Many of the obituaries and tributes to Frank Carson start with Opportunity Knocks and The Comedians but to many of us of a certain age……..who remember the opening night of Ulster Television in 1959……..Frank Carson was one of the first stars on UTV.
He hosted a half hour Irish music programme late at night. “The Half Door Club”. It featured such regular singers as Peter Tomelty from Portaferry and Theresa Duffy who came from a street off the Springfield Road in Belfast.
For younger people it is probably hard to explain how significant it was that people who spoke with “our” accent appeared on television. I still recall my father pointing out where Theresa Duffy lived and just about everytime Frank Carson introduced the Half Door Club with his then catchphrase “Come on on in”……my father would remind us that he used to work with Frank Carson. Name Dropper!.
Frank Carson was I suspect like about half the people in Belfast. We all had workmates who could tell a good joke…….or better still tell a bad joke really well. The best working days we ever have is those moments of friendly banter and getting those one-liners in. Not to put too fine a point on it…….I can compete with most people. Probably you can too. Its how we are.
But Frank Carson was one of those guys who had the courage to stand up on stage….church socials whatever…….and tell a few jokes. The art of telling a really awful joke really well. In New York City they might call it “chutzpah”.
Frank Carson won a British TV talent show “Opportunity Knocks” and went to live in Blackpool, England. A gegular on the working mens club circuit, his big break came in early 1970s with a show called The Comedians. Essentially this was (mostly) north of England stand-ups., maybe about ten routines edited into a 30 minute show. In keeping with the permissive tme before “alternative” comedy, many of the jokes were racist and would (properly) not be accepted now. Indeed they should have been unacceptable then.
The acceptability of the “Irish” joke is a tricky problem. It is important to stress that the best Irish jokes are told by Irish people…….but of course they are not “Irish” jokes to US. They are just …jokes. In my view Humour is about being inclusive. Are we laughing WITH someone?……are we laughing AT someone?
This was the infuriating thing about Frank Carson. Tell the jokes in an inclusive context and they are funny…..tell the jokes in an English working mans club and the Irish comedian is (arguably) pandering to prejudices. And lets not have any misunderstanding……the 170s was a time when Irish jokes pre-dominated. It was also the height of the IRA terrorist campaign. Arguably…….at least it is sometimes claimed…….the Irish “joke” relieved tensions rather than increased tensions. Im not so sure.
Frank Carson was a gag-man. As Ive said……he told very bad jokes brilliantly. As one of his catchphrases put it “its the way I tell them”. Of course we had heard them all before……….as Frank himself put it at the beginning of his act “Id like to do a medley of jokes that have made me famous”.
Frank Carson worked thru the revolution of alternative comedy. His act was unchanged. It was harmless. No “dirty jokes” although some went close. But he did a lot of work for Charity and………….unafraid to bring showbiz friends to play golf at charity events in Norn Iron……during the height of The Troubles. For his efforts he was made a “Knight of St Gregory” one of the highest accolades in the Catholic Church.
In Belfast, we get used to people leaving …..becoming stars and waxing lyrical about how great Belfast is……..but they rarely visit. Yet although he had a home in Blackpool, England and another in Balbriggan, County Dublin……….Frank Carson was a frequent visitor to Belfast. Not unusual at all to see him in the City Centre, shaking hands with people. Indeed just last March, I saw him coming out of the Wellington Park Hotel as I was going in.
So ten days or so ago………Frank Carson died………and later today he will be buried in Belfast. Funeral Mass in St Patricks where he was married fifty odd years ago. And then the funeral will take a winding route thru the City Centre, past his old home………….and along the Falls Road to burial in Milltown Cemetry. Just like ……well just like he had never really left Belfast at all. In a nice little touch his coffin will pass the Church of Ireland Cathedral and a prayer will be said for him and his family. It seems right. He did unite the people of Belfast in laughter ………and in pride……….when we felt we had little to laugh about……..and even less to be proud about.
Frank Carson….Rest in Peace.