IT WAS THE WAY HE TOLD THEM!

In the last few weeks three great names in the field of Irish comic entertainment exited the earthly stage for the very last time to ascend to the great theatre in the sky.  The first to go was veteran actor David Kelly, probably best known for his role as cowboy builder O’Reilly in Fawlty Towers.  Hal “He told me that I have a cult following, at least I think that’s what he said” Roach passed away last week, but the most famous of three was no doubt Frank Carson.  Phil “Wear they dope cap” Larkin pays tribute to the wise-cracking Belfastman.

Before reading it check out this classic clip from the Clive Anderson show circa 1990.

It is with bittersweet feelings that I sit down to write this piece about Frank Carson, the recently deceased Belfast comedian. He leaves many of us, whatever our creed or background, feeling a real sense of loss, even though, by any standards, he enjoyed a long and fulfilled life. I, and probably CW also, grew up with him: he was part of the cult ITV Saturday morning “childrens'” show TISWAS, a role which he could have been born to play. His anarchic and nonstop humour meant that he stole the show in any TISWAS scenes in which he appeared. In my memory he appears almost as an animated cartoon character, with his laughing, chubby features, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and cheeky grin radiating good humour and mischief. There is one word which I think best sums him up: he was a real “character.” In a period when Northern Ireland was characterised on the media by dour faced politicians and bombings, he showed a side of local people which was rarely seen, namely our love of fun and “good crack.”  He was blessed with a great gift: he knew how to make people laugh, often at themselves, in a way which rarely offended. Although from Belfast, the industrial nature of the city and the gritty humour of its inhabitants meant that he slotted well into the Northern English Variety show circuit, where he indeed learned much of his trade. His personality and style of humour fitted alongside people like Les Dawson and Cannon and Ball, all of whom he was great friends with. Unsurprisingly, both Roy Walker and Jimmy Cricket were also friends.

Over the past few days I have been looking at old video footage of him on the BBC news website obituaries, telling jokes which would probably have been regarded as old by the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Without fail, I found myself laughing along with them, quite simply, because of “the way he told them.” He could enliven the most stale punchline with an infectious laugh and often a funny face which I defy anyone to resist reciprocating with a laugh of their own, and by the peak of his career had perfected the machine gun Ulster patter which became his trademark. Frank never hesitated to laugh at himself, and seemed to acknowledge that much of material was a bit on the dated side, to say the least and, (I know that CW will appreciate this!) when he appeared on the Paddy Kielty show he said loudly (as he said everything) that he had come on the show to get some of his old material back! Kielty just looked embarrassed!  [Yes, I most certainly do appreciate this!  CW]

I suppose he came from that generation of northern (Northern England and Northern Ireland) club comedians who really had “come up the hard way.” As Les Dawson said about the northern club circuit: “If they liked you they didn’t applaud – they let you live!” As a Belfast Catholic, he once explained in an interview, without bitterness or rancour, how difficult it was in his youth to find good employment, and after unsuccessful stints as an electrician and a plasterer, he, like many of his contemporaries, joined the British Army. Although too young to see service in World War II, he served as an acting corporal in Palestine in 1945 – 1948 in the Parachute Regiment, fighting against both Arab and Jew. One of his obituaries stated that he personally shot dead a terrorist suspect attempting to escape from captivity. Perhaps people like Frank had to develop a keen sense of humour to protect themselves from the horror and hurt of their circumstances. After his military service, he entered showbiz, and began building a career on Ulster Television, winning the talent show “Opportunity Knocks” twice. However, his real big break came with the ITV 1970s show “The Comedians”, which made people like him, Jim Bowen, and Charlie Williams household names throughout the UK and Ireland. I fully acknowledge how talented a writer Ben Elton is, and I also take on board Alexei Sayle’s criticisms of comedians like Carson and Bernard Manning, but perhaps Alexei does not make enough allowances for the background and era which such comedians came from. Frank Carson did make me laugh, while Elton mouthing off about the iniquities of Thatcherism in a faux cockney voice just does not do it for me. 

[On a point of information, Phil, Stephen Fry states in his autobiography that Ben Elton actually does speak with this accent in real life, as do his brother and sister apparently.  And while we’re on the subject of Alexei Sayle slagging off other comics, he also apparently also had a go at Ben Elton for selling out his former principles as an anti-establishment enfant terrible by writing smash hit West End musicals with Andrew Lloyd-Webber.  CW].

Carson did, however, have a serious side, just like all comedians. I remember once he was interviewed after a bombing incident during one of his visits to Belfast, and he said, forthrightly, that this was the reason why he could never live in the City again. He was clearly both upset and angry. His humour also belied a deep knowledge of political, Parliamentary, and electoral history, and a genuine interest in the arena of politics. One matter of special interest to him was the ending of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which gave rise to intense activism on his part for the cause of integrated education. He was also mayor of Balbriggan twice, a town just north of Dublin.

Given some of the reports of journalists who travelled with him on his tours and campaigns, I get the impression that he could be exhausting company at times: he simply could not stop! As Spike Milligan quipped, the difference between Frank Carson and the M1 was that you could actually turn off the M1! Chat show hosts and producers took him on to their shows at their own risk: he would simply dominate the show and interrupt other guests, insisting on being at the centre of attention at all times.  [As the above clip from Clive Anderson wil testify} CW

I would have liked to have met him in person, but will just have to make do with having seen him as “Buttons” in Cinderella at the Grand Opera House, where our first year class at grammar school went on an outing to the pantomime in early 1986. He was brilliant in the role. After his passing much was made of the fact that his fact that his family was of Italian descent, but little was said about his mother, who actually hailed from Dublin. During 1982-1983 my two tradesmen brothers worked on the sheltered housing project where she lived, and still remember her as a lovely, gentle old lady who would make tea and buy in cream buns especially for the workmen on the project. Frank came himself to open the project when it was finished, and when he had ended his brief speech, he said “I’d better go off and be funny now!” The rather curmudgeonly site foreman, a bloke from Newry called Billy Dinsmore, who was clearly no fan of Frank, remarked audibly and caustically: “Humpf, that’ll be the day!!” To his eternal credit, Carson saw the funny side to the remark and took it in good grace.

I do not believe that we will see his like again. The generation of comedians which he represented are now passing from the stage gradually and steadily, although their descendants are still discernible, in the form of people like Peter Kay.

When he met Pope John Paul II, he was asked by the Pontiff whether he had ever met Elvis. Frank replied: “No, but it won’t be long now!” I hope that he is now together with his close friends and family, making them all laugh up there. 

[Apparently his family issued a statement saying something to the effect of “Now that Frank’s gone it will be a lot quieter here.  But God help the ones up there!]  CW

Rest in Peace, Frank.

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12 comments

  1. A very moving tribute, Phil. Although you never got to meet him at least you had the privilege of seeing him on the stage, even if he was presumably dressed up as a pantomime dame.
    He was certainly one of the best comedians ever to come out of Northern Ireland.
    One of the main criticisms directed at Carson however was his extensive use of Irish jokes. But to be fair he was only doing what most other comedians of the day were doing – and not just the end-of-the-pier crowd or the working men’s club set. Even supposedly cutting edge ground-breaking acts such as Not The 9 O’Clock News and Kenny Everett – not to mention many children’s programmes – occasionally featured Irish jokes.
    Admittedly he had more in common with the northern English working men’s club comics like Les Dawson and Bernard Manning than he did with the likes of Harry Enfield or Alexei Sayle, but his appeal cut across generations and comedy genres. Unlike Manning Carson didn’t tell racist jokes – except for the Irish jokes of course, but being Irish himself he tended to get away with it. Had Manning taken a leaf out of Carson’s book and taken a more self-deprecatory approach by telling jokes targetting fat white Mancunians rather than blacks, Asians or Irish he would have acquired more kudos. But that’s a whole different debate.

    The fact that comics as diverse as Roy Walker and Lenny Henry attended Carson’s funeral, is testament to the lasting legacy of his influence.
    I remember Kevin McAleer, (one of Phil’s favourite comedians!) being interviewed on a regional chat show about whether he considered his act to be alternative. McAleer said he didn’t like the label “alternative”, adding “As far as I’m concerned there’s only one type of comedy – and that’s funny comedy”.

    And Carson certainly was funny.

  2. David Kelly was a brilliant actor and comedian. When watching Waking Ned I couldn’t work out for ages how he managed to get his arm back. I really thought he only had one arm.

  3. Frank Carson was of that time before political correctness took humour by the throat and strangled it. I too am of that generation who grew up listening to and telling jokes about the: Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman and no the Irishman wasn’t always the butt of the joke! If there were more jokes about the Irish than the others it never seemed so to me I was too busy laughing.

    Frank Carson was that school and he was the best at what he did.

    RIP

  4. Thanks Ciaran. It’s funny that you should mention Kenny Everett and Frank Carson together, since in your youtube link to the Clive Anderson show you’ll see Frank actually appearing in a sketch on the Everett show, as a prisoner charged with “telling too many Irish jokes in a confined space.” It’s worth a look. At one point Frank announces to the courtroom: “I do not recognise this court!” When the judge asks why, he states: “Because you’ve had it done up since the last time I was here.” Priceless.

    In relation to the Clive Anderson link, I think that Frank had gone in deliberately with the intention of upstaging Clive at his own game, which was often to do more talking than the guest. I was in no doubt as to who won this contest!

    I think that Kevin McAleer is 100% right in the remark he made about comedy – there is only one type, which is that which makes you laugh. Anything else just isn’t comedy. I don’t think that Alexei Sayle is necessarily “slagging off” other comedians in his remarks, but making criticisms which he believes are valid. Elton has indeed had to eat many of the words he uttered in his earlier career, and justify why he works so closely with Lloyd-Webber and others. I, personally, have no problem at all with him working with whoever he wants, since he has great talents as a comedy writer. It’s just that I found him very “in your face” as a stand-up comedian.

    Alexei can be a bit intolerant sometimes, and perhaps does not give due recognition to how different his upbringing was from that of most other children in the UK at the time, and how this may have influenced his view of life, and subsequently, his comedy. I mean, how many children from his background would have spent summer holidays in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain as guests of the Communist Party!? Probably most kids in Liverpool at the time would have struggled to find Prague on the map.

    Finally, I should have paid more recognition to the passing of the late David (O’Reilly) Kelly.
    Sadly, Frank Carson’s death overshadowed his, but he was a great comedy actor who could turn his hand to straight roles, including classical acting, just as easily. He was also a pleasant and erudite little man, who , in real life, had a pleasant and balanced outlook on the human condition. He will be missed.

    Phil

  5. A consummate master of his trade.

    I didn’t know: “that his family was of Italian descent”. So, I understand, was Sir Edward Carson’s. Does anybody know: Is there the faintest chance that they were related?

  6. I suppose it’s possible, Eric. What could be a more fitting tribute than for a new statue to be erected at Stormont, beside the one of Edward Carson – that of his long-lost distant cousin Frank!

  7. Good post – new information for me about Frank.
    I saw him once at the Grand Opera House – a panto – singing that immortal song:

    “Oh why does brown cow give while milk when it only eats green grass?
    That’s the burning question.
    What is your suggestion?
    I don’t know.
    You don’t know.
    Don’t you feel an ass. Oh…..
    Why does a brown cow give white milk when it only eats green grass?”

    Altogether now..

    Good clip – but overall – I wasn’t a fan.

    He came into the bank once where I worked as a cashier. He was speaking to the woman behind the counter next me. She was pregnant.
    “When’s the happy day love,” asks he, as loud and bright and jovial as ever.
    “Oh, Frank,” says she, with a twinkle in her eye. “That was months ago.”
    His smile disappears. End of banter. Atmosphere sours. Does his business. Leaves. Only room for one funny person and it had to be him.

  8. In relation to Blackwaterstown’s comment about Frank and the lady in the bank, I would say that it demonstrates beautifully the personal insecurities that many comedians live with. It was clear from Frank’s behaviour after this lady shot back this quip, and his performance on most of the chatshows that I saw him on, that he didn’t like to be upstaged in any way! He had to be the funniest person around.

    But one question lingers in my mind about that anecdote told by Blackwaterstown: was it the fact that a young WOMAN, instead of a man,could come back with such a witty reply that so rankled with Frank…? I know that my late dad, in his heart of hearts, could be a little intimidated by witty and highly intelligent women!

    The story reminds me of another anecdote about Ronnie Barker – he was very deeply offended and hurt by a parody of the Two Ronnies, entitled the “Two Ninnies”, done by Mel Smith and Grif Rhys Jones on “Not the Nine O’Clock News.” One would think that someone with as well developed a sense of humour as Barker would have seen the funny side of this sketch and laughed it off. Again, maybe comedians are naturally very sensitive…?

    1. Interesting thought Phil. You could be right. Maybe if it had come from a bloke – especially a bloke of a similar age – it would have come across as clubbable banter, not a challenge.
      Not that it was a challenge anyway.
      I remember when working in South Africa with a very capable, polylingual, professional young woman, she warned me that she would be hiding her light under a bushel and deferring to me when we encountered older men – because otherwise they’d take the hump. And she didn’t want me to be surprised and give away her act when it happened.
      Men – sheesh!

  9. Indeed Paul, we can be an insecure lot at times, us men!

    I have the utmost respect and admiration for the approach of that young South African female professional you describe – instead of wasting her energy and talents trying to change the impossible, she used her guile, ability, and political acumen to get around it. She aims at results, rather than playing the victim. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that she has now won the respect and admiration of at least some of those older geezers who would once have felt threatened by her. Perhaps this explains why women are often so politically astute and can reach the heights in this difficult field. They can be, and often are, more inwardly tough than men.

    Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, commented Biblically on the what she viewed as the relative softness of men when she said that Adam was, after all, made out of soft clay, while Eve was made out of a hard rib!

  10. South African women are like that. I should know – I’ve been married to one for the last 20 years – for my sins!

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