Music has always been a big part of Jasper Carrott’s life, and now he’s back on the road with Made in Brum, a celebration of the Birmingham’s influential rock and pop scene. We catch up with the comedian ahead of the tour to talk about rock, comedy and the city of his birth
Jasper Carrott is surely Birmingham’s best loved and most successful comedian. His career spans over 40 years, and has seen him tour the country and beyond. However, it was television where Carrott was most successful and influential; pulling in over 14 million viewers for An Audience with Jasper Carrott, while shows such as Carrott Confidential, broadcast on Saturday nights on BBC1, are considered some of his best comedic work. At the age of 68, the comedian isn’t as active as he once was, but we catch up with him to find he still has fire in his gut and is as passionate about his hometown as ever.
Carrott’s career started in the late 1960s when he worked as an MC at ‘The Boggery’, a Birmingham-based folk club that he established with his friend Les Ward. His talent behind the microphone soon shone through, and would later become his main act. For a while, though, he was very involved in the city’s music scene, managing bands, acting as an agent and later recording his own records. Carrott was childhood friends with Bev Bevan, founding member of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and The Move, and the pair have reunited, along with several other Brummie musicians, to perform Made in Brum. “It’s looking back to the sixties and early seventies, when Birmingham was very influential in the music business, something the city doesn’t really get credit for,” Carrott explains. “It was an era when Birmingham produced bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Move, The Rockin’ Berries and ELO – the city really was in the forefront.” Carrott will be introducing the songs and telling anecdotes and stories from the time. He hopes to jog the memories of the audience, who might remember ‘Alex’s Pie Stand’ – a post-gig meeting place for rockers where Carrott and co would drink tea and eat ‘unwholesome pies’. He also wants to remind us of the importance of people such as Trevor Burton of The Move and ‘Birmingham’s first pop star’, Danny King. The show sells out all over the Midlands, but Carrott says it’s unlikely they will travel far. “Made in Birmingham only really works if we do it in the Midlands. If it was Made in Liverpool, people would come from all over.” He laments the perception of the city, saying it holds it back and means Birmingham isn’t celebrated as it should be. “Birmingham is a very easy target for comedians – there’s no doubt about it – and this affects the confidence of the city. It still suffers from this perception of the Victorian age, when it was this black, industrial city. I live 12 miles from where I was born, and I love the city. It’s a part of who I am.”
For some comedians, later life is a great time to return to the stage. Witness the adulation received by once pilloried performers such as Bob Monkhouse, who was feted shortly before his death. But Carrott says he doesn’t want to simply re-run the old routines, and he isn’t inspired to create new ones. “I don’t get anywhere near the same kick out of performing as I used to. I have lost track of what’s going on in the world. There’s been a whole line of new people coming through, but I don’t know who any of them are. I think, to be a stand-up, you have to be aware of what’s going on in the world. All I can really do is the old material and that’s not what I want to do.”
Such words will of course bring sadness to long-term fans, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Carrott has always been one to break ground, but then to move on before things became stale. “When I was a stand-up, I was trying to push the boundaries all the time,” he says. “An Audience with Jasper Carrott was the first show where there was real stand-up comedy, without it being on the Cilla Black show. I was doing raconteuring and material from my personal experience, and that had never been on TV before. If I was to go back into comedy, I would have to do a tremendous amount of research just to get up to running speed.”
Carrott Confidential was for many a high point in the comedian’s career. The live show, which was performed just after the BBC news, was both brilliantly funny and highly topical. The scripts were being written literally right up until it aired, but this was also a real test of nerves for the comedian. “I remember getting ready to go on stage and the audience wasn’t even in the studio. Someone went and got them while I got ready, and within five minutes we were on air,” he recalls. The show ran for three eight-week series between 1987 and 1989, bringing in over 10 million viewers every Saturday night. It also propelled the careers of Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, who subsequently went on to create the Mary Whitehouse Experience with David Baddiel and Rob Newman. However, the live performance became too much for Carrott, who insists the audience didn’t realise it was live. “It was live to air, but everyone thought it was recorded. I tried to get the message across by appearing with a TV set and flicking through the channels, but people still thought it wasn’t live. It gave us an edge and adrenalin, but it didn’t give the audience an edge. I didn’t do live TV after that as it was just too stressful.”
Whether he returns for one last salvo or not, Carrott’s place in comedy history is assured (see Career of Carrott). He influenced a whole generation of comedians, including Frank Skinner and Alexei Sayle, and will surely continue to inspire more, who will now be watching his routines of YouTube. He has received many awards and accreditations, but says there’s one type which really stands out. “Whenever I receive an honour from the people of Birmingham it means so much to me. Joining the Hall of Stars was fantastic, as was gaining the honorary degrees from the Universities. It’s in Birmingham where I always want to succeed the most.”