Simon Kelner: The way I tell it, Frank came from an era best lost

Kelner's view

It may well have been the way he told them, but I never found the stand-up comic Frank Carson particularly funny. As the tributes flowed yesterday following his death of stomach cancer at 85 and the portrait of an admired performer was painted, I felt in something of a minority.

You could say Frank Carson played a part in my young life: as a teenager growing up in Manchester, the Granada TV show The Comedians was a fixture on Saturday evenings. It borrowed heavily from the traditions of the workingmen's clubs of the north. A collection of stand-ups who had rarely been on television before were invited to do their routine in front of a live audience and the individual performances were then edited into a quickfire collection of gags.

It brought to prominence people like Charlie Williams, the black man who told jokes about black people, Bernard Manning, who didn't discriminate about which ethnic minority he picked on and Carson himself, the Irishman whose stock in trade was, yes, the Irish joke. It was 40 years ago that The Comedians came into our sitting rooms and, although there have been one or two attempts to revive the show since, it was very much the product of its age, a time before political correctness became a guiding doctrine, when it was perfectly reasonable to poke fun at people merely because of their ethnicity or colour. Looking at clips of the show now, it all feels rather shocking. Even the relatively harmless Irish gags that Carson made his own would be greeted with embarrassed silence in polite company today. Then again, in those days racist chants at football grounds were commonplace and tolerated, homosexuals were persecuted and disabled people had many fewer rights, so a few jokes at the expense of minorities was not really the biggest issue. Political correctness has brought many benefits to society and it certainly changed the nature of what was acceptable in a stand-up routine. The alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, with politically charged stand-ups such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, built on these changes, and most of the men – I believe it was all men – who entertained me as a teenager largely disappeared from TV, returning to the club circuit.

The comics of old must share the feelings of many former footballers, who cursed their misfortune in being successful at the wrong time.

The likes of Carson will have been bemused – and possibly not a little resentful – to learn of the millions earned these days by, for example, Michael McIntyre and Jimmy Carr.

Carson was still working until late last year, when his illness took hold. He did 80 shows a year, so there must be a demand out there for old-school comedy. He may not have made me fall about laughing, but I do mourn the passing of a figure who represented a little something of my past.

 

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