Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Frank Carson led a rich life which money could never buy

As Frank Carson would say, "It's the way I tell 'em!"
As Frank Carson would say, "It's the way I tell 'em!"

The news that Belfast comedian Frank Carson died "penniless" has been seized upon with a strange kind of sorrowful glee by many sections of the media, trading on the favourite old stereotypes of the "tears behind the smiles" and the idea of a certain kind of fecklessness by the comedian.

It is, of course, a travesty of the truth and an example of how easily people are judged by worldly success, ie the amount they leave behind in the bank.

And it also leads to absurdity upon absurdity. Just think about all those anonymous millionaires who steadily built up their wealth and who in the whole of their lives have not increased the amount of happiness, joy or good in the world by one single iota. Indeed, they've probably only added to the misery and unhappiness.

Sometimes we should recalibrate our notions about what constitutes "success".

By any measure, Frank Carson led a remarkable life.

A true son of the our city's famous Little Italy district (indeed, a grandmother came from Sicily), Frank's father was a binman. In his early days the comedian worked in the building trade as an electrician and a plasterer then joined the Parachute Regiment for three years, serving in the Middle East before returning home to carve out a career in showbusiness. After conquering the local clubs and becoming a fixture on Ulster TV screens, he decamped to England.

Importantly, both before and during his nationwide fame, Frank's material never veered for or against one side of our conflict against the other and his obsequies in his native city displayed the vast affection in which he was held across the community.

Even if the Frank Carson story had stopped in Belfast, it would already have had enough colour, incident and sense of adventure to throw most of our pallid lives into relief.

But all this was only the prologue.

He won Opportunity Knocks and became a fixture on British TV on shows such as The Comedians. Indeed, he was one of the most famous people in the country in the 1970s and 80s, with his catchphrase – "It's the way I tell them" – already part of popular culture. Even after a heart scare when he was warned by doctors to cut back on his work load, he re-emerged as a regular fixture on the cult kids favourite Tiswas.

As an old-time joke merchant, he was hit by the advent of the alternative comedy boom which – rightly or wrongly – made the old stand-up gag merchants look increasingly redundant.

Except Frank didn't retire quietly. He didn't walk away. He continued to find work. And this really is perhaps the greatest tribute that can be given to an entertainer. There were always legions of people who wanted to see him. To be cheered up, to have an innocent laugh. To be drawn into Frank's homely but still distinct charisma. That panache was there right to end when he died at the age of 85. Even in his final years, he was still in demand – 80 bookings a year, a tally that would still be the envy of most working comedians.

Frank led the life of a star. And what's sad about that? Let's face it, 99.99% of us will never be as appreciated by people as he was. It must have been wonderful. And he died loved and surrounded by family and friends. He'd been happily married to wife Ruth for more than 60 years and had a daughter and two sons who adored him. Now, that's wealth.

And let's not forget that Frank used his celebrity not to stash the cash but for the general good. While earning a living for himself, he also raised money for many, many charities, including £130,000 for the Royal Victoria Hospital. Indeed, his charity work was recognised with a papal knighthood in 1987.

(And, oh yes, he also served two terms as mayor of Balbriggan, Co Dublin, when he lived there)

By any consideration, Frank Carson was a great man and a local legend. Who cares about those who ruffle through old bank statements? The older you get the more you realise that the only money that is any good to you is the money you spend. And we have our memories.

So, Frank Carson a failure? On the contrary, it was a cracker, Frank.

Thank you.

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