Frankly speaking... it's a cracker! Actor Dan Gordon's one-man show on life of legendary funnyman Frank Carson
Actor Dan Gordon has spent three years honing his one-man show on the life of legendary funnyman Frank Carson. Ahead of its Belfast debut next week, he tells Alison Fleming how the late comedian has taken over his life, his regret at never getting the chance to interview him ... and why his 83-year-old mum, Irene, is his biggest fan.
As warm as he is witty, Dan Gordon is a man who knows how to tell a great story. You could say it's the way he tells them. And he's set to tell the life story of legendary Northern Ireland comedian and master of the one-liner Frank Carson in a one-man show touring around the province next week, before taking to the stage at the Edinburgh Festival.
Frank Carson - A Rebel Without A Pause is directed by Game of Thrones star Ian McIlhenny and it's been a three-year labour of love for 54-year-old Dan, who had access to family archives and Frank's handwritten scrapbooks. But he discovered that the man himself was something of an enigma.
"Frank is like quicksilver. There have been three attempts to write books about him and they've been parked, because it was so hard to pin him down," says Dan.
"I got access to BBC and UTV archive to look at old footage of him, but Frank was very careful in talking about his private life. He just didn't discuss it - he was always joking.
"It was extraordinary, starting on this journey, because Tony and Majella - Frank's son and daughter - gave me material they had, like loose scrapbooks and things, but then put me in touch with one of the people who had tried to write a book about Frank, who had a lot of Frank's handwritten material.
"It was very garbled and trying to assemble it was a nightmare. When I eventually did put it all together, it was full of his made-up stories. But in among this, you find out real gems about his past."
Dan adds: "It's not salacious, just amazing tales about a wee boy who grew up in the docks. One of them was when he and his brother got caught stealing cigarettes and were taken to the barracks. Frank's brother got a slap from the man who caught him and Frank was so furious he kicked the man in the leg.
"What he didn't know was that the man had a cork leg, which then went from underneath him.
"He's become even more of a hero of mine through the research I've done. He was a hero for everyone who grew up watching the comedians.
"We all talk about the great Jimmy Ellis putting the Northern Ireland accent on the UK stage, but Frank was doing it as well. He won Opportunity knocks three times and played clubs across England, but he doesn't get the same credit.
"He was a real craftsman at what he did. He bombarded you with jokes - you can hear from the speed I'm talking to you, that I've turned into him."
Since starting his career at the Lyric Theatre in 1992, Dan has transformed into many characters along the way, but he admits that he's become totally immersed in Frank. It's not just the quick-fire delivery that Dan has adopted; physically, the resemblance has been startling to those around him.
"I have a flyer for the show, which I showed to William Crawley the other day and he told me I would have to get thicker glasses, as Frank's wearing thicker glasses on it. I had to tell him that it wasn't Frank, it was me.
"I've played Frank on a couple of occasions before, including in a play that Marie Jones wrote about Ruby Murray. I also played a Frank Carson-type character in a play written by Trevor Griffiths, called The Comedians. It's something I've been destined to do, because I look a bit like him.
"My kids are calling me 'wolverine', because I have grown these mutton chops sideburns that they had in the 1970s."
Dan, who's best known for his role as Red Hand Luke (below)in the BBC NI comedy Give My Head Peace, admits the pressure of trying to create the play means he lives in what he calls 'the grumpy room' at his Greenisland home, with his family keeping out of his way.
Brought up on the Holywood Road with his parents, Irene and David, brother David and sister Heather, the former Sullivan Upper pupil originally trained as a teacher and it was in the classrooms of the schools he subbed at that he honed his comedy craft.
"It was a fall-back for me and I would never say I taught as a sub, it was more like minding kids," he says.
"It was teaching general subjects and the teachers would have left all the work to be completed, but the kids just wanted to know about acting and TV, which is what we chatted about.
"I also used to practise my stand-up routines on them and they were a great and willing audience, simply because I wasn't giving them any work to do."
It was at teacher training college that he met his wife of 33 years, Cathy, who is a special needs teacher. "We were in the same class for three years before we got together," he says.
The couple have three daughters: Sarah (28), a technician, Hannah (25), a yoga teacher, and student nurse Martha (19).
His father David died from asbestosis in 1992 and Dan describes his 83-year-old mum Irene as his biggest fan. She’s immensely proud of her famous son’s achievements. “Everything I do she thinks is the best thing ever.”
She’s thrilled about his latest creation, a 75-minute whirlwind comedy drama which will be on stage at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival next month.
“I’m really excited to be heading to Edinburgh, even though we’re going to lose money, because that is the way Edinburgh works — everybody makes money off the performers,” says Dan.
“We have to pay the venue and there are seven shows in the venue I’m in, with us on stage at 1.40pm. The show before me finished at 1.25, so I have 15 minutes to get my show in and on stage.
“A lot of people come, including promoters and TV and radio people, but even if I get nothing out of it, that’s not the point. It’s the ambition of taking a comedian to Edinburgh, which is the centre of comedy.
“To take a 1970s comedian and do his jokes, like ‘What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws? Outlaws are wanted’, and seeing if you can get a laugh is interesting, because it’s not observational comedy.
“The show takes you from his youth, with lines like ‘Freddie Goodall has a picture of Diana Durban in a swimsuit and he showed it to me for a marble’, through to when he heard the news that his brother had drowned.”
There were four brothers in the Carson family and they all slept in the same bed. His brother and father were both called John and, when a telegram arrived during the Second World War to say that John Carson was missing, tragically the family didn’t know if it was the son in the Merchant Navy or his father in the Royal Navy.
“For a week, they waited to find out. It was Frank who got the news. He says he cried like a baby the whole way home and had to tell his mum the news. It never left him,” says Dan.
“The show goes from his early years right through to the talent shows and his legendary meeting with Laurel and Hardy, who were playing in the Grand Opera House, whom he bumped into on York Road. It takes you from there, through to his time in the Army in the Middle East and his appearance on This Is Your Life.
“The incredible thing about him was that he reinvented himself. He was around from the 1950s right through to 2010, but he was still going, still ringing the Nolan Show and talking to people who would listen.
“If I was doing Mastermind, my specialist subject would be Hugh Frances Snowball Carson, born November 6, 1926 in the docks of Belfast.”
Despite dedicating the past three years to recreating the character, Dan had just one fleeting encounter with his hero, which took place backstage at a BBC recording about a programme on the shipyard, where Frank was a master plasterer.
“Jimmy Ellis was out front and told a story that lasted forever. When he’d finished, Frank looked at me and said ‘Christ! That shortened the winter’,” he says.
“That was the one time I met him and it’s poignant, as it never occurred to me to ask for his autograph, because he would have given it to me in a flash.”
Dan’s lasting regret is that he never got to interview Frank about his amazing life and uncover the facts behind the myriad of self-penned stories that were his legacy.
For him, the play is a showcase and one that the limitations of the acting industry have necessitated.
Although constantly in demand for his skills, Dan says he’s creating his own opportunities in a sector wrought with unemployment.
“The acting industry here has changed since I started, although it’s still very tough. There may be more opportunities, but there are more people looking for those opportunities,” he says.
“It’s still very difficult and I don’t want anyone to think it’s easier for kids today. While there are opportunities, they are hard to come by. You have to be tenacious. You’ve got to have the talent and the luck.”
With no shortage of all three of those attributes, for Dan, this is the role of a lifetime — not least because of the acclaim that comes from a one-man show.
“It’s just me, there’s no competition. A one-person show for an actor — once they get over the terror — and they get the opportunity to stand up in front of a crowd of people, there’s no drug like it. Nobody claps an architect, nobody stands back when a surgeon takes out an appendix and gives them a round of applause.
“It’s a dream role and I think I’ve earned it, because I have worked so hard on piecing this life together, because I never got the chance to interview Frank. Now there’s so much I’d like to ask him, but I can’t.”
- Frank Carson — A Rebel Without A Pause is at the Strand Arts Centre in Belfast on Tuesday and Wednesday (7.30pm), before moving on to Holywood, Newcastle, Letterkenny and Carrickmore ahead of its Edinburgh Festival debut next month (www.strandartscentre.com)
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