At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, comic Mike McCabe is performing a show about old school comedy legend Frank Carson. They were both regulars on Granada TV’s series The Comedians, though at different times.
“Is this your first Edinburgh Fringe show?” I asked Mike.
“I’ve done some before with my son Milo McCabe. One show he based on all the old acts I worked with. It was called This Is Your Life and it was set in a home with them trying to jog my memory and get me (the character) out of the Alzheimer’s. They were going through all the acts I had worked with to get my memory back.”
“So you were acting?” I asked.
“Don’t look so surprised, John.”
“Why write and perform a show about Frank Carson?” I asked
“I can see the headline now,” I said. “Frank Carson – The Charles Hawtrey of Comedy. You didn’t meet him on The Comedians?”
“No. Sky Star Search together.”
“Frank Carson was from Belfast and you are from…?”
“Monahan, which is about an hour away from Belfast.”
“And all the jokes in the Fringe show are his?”
“No. Some are his. Some are mine.”
“So did you desperately want to specifically do a show about Frank Carson or did you just want to do a show and then looked round for a subject?”
“To be truthful,” Mike told me, “I use it as a vehicle for meself – a bit of Frank, a bit of The Comedians – but also to tell the story because he had a fantastic life – meeting the Pope, getting shot, losing his brother and little sister, being on the Royal Variety Show. He was a helluva man.”
“And you are the best person to do this show because…?”
“I did an impression of him to him and he thought it was fantastic. He allowed me to use his glasses and now I wish I’d kept them.”
“Did you ever get through to the real person?” I asked. “I think I met him and had chats with him three times at Granada and at ATV/Central TV and all I got was the Frank Carson character. I never got through to the real person.”
“Well,” said Mike, “when somebody left him and you asked Frank Do you know anything about that man? he’d say No…
“Do you know his surname? – No.
“What else? Nothing.
“That was Frank’s life. He never bothered finding out about other people. It’s just one of those things. He fascinated me. His life fascinated me. For someone to go on and on and on like that, there had to be some problem deep down.
“I saw him on a TV programme once. He was in a car and he said: I remember I had a sister and she died… I don’t know if she was older or younger than me at the time… And I thought this was quite extraordinary. If I had had a little brother or sister who had died, I would know. I think maybe he was hiding stuff.”
“He shot someone when he was in the army?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s in the show.”
“And he was shot himself?”
“Yes. And it’s in the show.”
“Your Gilded Balloon show,” I said, “is titled Frank Carson: If I Didn’t Laugh, I’d Cry… Because…?”
“One time,” Mike said, “he was having a late-night drink with a singer called Rose-Marie – She told me about it. Frank didn’t stop. She said: Stop, stop, Frank. Why do you never stop? Please, stop. I would like to talk to you. Why do you never stop? And he said to her: Rose, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.”
“And did he expand on that?” I asked.
“Oh God no. That was quite a lot for a feller like Frank, who never divulged anything. He was always busy telling gags and never leaving any silences.”
“Did you like him?” I asked.
“Now… that…” said Mike, “is a really hard question.”
“Because he never talked to me or anybody else. He promised me a lot. There was nothing he wasn’t going to do for me and that’s what happened. He did nothing.
“It’s very difficult to like or dislike someone if you don’t get through to them.”