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.