Arts

Dan Gordon: 'I've got Frank Carson's comedy DNA' – I can't shut up

Comedian Frank Carson was one of the best known stars from Northern Ireland but behind his affable public image lay a complex, conflicted man, says actor and playwright Dan Gordon. Ahead of staging his one-man show about Carson at the Lyric, he tells Joanne Sweeney of his fascination with him

Dan Gordon as Frank Carson outside Sinclair Seaman's Presbyterian Church where Carson's mother was a caretaker Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

DAN Gordon is very nervous about staging the one-man play he's written about Frank Carson's life as it receives its first major production in the comedian's home town.

He feels he will be under some scrutiny in capturing Carson’s 'It’s the way I tell them' style during his five-night run of Frank Carson: A Rebel Without a Pause at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast next month.

"All of the other performances I did earlier were really just test performances to quite small audiences, and some of the people who came along were mates of mine, so I'm really nervous about playing to what is likely to be a more critical audience," Gordon says.

Game of Thrones star Ian McElhinney directs the play, in which Gordon performs as Carson through his early Belfast years, to his army days and career and personal highlights such as meeting Pope John Paul II.

When the the rapid-fire funny man died five years ago at the age of 82, he was revered as one of the north's greats who had managed to conquer British showbiz with his own inimitable Belfast humour. Carson, who at the time of his death in his adopted hometown of Blackpool was a multi-millionaire, first burst on to our screens as a three-time winner of Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks in 1964.

A decade later and after performing up and down England in social clubs, he was one of the stars of Granada TV's The Comedians, appearing alongside comics such as Charlie Williams, Mike Reid, Jim Bowen and close friend Bernard Manning.

Perhaps Gordon’s nervousness is unwarranted. The play, which charts the rise of Carson from his beginnings as an electrician, plasterer and paratrooper to becoming one of the highest-paid and must popular TV comedians, has already received critical acclaim from its run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

A Scotsman review said: "Gordon's performance is tremendous. He captures Carson's jovial machine-gun stage persona with impressive accuracy – the show is full of gags – while subtly softening his delivery during the off-stage confessionals."

Gordon, who is known for his performances as Red Hand Luke in the BBC’s Give My Head Peace and Marie Jones's Broadway hit A Night in November, among many other stage and screen appearances, has definitely caught Carson's personality and mannerisms. He often channels him during our interview, telling jokes as the man himself would have done.

"Do I speak as Frank?" he asks, "I'm quoting lines. It must be because I have so many of the gags from the script in my head.

"I think I've got indoctrinated with Frank's comedy DNA. I can't shut up now. Frank was brutal – he couldn't shut up as well."

The former schoolteacher, who will be directing the SSE's first pantomime, Aladdin, later this year, wrote 25 drafts of the play, 13 more than he did for his hit play The Boatyard. That play was about the men from the Harland and Wolff shipyard and was inspired by his father Dave who had worked there. After seeing it, Tony Carson, Frank's son, suggested to Gordon that he might consider doing a similar play about his father. The idea sparked off Gordon's by now slightly obsessive need to immerse himself into all areas of the comic's life.

He painstakingly researched the Carson story over the past three years, pouring over the comic's personal handwritten scrapbooks, and having access to private family documents and records.

"I've written 12 plays now and this is the only one that has dramatically changed from the first draft,” says Gordon. “But there's so much stuff that I've had to cut out because he was such a fascinating man.

"I wouldn't have said that I was a real fan of Frank’s before, although I thought he was a funny man and grew up watching him on TV. Frank had such a big life. He shared a stage with James Cagney, met Laurel and Hardy and spent three days with the tenor Mario Lanza in Belfast. He was a real enigma, and what people don't always appreciate is that he gave millions away to charity over the years."

Gordan has become a real authority on Carson, joking that the comedian could be his specialist subject on Mastermind.

Belfast comedian Frank Carson was a British paratrooper in the Middle East in the the 1940s 

But the play is not all about the jokes; there are glimpses of incidents that caused Carson great personal pain and embarrassment.

Describing him as an "enigma", Gordon says that Carson felt particularly conflicted in his life being a working-class Catholic from the Sailortown/Little Italy area of the docks, who saw active military service as a British paratrooper serving in the Middle East in the 1940s. Carson knew about war from first-hand experience. He shot dead an armed terrorist and was shot in the leg himself and narrowly escaped with his life during a bomb explosion near a cinema which killed seven RAF men.

However, Gordon brings out in the play Carson's conflict regarding his life as a former soldier with what happened on Bloody Sunday, when in January 1972, British paratroopers killed 14 unarmed Catholics in Derry during a civil rights march.

Some years earlier, Carson had worked closely with Bishop Edward Daly, then Fr Daly, on his famous Sunday night concerts and pantomimes at St Columb’s Hall. Bishop Daly, who Gordon interviewed about Carson before his death last year, was famously photographed during the atrocity trying to help the injured to safety while waving a white handkerchief.

"Frank was so conflicted about this and I think that's why he never publicly talked about politics and things. But it was something that came out very strongly in his own writing," Gordon says.

:: Frank Carson: The Rebel Without A Pause, by and starring Dan Gordon, is at the Lyric theatre, Belfast, November 1-5. Tickets at lyrictheatre.co.uk

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