Obituary: Frank Carson

Belfast-born comedy legend passes away aged 85  

One of Northern Ireland’s top funnymen, Frank Carson, died on February 22, 2012, at home in Blackpool, Lancashire, following a battle with stomach cancer. He was 85. Known for his catchphrases, ‘It’s a cracker,’ and, ‘It’s the way I tell ‘em,’ Carson had suffered heart problems since the 1970s, and more recently had endured a hernia and a knee replacement.

The son of a bin man, Carson was born on November 6, 1926, in the 'Little Italy' area of north Belfast, now part of the Cathedral Quarter. As a youth, he worked as an electrician and a plasterer, developing a knack for making his workmates laugh. At 18, he was conscripted into the Parachute Regiment, and spent three years in the Middle East.

‘A lot of Catholics joined the Army because they couldn’t get a job,’ he told the BBC in later years. During his tours of duty, he was shot in the leg and narrowly escaped death when a bomb went off, killing the seven RAF men he was with. He also recalled shooting dead an armed terrorist who would otherwise have shot him.

In the 1960s, Carson became a major name on Irish television, before moving to England to tour the northern working men’s clubs. By the late ’60s, he had won the ABC-Thames talent show Opportunity Knocks three times and in 1971 joined the cast of Granada’s The Comedians, where he became a favourite with audiences, alongside the likes of Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen and fellow Ulsterman Roy Walker.

Carson had heart surgery in 1976, but rather than retire he found a new outlet for his anarchic humour on ATV’s long-running Saturday-morning children’s series Tiswas.

Away from show business, Carson was a tireless fundraiser for good causes, including the Royal Victoria Hospital’s children’s cancer ward and the Integrated Education Fund. In 1987, his charity work was recognised by Pope John Paul II, who awarded him a Papal knighthood of the Order of St Gregory – one of the highest honours bestowed by the Catholic Church.

A resident of Lancashire for much of his later life, Carson never lost his Belfast accent or his fondness for his home country. The comedian twice served as Lord Mayor of Balbriggan, in north Dublin, where he had spent his honeymoon and lived for several years. In 2011, he told The Belfast Telegraph that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered around Corporation Street, where he grew up.

Comparing Carson to the new breed of stand-up is futile – like comparing Chuck Berry to Jay-Z. He was cut from different cloth – a gag man, a raconteur, with a seemingly endless repertoire of one-liners. His relentless barrage of material made him a popular guest on TV chat shows – with viewers, if not always the hosts.

Spike Milligan, with whom Carson co-starred in the ill-fated sitcom The Melting Pot, memorably mocked the Belfast comic’s unyielding style. ‘What’s the difference between Frank Carson and the M1?’ he quipped. ‘You can turn off the M1.’

By the 2000s, Carson had largely disappeared from our screens, but he remained active on the club and theatre circuit. In 2010, he embarked on what was billed as his 'Final Tour', but he was still gigging as recently as December last year, when he performed for the Duke of Edinburgh.

Announcing their loss, Carson’s family’s statement said the ‘husband, father, Gaga and comedian set off for his final gig today. He went peacefully at his home in Blackpool surrounded by his greatest fans – his extended family. We will be taking him home to Belfast to lay him to rest and celebrate his joyful life. It’s quieter down here now. God help them up there!’

Carson is survived by his wife Ruth, daughter Majella, sons Tony and Aidan, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and hundreds of jokes, such as the one about the Irishman who reversed into a car boot sale and sold the engine, and the one about the time someone threw a petrol bomb at Alex Higgins and he drank it. Crackers indeed.