Comedy king Jasper Carrott on Belfast show and loving live work at age 74
Ahead of his first stand-up show in Belfast for many years, David Roy chats to comedy legend Jasper Carrott about why he still gets a kick out of cracking people up even after half a century in showbiz
IN 2017, Jasper Carrott was told he needed an immediate quadruple heart-bypass after what the comedian thought was just a bad case of indigestion turned out to be angina.
Although the major operation went according to plan and the beloved Brummie comedy legend is now fully recovered, he tells me that he's still gutted that he had to cancel a tour as a result.
"My heart was in really good condition, it was the blood supply that was getting blocked," says Carrott (74), who lives in Warwickshire with his wife of 46 years, Hazel.
"I was amazed. I was fine and fit – I'd had a couple of 'things', but I always put it down to indigestion. Then suddenly they were saying 'prepare yourself for some serious surgery', which really threw me. But you know, the operation was a real success, there's no after effects. Within 10 weeks I was back in the gym.
"The real tragedy was that I had to pull 30 shows – until then, I'd pulled one show in 43 years. Luckily, the theatres were remarkable. They all said it wasn't a problem and that I could come back and do them when I was ready to come back.
"I don't do Facebook or Twitter, but management told me I had over 700,000 well-wishers on the internet. I couldn't believe it at all, it was remarkable. That gave me the determination to get back out there."
The comic is now back to playing his beloved golf, visits the gym three times a week ("I hate it to death, but you have to do it", he chuckles) and his touring diary is also back to full strength – including a long overdue trio of Irish dates in Cork, Dublin and Belfast.
"I've been to Belfast several times in the early 2000s because I used to do some charity golf things there," Carrott recalls. "But I would say the last time I played there would probably be 1998 at the earliest – a good 20 years at least."
When I suggest he'll need to give us an extra long set to make up for this, the comedian can't resist quipping: "Yeah, I'll do a Ken Dodd and go on until 4.30 in the morning!"
Carrott makes for a refreshingly honest interviewee, admitting that sales have been somewhat slow for his first Irish dates in two decades.
"Belfast is doing OK, it probably won't be sold out but it will be near as dammit," he tells me. "However, in Cork you can actually have your own balcony! So, layer it on thick, David, please: use words like 'genius' and 'unbelievable', say 'don't miss him, because at the end of the year he won't be alive' – that sort of thing."
Jasper Carrott launched his phenomenally successful comedy career with a stint as compere at the Boggery, the Solihull folk club he founded with friend Les Ward back in 1969.
Carrott was an aspiring 'folkie' himself prior to discovering his talent for humorous anecdotes and observations (and the odd comedy song), going on to build up a following throughout Britain's West Midlands before coming to national attention with his hit single Funky Moped, which reached number five in 1975 and featured one of his staple comedy routines, The Magic Roundabout, as its B-side.
The 1978 TV special An Audience With Jasper Carrott brought his stand-up to living rooms everywhere and, alongside his ever more popular live work, the comedian quickly became a TV staple with a succession of top-rated BBC series such as Carrott's Lib, Carrott Confidential, Carrott's Commerical Breakdown and Canned Carrott.
Indeed, having sold his stake in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? TV company Celador for a reported £10 million back in 2006, these days Carrott has never been more free to perform as and when he chooses.
"I don't do it for the money – I do it for the sheer enjoyment, you know?" he enthuses.
In fact, part of the reason for the long gap between Irish dates is that Carrott has always been like this. When stand-up stopped being fun, he stopped doing stand-up – for over a decade.
"It was in the early 2000s and I'd just come back from doing sold-out shows in South Africa," recalls Carrott.
"But it just didn't feel right anymore. I've always said I'll never do [stand-up] just for the money, because people would know very well if you weren't enjoying it. So I thought, I'll give it 12 months and then see where we are – but it lasted 12 years."
However, even without live comedy work, he was busy during this time with three series of BBC sitcom All About Me and as the host of ITV's popular quiz show, Golden Balls.
Carrott also kept his toe in the stand-up comedy waters with a couple of one-off live specials, 24 Carrott Gold and The One Jasper Carrott – the latter a combination of stand-up and sketch material which featured a cameo appearance from his daughter, actor Lucy Davis (The Office, Wonder Woman, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
And, in what might well be a case of making up for lost time, the comedy veteran currently has three different live shows on the go, including a double headline touring act with impressionist Alistair McGowan and the novel prospect Stand Up and Rock, which also features classic tunes supplied by lifelong pal Bev 'ELO' Bevan and his band.
Indeed, it was former school chum Bevan who persuaded Carrott to end his extended hiatus from live stand-up work and hit the road once again.
"About four years ago, my mate Bev said 'let's do some shows together, because we're running out of time – and if we don't do it now then we never will'," explains the comedian.
"So, we put this Stand Up and Rock out where I do the stand up and he does the rock and roll and it was very very successful. We seem to have touched a nerve with audiences of a certain generation, shall we say.
"We have a running joke that we'd have full standing ovations every night, except for the fact that only 90 per cent of the audience are actually able to stand!"
Of course, there are plenty of younger folks at Carrott's stand up shows who grew up watching him on TV and are thrilled at the prospect of finally being able to see him performing live again.
"It's wonderful being part of people's lives," he tells me of his encounters with those who have followed his long and distinguished career.
"People say 'I used to watch you with my parents' or 'I went to see you at that show'. I always get 'the best thing you ever did was' and then it's a different thing for every person. It's been a real privilege."
Spoken like a true unbelievable genius – don't miss him.
:: Jasper Carrott, Thursday May 30, Ulster Hall, Belfast / Friday May 31, Cork Opera House / Saturday June 1, National Concert Hall, Dublin. Tickets available via Ulsterhall.co.uk / Corkoperahouse.ie / Nch.ie