Sunday 4 December 2016

It was the way he told 'em

Published 26/02/2012 | 06:00

Frank Carson, who has died aged 85, was the North's best-known comedy export during the long, grim years of the Troubles, a standard bearer for the province's wellspring of native humour and love of the craic.

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Throughout the 1970s, Carson's Tigger-like personality -- over the top, and occasionally tiresomely so -- amused viewers of such popular television staples as The Comedians (1972-74) and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-76).

These recreated the quick-fire 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 signatures which he attached to his jokes .

Many of his gags were "Irish" jokes, which is to say that they poked gentle fun at Carson's own people, although the modern pieties of political correctness would probably now prohibit many of them from being broadcast.

With his heavy square spectacle frames, neatly parted hair, chubby cheeks and short, squat frame, Carson looked every inch the twinkling tradesman that he 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 relinquished. Some producers became reluctant to book Carson for live shows because he would inevitably deviate from the agreed script, would 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 encapsulated 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 was Sicilian. His father, a lapsed Roman Catholic, was a newspaper distributor, and Carson started performing with the Belfast News Boys' Club at the age of nine. He was educated at St Patrick's primary school in the Little Italy area of Belfast, now demolished. Too young to serve in the war, in the late 1940s he spent three years in the Middle East with the British 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 to become an apprentice electrician, but at 16 had 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 television in the North. 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 in England, 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 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 star. His blustering salvos of Northern Irish humour sat well in Hamp's quick-fire format. 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 retirement.

But Carson continued working -- he became a regular on the ATV children's series Tiswas -- and also made television acting appearances and had roles in two feature films. He claimed to be Queen Elizabeth'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 due to 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 II 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.

In later life he lived in Blackpool, and became involved with the UK Independence Party.

Carson, who underwent surgery for stomach cancer in July 2011, is survived by his wife, Ruth, and three children.

Frank Carson, born November 6, 1926, died February 22, 2012.

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