It’s a complex time. And grief is very tiring in a way that surprised me. At first I was in shock, because my dad’s was a very sudden death. It was like being on anaesthetic. I was like: “I’m fine!”, but you’re full of adrenaline. It’s like people who break their leg and say: “I felt fine until I looked down.” As months passed, it took more from me. You’ll feel spent and exhausted, so make allowances. But it manifests in different ways. At one point I got very angry about the interior design of Jersey airport.
Another turning point was a distant cousin’s funeral, six months after your dad’s…
Slowly but surely, sparks of your old self come back. When I found myself judging this funeral and the choices they’d made, I realised I was OK. The undertaker wore quite a sprightly outfit, with a walking cane and top hat. He looked like Willy Wonka. And the crematorium had a sign on the wall saying: “What to do in the event of a fire.” I said to mum: “But isn’t that why we’re all here?”
You also say that funerals are very camp…
My dad’s funeral had a reassuring sense of ritual, but all high ceremony is camp. I’ve always quite fancied myself as a vicar: I like the outfits, you get a free house, there’s a lot of parading up and down aisles. In a way, church is like Drag Race.
You found solace in gardening, didn’t you?
I used to think: I’m going to live in a flat in somewhere trendy like Elephant and Castle, which is essentially just a roundabout, living the urban gay hipster dream. I’ll grow a moustache, it’ll be great. Eventually I realised that isn’t me at all, and found this house around the corner from my parents. Suburbia is where I’ve always felt most comfortable. In the hinterland between countryside and city, you have a bit more space to play. My dad grew vegetables and I thought that would be a healing thing to do. It’s very calming to watch how things grow. When I’m in the garden, everything is all right.
Who are your writing influences?
I’ve always loved the way Alan Bennett finds pathos in the mundane. David Sedaris also allows the incidental to take centre stage. He says: “Think about what you’re most ashamed of, then write about that.” It helped me lean into my own embarrassment.
You’re always very dapper. How many suits do you own?
About 30. I’ve always liked tailoring and the sense of occasion about dressing up smartly. I loved Saturday night entertainers on TV, like Cannon and Ball. They’d wear dinner jackets, which I thought was so sharp and chic. Tom Ford says dressing well is a show of respect to the people around you.
You were at school with fellow comedian Rob Beckett. Was it a funny school?
Not really, it was quite a rough comprehensive. There was a permanent bubbling undercurrent of violence in Bromley. You had to keep your wits about you to avoid getting into fights. It didn’t feel particularly kind or open. In fact, when I first went to the north of England I thought everyone was gay, because suddenly people were being nice and saying hello.
There’s an ongoing debate about cancel culture in comedy. Do you ever censor yourself?
Not really. I try to write standup about my own experiences and not generalise. If you’re mindful of other people, it’s not much of a worry. If you’re thoughtless and offensive to people, they’ll probably be angry with you. It’s portrayed as this new-fangled thing, but in truth it’s just “Don’t be a dick”. Be a positive presence in the world, then go and pick some runner beans.
What else is in the pipeline?
In the new year, I’m touring and doing a new series of The Apprentice: You’re Fired. Then I’ll think about writing another book. I like being busy. I left school at 18 to try to make it in showbiz, but it’s only the past few years that I’ve felt established. It took me 20-odd years to get here, so I remind myself how lucky I am. It’s not a bad lot, really.
Too Much by Tom Allen is published by Hodder Studio (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Tour details can be found here