Frank Carson, who has died aged 85, was Northern Ireland’s best known comedy export during the long, grim years of The Troubles, a standard-bearer for the province’s deep wellspring of native humour and love of the craic at a time when, on the British mainland at least, there was precious little evidence of either.
Throughout the 1970s Carson’s Tigger-like personality — over the top and sometimes tiresomely so — hugely amused viewers of such popular television staples as The Comedians (1972-74) and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-76). These recreated the quickfire gag format of the traditional northern working men’s clubs in the days before the demise of the mother-in-law joke related over bottles of stout in smoke-filled rooms.
“It’s a cracker!” and “It’s the way I tell 'em!” were Carson’s incessant leitmotifs, the fireworks he attached to his jokes as a signature of authentification, wheezes, gags and unlikely yarns that issued, apparently without end, from his gaping grin. Many were “Irish” jokes, which is to say they poked gentle fun at Carson’s own people, although modern pieties of political correctness would probably now prohibit many of them — especially those of the “thick Mick” variety — from being broadcast.
With his heavy square spectacle frames, neatly-parted hair, chubby cheeks and short, squat frame, he looked every inch the twinkling tradesman that he actually used to be before winning Hughie Green’s television talent show Opportunity Knocks no fewer than three times. It was a feat that established Carson as television’s pre-eminent motormouth — a crown that he never subsequently relinquished.
Some producers became reluctant to book Carson for live shows because he would inevitably deviate from the pre-agreed script, upstage any other comedian, interrupt any business that did not involve himself, and flood the airwaves with non-stop gags of varying vintages. One of Spike Milligan’s favourite jokes neatly encapuslated the problem: “What’s the difference between Frank Carson and the M1?” “You can turn off the M1”.
Hugh Francis Carson was born on November 6 1926 in Belfast, to a family of Italian descent, his grandmother being Sicilian. His father, a lapsed Roman Catholic, was a newspaper distributor, and his son started performing with the Belfast News Boys Club at the age of nine.Frank was educated at St Patrick’s primary school in the immigrant area of Belfast known as Little Italy, now demolished.
Too young to serve in the war, in the late 1940s he spent three years in the Middle East with the Parachute Regiment. In Palestine in 1947 he was caught up in clashes in the militant Arab quarter in Haifa, and as a fighting corporal he shot and killed one of a group of Israelis who had broken out of prison and were making a run for it towards the desert.
Carson had left school at 14 with no qualifications and became an apprentice electrician, but at 16 switched to being a plasterer. In his spare time he worked on his spiel as a stand-up comic, a talent that earned him regular appearances on Northern Ireland television.
When he was 25 he sold some scripts to the regional BBC station, and became a professional entertainer, touring with the Australian magician known as The Great Levante. Encouraged to try his luck on the northern club scene on the mainland, Carson was spotted by the television producer Barney Colehan and signed up for his first network exposure on the music-hall tribute show The Good Old Days.
Meanwhile on ITV, Carson - having thrice won Opportunity Knocks - was also booked to appear on The Comedians by the producer Johnny Hamp. This was the show that transformed Carson from an obscure club comedian into a comedy star. His blustering salvos of Northern Irish humour sat well in Hamp’s quickfire format of one comic after another: Carson’s comedy confrères included Bernard Manning, Roy Walker, Jim Bowen, George Roper and the black Yorkshire comedian Charlie Williams. Carson appeared in every series, and also toured with the record-breaking stage version of the show.
He found himself in demand for cabaret dates and club bookings across Britain and abroad; his workload affected his health, and when he underwent heart surgery in 1976, it was suggested that this would mean inevitable, if premature, retirement. But Carson continued working — he became a regular on the ATV childrens’ series Tiswas — and also made television acting appearances and acted in two feature films. He claimed to be the Queen’s favourite comedian and that he had met her more than 100 times.
In 2004, his planned appearance on the reality television reality show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! was shelved by ITV executives on account of prohibitive insurance costs given Carson’s age and concerns about his health. He was planning to call his autobiography Rebel Without A Pause, and claimed it ran to more than a million words.
In 1987 Pope John-Paul conferred on Carson a knighthood of the Order of St Gregory to recognise his extensive work for charity. He appeared in the Royal Variety performance of 1992, and was the subject of This Is Your Life. He was a member of the entertainment charity the Grand Order of Water Rats.
Carson underwent surgery for stomach cancer in July last year. Frank Carson is survived by his wife, Ruth, and their three children.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Daily TelegraphRead More