Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00
Entertainer was much-loved comedian whose quick-fire style endeared him to millions, writes David McKittrick
Frank Carson, who died last Wednesday at the age of 85, was an old-fashioned Irish comic, a purveyor of mirth whose jolly music-hall style made him a staple of British television comedy for several decades. He did not retire until he was in his 80s, when ill-health finally got the better of him, for he was almost compulsive in seeking audiences to listen to a repertoire which included untold thousands of gags.
A close relative once said fondly of him: "If you left him home alone, he'd break into the house next door to have someone to perform to." His son Tony said: "He was non-stop." A fellow performer once described him as "the only comedian I know who's on-stage 24 hours a day".
He came from a different age to today's generation of stand-ups, disapproving of their sometimes adult language. His material sometimes contained a strain of the absurd, as in his quip about a man in the bar of the Titanic who complained: "I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous."
His technique was to rattle off as many jokes as possible in rapid-fire routines. On chat shows he was virtually unstoppable: according to Spike Milligan the difference between Frank Carson and the M1 was that you could turn off the M1. He would pause in his flow only to deliver his catchphrases, "That's a cracker," and "It's the way I tell 'em".
He built his health problems into his material. "My iron tablets are bloody awful," he would say. "Every morning I wake up facing north." Having a pacemaker put in was no trouble "except that every time I break wind the garage door opens". He worried about his wife because once, when he had a heart attack, she wrote for an ambulance. His comic heroes were from his own generation -- Jimmy Tarbuck, Jasper Carrott, Bruce Forsyth and, funniest of all in his opinion, Ken Dodd.
Carson's life took him from a poor Belfast background to considerable wealth in England via some years in the British military followed by a steady ascent in show business. He was born in the city's tough docks area in 1926, leaving school aged 14 to work as an apprentice electrician. "One day I nearly killed myself digging a hole and hitting a cable," he would relate. "The explosion tossed me six feet in the air."
Decades later he returned to the streets of his childhood for a television documentary, his memories bringing tears to his eyes. "Oh dear, all my old friends," he remembered. "Donkey McCrudden, Cash Register McCabe, Overcoat O'Hanlon, Winky McCrudden, Duck Alec -- all dead."
He joined the army on a whim, he said, walking into a recruiting office on impulse. He was in the Parachute Regiment for three years -- "I was like Bilko" -- being shot at in Palestine "every day of the week". His brother John was killed when his merchant ship, on Atlantic convoy duty, was torpedoed in 1940. Carson said decades later, "I miss him every day, think about him every day."
After the war, he initially worked in a clerical job but he made better money in pubs and clubs in the evenings. He bought his own pub on Belfast's Falls Road -- "A Yank called in one afternoon and said he was delighted to find a pub with sawdust on the floor. I told him it was last night's furniture and he left in a hurry."
His career really took off in the mid-Sixties when he moved to England, setting up home in Blackpool and graduating from the club circuit to become one of the most televised comedians in Britain. He appeared on the big entertainment programmes of the day such as The Comedians, Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks and the classic variety show, The Good Old Days. He was also a subject of This Is Your Life.
Back here in Ireland, however, not everyone appreciated his stage-Irish persona and his penchant for Irish jokes. Examples: an Irishman's wife gave birth to twins -- her husband demanded to know who the other man was. An Irishman's wife said that for Christmas she wanted something with lots of diamonds: he bought her playing cards.
To Carson's mind this was simply harmless fun, which he defended in a possibly ghost-written response: "The politically correct brigade seem to regard all Irish jokes as a form of xenophobia, reflecting a vicious prejudice against us lot from over the water. But this is just patronising nonsense. The idea that the Irish are so oppressed, so suffering in their victimhood that they need the protection of self-appointed puritans, is an insult. Only fanatics and the insecure demand submissive respect."
Not everyone took offence for, moving south, he was twice elected mayor of Balbriggan. But he later developed his own sensitivities, particularly about the language to be heard in modern comedy. "There are so many great new comics," he said, "but too many keep using the F-word, which I think is despicable. I wish them the very best with their careers, but I hate the way that some seem to think you need to use bad language to be funny." Ken Dodd last week said of Carson: "His humour was always mainstream -- he didn't do dirty or obscene comedy."
Financially comfortable in later life, Carson did a great deal of charity work with the Variety Club of Great Britain and other organisations. In particular he supported the cause of religiously integrated education in Northern Ireland. Pope John Paul II appointed him a Papal Knight of St Gregory for his charitable efforts.
Until recently, he worked an estimated 240 days a year. A few years ago he said: "I have had the most wonderful life, full of all sorts of laughs and giggles. Laughing is a therapy. People are forgetting their problems, they're sitting there laughing. They're laughing at Frank. That's my great joy in life."
He is survived by his wife Ruth and their three children.