Obituary: Frank Carson, comedian whose endless flow of gags were often borderline

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Born: 6 November, 1926, in Belfast. Died: 22 February, 2012, in Blackpool, aged 85.

In that glorious Belfast brogue Frank Carson endeared himself to audiences with his impish good humour: “It’s the way I tell ‘em” became his catchphrase and with his broad grin, huge pebble glasses and manic delivery he told his gags with a robust good-will. Most of his material was borderline and just acceptable but there was often the odd political gibe, a cutting remark about the Pope or the church in general. Carson also delighted in telling jokes against himself.

Usually it was the simple knock-about joke that Carson loved to tell. After a royal gala the ebullient Carson mentioned to Prince Philip that the last time he saw him was in the Queen’s Arms, adding with that famous guffaw, “That’s a pub in the Edgware Road.” His own laugh was no laughing matter. One commentator described it as being “like John Cole (the former political TV pundit) on steroids”. But throughout the years of The Troubles Carson reminded his audiences that the Irish still had a vibrant sense of humour, and could be delightfully base and irreverent.

Hugh Francis Carson was born into a poor family in the Little Italy district of Belfast. He started performing aged nine at the News Boys Club to bring in extra funds for the family. After doing his national service with the Parachute Regiment in the Middle East he worked as a plasterer – he said he was never sacked because he made his colleagues laugh. Carson wrote his comedy routines and became a popular figure on television in Northern Ireland. In 1951 he sold some scripts to a professional group and decided to become an entertainer.

In 1966 he got bookings on the northern club circuit in England and was soon seen on UK television on shows such as The Good Old Days. The programme that made his name was Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks, which he won three times. That was followed by ITV’s The Comedians in which his zany humour proved very popular as it did when a theatre version visited went on tour. Carson was joined in The Comedians by such stalwarts as Charlie Williams, Bernard Manning, Mike Reid and Jim Bowen. His relaxed stage manner went down well in clubs and cabaret.

Television bookings flooded in and Carson was a regular on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and the children’s’ series Tiswas. But the heavy workload took its toll on his health and in 1976 he had heart surgery; some thought his career might be over. Carson would have none of it. He returned to the club circuit, to his beloved Tiswas and did summer seasons at Blackpool and pantomimes.

In 1986 Carson was involved in an unsavoury scene when he arrived late for a club gig in Mansfield. Amidst some unfortunate banter he made some ill-advised remarks which immediately hit the national press. He apologised but his jovial reputation took a knock.

It was his charity work that much endeared Carson to a wider public. He raised large sums for the Royal Victoria Hospital Children’s Cancer Ward and in 1987 his charity work was recognised by the Roman Catholic Church when he was awarded a Papal Knighthood of the Order of St Gregory by Pope John Paul. Carson was also tireless in his support of the Grand Order of Water Rats. Despite his increasing ill-health he was the guest speaker at the Scottish Showbusiness Benevolent Fund Awards dinner a year ago in the Thistle Hotel, Glasgow. “Frank had us all in stitches,” one guest recalled.

Jim Bowen was yesterday fulsome in his praise of Carson. “Frank was just great. The minute he got out of bed he would be happy. No tears will be shed at his funeral because it will be a celebration of a great life.” Sir Bruce Forsyth added: “The only trouble with Frank, as far as I’m concerned, is that he made me laugh too much.”

It is the endless flow of gags for which he willl be fondly remembered. Some bawdy, some of doubtful taste and some wickedly funny. But Carson was never wantonly malicious. Jokes such as “I don’t think my wife likes me very much, when I had a heart attack she wrote for an ambulance” and “An Irishman’s wife gave birth to twins. Her husband demanded to know who the other man was” were his stock in trade.

He gave much pleasure to many people and as he himself often said as he left the stage to a standing ovation and laughter ringing round the theatre, “It’s a cracker!”

Frank Carson underwent surgery for stomach cancer last July.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, his childhood sweetheart; their son, the comedian Sean Carson and two daughters.

Alasdair Steven