INTERVIEW: Dan Gordon on 'Frank Carson: Rebel Without a Pause'

Frank Carson was a true comedic genius. Having penned the iconic catchphrases 'It's a cracker' and 'It's the way I tell 'em', the Belfast born comic had a career spanning decades, and didn’t retire until he was into his 80s as he loved performing so much.

Now his life and legacy is celebrity in Dan Gordon’s acclaimed one man show, ‘Frank Carson: Rebel Without a Pause’ which arrives at the Millennium Forum on Thursday 7th February.

The award winning actor, director and playwright, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the character Red Hand Luke in the BBC NI sitcom Give My Head Peace, now turns his attention to his autobiographical homage to the late great comedian Frank Carson.

We caught up with Dan to find out about his show, and he began by explaining how the production came about. “I spent three years putting it together” revealed Dan. “I met Tony Carson, Frank’s son, in London when I was doing a play about my own dad called The Boat Factory. Tony saw it and we got talking afterwards and he asked could I write a play about his dad.

“I went away and thought about it. I grew up watching Frank Carson on television, just like a lot of us did because he was on TV from 1960 right through until around 2010. I went back and said yes, I’d have a go.

“I thought I knew Frank Carson from all the TV shows, but when I started to delve into it, he never actually revealed anything personal about himself. There was so much to learn about Frank Carson the man.”

And did this make it harder to research? I asked. “It was and it wasn’t” reflected Dan. “He started to write a book a few times with different ghost writers. The first one was with a woman who taped him. She was an English woman and she didn’t understand what Frank was like. He just wandered around telling stories, and then she’d say to him, ‘is that true’ and he’d say ‘no’. He left ten tapes in total but two were lost. Tapes one and two are gone which is a pity, but I have tapes three to ten and they have lots of great stuff from his life. Some of it is made up, but there’s lots of gold nuggets in there.

Frank Carson - A Rebel Without A Pause

“The things which stood out were the poverty which he grew up in and he was physically beaten by his father and his grandfather. I have a line in the play, ‘everyone was beat in them days, it’s just my father was really good at it’.

“He grew in the docks, a Catholic with no means of employment. He loved school and he loved to sing. He had his mates, Ducksy McCrudden who waddled when he talked, Cash Register McCabe always checking his pockets for money, Overcoat O’Hanlon who put a brick through Burtons shop window and stole a coat that was too small for him, and then he was Snowball Carson because he had blond hair as a kid so someone christened him Snowball” laughed the Belfast actor.

Revealing the stories which came to light following the discovery of the Frank Carson tapes, it was clear that Dan had a lot of incredible material to work from, some of which never before told. A rags to riches story, celebrity mates and a long career in the biz, Dan revealed story after story, all shared with great enthusiasm, his admiration and even astonishment clearly evident.

“He grew up in Little Italy on the Docks in Belfast” continued Dan, “and there would be stampedes of sheep and cattle going from the docks to the abattoir and there’d be times when a lamb would disappear as they went up the street. A front door would open and they’d pull it in and that would feed them for two weeks. There’s all those extraordinary stories about his Belfast childhood. Even if half of what I discovered were true, it would be amazing.

“He lost his brother Johnny who was a Merchant seaman at aged 16 when he was torpedoed 60 miles off the Irish coast. Frank, who was only 14 at the time found out when someone told him that it was in the paper that Johnny Carson was dead. They already knew that Johnny Carson was missing because they had received a telegram, but his dad was also called Johnny Carson as well, so they didn’t know if the dad was missing, or the son was missing. Then after a week Frank discovered it was his brother. What a way to find out. Frank said he cried like a baby all the way home.  

“Because he was a Catholic and couldn’t get a job, the services offered a way out at that time so he joined the British Army. He went to Ballykinler and there they were asked who would like to volunteer to become a Paratrooper. 240 men put their hands up, twelve passed the test and they were then sent to the Isle of Wight. Out of the twelve who went out, only three finally passed and Frank was one of them.

“That gave Frank a university education and he was able to travel the world. He spent three and a half years in the regiment, two and half of those in Palestine.

“When Menachem Begin was part of an attack that Frank was involved in, Frank swore that it was him who was at the wheel of a lorry which tried to run him over in Jerusalem. Menachem Begin at the time was part of the Likud freedom fighters and later went on to become Prime Minister of Israel.

“During his tour Frank was shot and wounded through the thigh, he shot back and killed a guy. It’s quite tragic, Frank later said, ‘I shot at him, he shot at me, I was lucky and he wasn’t and sometimes I dream about him’.”

Dan revealed that from an early age Frank had wanted to entertain. “When he was a kid he went to the talent shows at the Troxy Cinema in Belfast. The Troxy was between the Falls and the Shankill, so as to stop trouble, management split the week between the two.

“Monday and Wednesday was Catholic night, Tuesday and Thursday was neutral, Wednesday and Saturday was Protestant night and on Sundays it was shut. Frank went along as a ten-year-old and sang. He said that when they introduced him as being from Corporation Street, the audience took a sharp breath in like they all sat down on a cold toilet seat. He got the night wrong, he was there on Protestant night.

“He sang and came second and won half a crown. He came second to a singing dog who won ten shillings. A guy played he mouth organ and the dog howled along to the tune. Everyone voted for the dog over Frank and he said that the only reason he didn’t win, was because it was a Protestant dog” laughed Dan.

“But he then went on to do other talent shows and even began hosting talent shows as well.

“In the sixties he was approached by a priest from Derry who asked if he would be interested in being a comedian at his Sunday night shows, it was Father Daly. So from ‘62 to ‘69 Frank performed in St.Columb’s Hall. He said ‘I did 150 shows and five pantomimes for him’ someone asked was that a record? Frank said ‘no, it’s me speaking’.

“He stopped in 1969 but it wasn’t because of the Troubles, Frank’s career had taken off and he had moved to England.

“I think that one of things that really scared him and made Frank such a private man though was Bloody Sunday. Frank loved Derry dearly, absolutely adored it. Bishop Daly gave the oration at Frank’s funeral. He called him Eddy, he was one of his best friends.

“Bishop Daly was instrumental in getting Frank his Papal Knighthood from Pope John Paul II, who he taught to say ‘It’s a cracker’. He was also with the Pope for 17 minutes, Ronald Reagan got 11 minutes, it was probably just because they couldn’t get Frank out the door” laughed Dan.

“When Bloody Sunday happened, Frank just couldn’t believe it. He had been in the Middle East, he had seen what it was to have a front line regiment trying to police civilian unrest and the danger and damage it could do. He had been there and seen what can happen. He felt it was the Middle East all over again and he was horrified.

“I think that was one of the main things that clammed him up and stopped him from talking about his life. He was very proud of his background in that regiment, but he was terribly conflicted. That’s just me reading between the lines and my interpretation of events, by looking at his writings and looking at how he didn’t talk about stuff that he had previously celebrated in a big way and wanted to tell people about.

“But he had a great life. He loved his family, he loved his celebrity buddies, he loved raising money for charity, he loved Ireland. Although he lived in Blackpool most of his life, he was always drawn back to Ireland. He loved nothing better than walking around Belfast and seeing people.

“I’ve only scratched the surface and I haven’t stopped talking.That’s why I’m playing Frank because I can’t stop. Just point me in the direction and off I go” laughed Dan

“In the show I tried to give a flavour of what happened to Frank throughout his life” finished the Belfast actor.

You can catch Dan Gordon’s one man show, Frank Carson: Rebel Without a Pause at the Millennium Forum on Thursday 7th February. Tickets here

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