Jasper Carrott: During Troubles Belfast cop told he didn't have courage for stand-up
The brilliant Jasper Carrott returns to Northern Ireland for a gig later this month. He tells David O'Dornan about previous visits to Belfast and what he thinks of Patrick Kielty, the Hole in the Wall Gang and Mrs Brown's Boys
Belfast holds a "mysterious" quality, admits legendary comedian Jasper Carrott, who marvels at our outlook on life. The veteran comic is on tour again after a hiatus of 13 years and will be playing in the city later this month, with fond memories of previous visits to Northern Ireland.
But it was not what happened at his gigs at the Grand Opera House and the Waterfront that he remembers, it was the unique encounters off stage he experienced during our darker days.
"I was staying at the Europa Hotel, this was when all the Troubles were still pretty much in the forefront," he says. "And I'll always remember, there was a big security guard on the door and he was a copper and he's got the bulletproof vest and big boots, and he's got the guns and he's got the helmet and stuff.
"I arrived and he went, 'Mr Carrott! You're a very funny man, a very funny man! Well, there's no way - no way - I'd have the courage to get up and do what you do'.
"I laughed! There he was, this guy's a target for terrorists and God knows what, standing there with a gun, with all his equipment on - and he's saying I'm a big brave man for standing up on stage.
"I hooted with laughter and I explained to him why and he understood and he was very kind and he laughed as well."
But the culture shock for Jasper didn't end there, as he found out when he arrived for a TV interview. He goes on: "I did a local television show in Belfast and I said to the producer 'Can I mention Semtex?'
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"And he went, 'No! No! No! Please, please don't say Semtex - it's a brand name."
A wit and raconteur, not to mention a talented musician, Jasper has been entertaining the nation for decades and is every bit as warm and genial to talk with as he is on stage.
At 74, his return to stand-up is for the pure enjoyment of it, and not financial. Not only did he do well from a successful comedy career, he also pocketed a multi-million sum from selling his share of the production company that created the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
As we began the interview, he jokes: "It'll cost you, I've got a taxi meter here, so you're up to £3.50 at the moment."
"Like you need the money!" was my reply and he took it in good humour, chuckling: "I deserved that, yes, thank-you!"
Jasper then tells me he's a fan of our local comedy group The Hole In The Wall Gang and how he discovered them through Frank Carson's nephew Sean.
He explains: "There's a really good comedy group called the Hole In The Wall Gang. I saw them a couple of times, I didn't know them personally, but one of my writers Sean Carson - he's Frank Carson's nephew - he introduced me to the Hole In The Wall Gang.
"I knew Frank as I used to play quite a bit of charity golf, we played three or four times in Belfast, Johnny Mathis used to front it for a couple of years and I did that and Frank was there.
"And I used to always say, 'What's the difference between Frank Carson and the M1? Well you can turn off the M1!'
"Frank's whole life, he talked in jokes, he never turned off. But he was a good bloke and he was a good comic too," he adds.
The Birmingham-born funnyman, real name Robert Davis, says he might flavour his act with some local references but he won't venture too far into that territory as he doesn't think it would be right for him to so.
He says: "Belfast is one of those mysterious places. It's got a strange history so you don't really know how that affects the people themselves as they grow up, so I never really got a hold of it really.
"Take Patrick Kielty, I've seen him a couple of times, and he can really talk about the Troubles in depth, he can be very scathing and he can ridicule, but I don't think I could do that. I don't think people would like me to do that, coming from outside."
Jasper's brand of wholesome and cleaner comedy is what made him a mainstay on the BBC for years, with shows like Carrott's Lib, Canned Carrott and Carrott's Confidential as well as The Detectives, co-starring Robert Powell.
And he admits he was surprised by the success of the likes of Brendan O'Carroll, with his use of foul language, and Frankie Boyle, who pushes the envelope with controversial material.
"I knew Brendan very well back before any of his success, I saw him in three different plays in Birmingham with Mrs Brown's Boys," he says.
"It defied all logic really, because I shouldn't really be laughing at somebody who effs and blinds constantly, but I took my wife who is completely straight-laced.
"And I couldn't believe it, she was laughing and guffawing her head off. And I'm thinking, good God if I did that she'd beat me round the head with a bloody frying pan.
"But it was just one of those things and when he said to me the BBC are going to consider doing Mrs Brown's Boys I just thought I can't even see how it would work. But what do I know about comedy? And it's been very, very successful.
"And a lot of people like Frankie, they push the limits to see how far they can go and that's part and parcel of why they're there.
"It's not always funny, but at the same time Frankie is very successful. I've seen him but I think for me a comedian has to have a side that you like.
"You think, 'Right, well behind there is a person that I'd probably want to meet'. I'm not so sure I'd want to meet Frankie Boyle, although he's a good writer with good delivery.
"Whereas Patrick Kielty, he's got a charm about him, a comedian to me needs an element of charm, so you feel 'Yeah, I like this guy, so I'll listen to what he has to say'."
When it comes to what his Belfast audience can expect, he says he'll be focusing on how he finds life as a septuagenarian and will largely veer away from politics.
He adds: "Almost one of the first things I always say after the couple of minutes of intro is, 'Tonight will be a Brexit-free zone'. Because there's no way I could be funnier than those clowns in parliament.
"I cannot be funnier than Theresa May. I cannot be funnier than Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jeremy Corbyn. I mean, Monty Python couldn't do what they do.
"That's basically why I've said I'm coming to Ireland to get some work, because the competition's not as strong as that!
"But no, I don't really touch on politics, it's nothing that I'm interested in at the moment certainly, but what I am doing is that I've always said that when I'm on stage I'm who I am, what I am, where I am. It's me, with new material."
Who Jasper is now is a different man and he admits having a quadruple bypass a year ago last August has changed his outlook on life.
"Yep, you can't possibly be not affected," he says. "One of the things that brings it home is how little time you have got left, and what are you going to do with it and what's the best way to handle different things.
"And you realise that, yes, you've got to enjoy every single minute - but how do you enjoy every single minute? So you have to sit down and very carefully work out, if I've got 20 years left, well I'll be 94. What can you do when you're 94?
"And so you have to be very careful about how you enjoy every minute. Because do you want to really enjoy every minute, so you can drink yourself stupid, eat yourself stupid and then you've only got 10 years left?
"Or do you want to get to 90? And it's all those questions that you start asking yourself. And, of course, there is another person in my life which is my wife (Hazel), who is just brilliant, we've been going over 50 years.
"We've been married 47 years and going out over 50 years together and she's just brilliant and the love of my life, but I have to take her into account as well, and my children."
Jasper, however, maintains that his health scare did not influence his decision to return to the stage. He adds: "No, I just love performing. Two things - I have never ever worked better in my life and I have never enjoyed my profession as much as I'm enjoying now.
"I'm in a position where I've got a following which is very loyal and which I have great fun with, it's like a big party time.
"That's terrific and I don't want to spoil that in any way. I have been a part of people's lives which is very, very satisfying and very comforting."
The legendary Jasper Carrott takes to the stage at Belfast's Ulster Hall on Thursday, May 30. For tickets go to www.ulsterhall.co.uk or tel: 028 9033 4400