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Being Frank

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William Crawley | 13:28 UK time, Tuesday, 28 February 2012

There was no point preparing for an interview with Frank Carson. Some interviewers managed to get a first question in before he started speaking; very few made it to a second. The interviewer's job, Frank thought, was to laugh - it wasn't forced laughter, he just left you with no-where else to go.

It was the same with audiences. Other comedians might pause after a well-delivered one-liner and allow the audience a chance to respond, or at least to breathe. Not Frank. The gags came thick and fast, as if he wanted to pummel you into laughter. He was relentless.

In fact, he didn't need an audience to laugh - he provided his own laughter track with every joke. He was never crude, but he had a filthy laugh. His enjoyment of laughter for its own sake was so genuine, so innocent, that you couldn't help but join him. And when he thought you really did need a break, he'd deploy one of his signature catchphrases: "It's a cracker!", or "It's the way I tell 'em".

I've heard others, even experienced comedians, try to do some of his material and fail. Not because the gags were complicated - they never were - but because at least half of Frank's act was his face, his body, and his voice: that unvarnished Belfast accent, the dishevelled hair, those thick-rimmed glasses that doubled as a prop when necessary, and his stocky frame squeezed unceremoniously into a sometimes ill-fitting suit.

He was one of those rare comedians who walked on stage to the sound of laughter, the audience half anticipating the experience ahead of them, half remembering the last time they'd hurt themselves because of him.

He came from a city that had experienced a different kind of pummeling through the Troubles, and he saw laughter as respite - an antidote, a distraction, and a bridge between communities. Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and republicans all creased-up when Frank came on, and they've been lining up this week at Belfast City Hall to add their names to a special book of condolence - still laughing. Try to picture that: complete strangers standing in a queue exchanging his best lines, nodding with recognition, groaning, giggling, and sighing just a little. Frank would have loved that.

He became a household name, but it was his Northern Irish audience he cherished above all others. When they laughed together, it was a sign of hope. Some of the jokes were cheesy, some were even cringe-worthy, but they were never cruel. And when they came from Frank, we went from falling out to falling about. You can read scores of tributes to him in the papers this week, but you really need to be in Belfast to feel the depth of our affection for him.

It shouldn't surprise us that one of the causes closest to his heart was the campaign for integrated education in Northern Ireland. He gave his time, his money, and brought his many friends from show-business to make the case for building a shared future for children in a society where people still lead segregated lives.

Frank's first audience wasn't a comedy club. It was Saint Patrick's parish church in north Belfast, where he was a choirboy. He remained a devout Catholic all his life, and the accolade he most cherished came in 1987, when Pope John Paul II awarded him a papal knighthood for his tireless commitment to charity, he was given a private audience lasting 17 minutes. I can only suppose that the Vatican planned a five-minute audience, but they couldn't get Frank to stop talking.

This tribute to Frank Carson was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Last Word on Friday 24 February (listen here).


  • Comment number 1.

    That's a nice and fitting comment Will.

    Perhaps an appropriate way for a simple punter to celebrate the life of a comedian is to retell a favourite joke that he told:

    "I never understood the true meaning of happiness until I got married; but by then it was too late"

    RIP Frank.

  • Comment number 2.

    When Frank was a choirboy he also rang the church bells and apparently was very good.

    It was the way he tolled them!


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