INTERVIEW JASPER CARROTT: Ahead of his Stand Up and Rock shows at the Play House this week the comedian talked to the Herald about how his career took off in Stratford
Meeting Jasper Carrott for the first time is like being greeted by a long lost friend. He is so warm and convivial that conversation is easy, he’s interested in everything and everyone, a genuine geezer.
The Herald meets him in front of the RSC to take his photo. He’s happy to gurn for the camera and chat and mooch. It’s a busy day on the Bancroft, and at various points people come up to say hello, ask for selfies or share an anecdote. Each of them is given a slice of Carrott charm, “Absolutely, no bother. My pleasure. How have you been?” He greets everyone as if they are known to him. Maybe that’s what makes him a great enduring comic: he knows his audience and he genuinely loves them.
As he relaxes in a deck chair he looks perfectly at home in Shakespeare’s town – as well he might, it’s a place that holds fond memories for him.
He explained: “I know Stratford really well and I’ve been coming here for donkey’s years. There is a bit of history with my career and Stratford. In 1976 I did the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the support act was Victoria Wood. Michael Grade, who was working for London Weekend Television, came to see the show. From that performance he offered me a series on TV – six half hour shows called An Audience with Jasper Carrott. When I did that it kicked everything off – my whole career – from that night in Stratford.
“What is weird is that Michael says he doesn’t remember Victoria from seeing me. Vicky must have only been about 23. She was a lovely support act and she went onto eclipse me by some way!”
Born Robert Norman Davis in 1945, Jasper was raised in the Acocks Green area of Birmingham. He was nicknamed Jasper as a schoolboy and later added the “Carrott” on the spur of the moment when he was asked for his surname.
Jasper’s first job was as a buyer in a city centre department store, where he worked alongside school chum Bev Bevan, one of the founders of the Electric Light Orchestra. The duo are still working together – and Bev will be appearing at Stratford with Jasper this week.
His early performances took place at the Boggery folk club near Solihull, not far from where the 76-year-old now lives.
Between strumming his acoustic guitar and singing, Jasper would fill the gaps with his inimitable banter, until eventually the comic interludes took over and he became better known as a comedian than a singer.
Jasper has no regrets about abandoning any pretentions to be a serious musician.
He said: “I’m quite grateful that I’m only fairly competent as it meant I knew not to pursue a musical career. Obviously I have kept the musical roots. I do a mean Status Quo impression I have to say. I started out as a folk club entertainer, which meant I did songs but they were mostly funny songs and chat in between. Of course, the chat got longer and the music got less. That’s really what formed my stage show.”
In those early days Jasper toured rugby clubs and recorded an album in 1973, Jasper Carrot – In the Club, which he sold from the back of his van.
Fame came knocking in 1975, when his novelty double A-side record Moped/Magic Roundabout became a smash hit. Although he didn’t write the song and was paid a mere £1,000 to record it.
Even though it’s now seen as a cheesey, Jasper again has no regrets about recording the single.
“ I mean Funky Moped sold over 30,000 copies and Magic Roundabout sold over 840,000 copies,” said Jasper. “It was a unique hit single in the fact that it had no musical content, so I’m very proud of that. It was something that happened completely by chance really but it opened up the doors which lead to the night in Stratford.”
After the success of An Audience with Jasper Carrott, the comic barely seemed to be off the telly, with a succession of popular primetime programmes running through the remainder of the 1970s and 80s.
Unlike a lot of comics from that period, Jasper seems to be held in high esteem and affection still. What does he put his longevity down to?
“It’s because on stage I am who I am, what I am, where I am,” he said. “What I mean by that is as I get older I change and my comedy changes with my age.
“When I was 30 I was picking older people to bits and speaking for my generation, and I’m still doing that but my generation isn’t 30 anymore, it’s 65+. I change over the years. You probably don’t believe all the stuff you believed 30 years ago. So that changes and where I am changes.
“For instance, I’m not on stage talking to 7,000 people, I’m in Stratford talking to 600. So that changes. The intimacy that I have with audiences now is quite remarkable. I come away thinking that I did a really good job of connecting with the audience and I hope they feel the same.”
You look relaxed on stage, are you?
“I get apprehensive – I want the evening to go well.
“So I hope for no electricity cuts, stupid people in the audience or sets falling over in the back. I don’t get nervous I just hope that I get a fair playing field which happens 99 per cent of the time.
“I’ve always felt comfortable on stage. I mean I take chances and risks.
“I did a season at the Savoy Theatre playing Coco in The Mikado. When I started off I realised I was out of my depth, there is no two ways about that, and I had to learn very quickly. One of the guys in the orchestra said: ‘You’ll know it, but you won’t own it. When you know it and you own it then you’ll be safe.’ It took me a while to own it and then I started to realise what he was saying. It was a complete departure for me, I was singing and acting.”
During the height of his career Jasper played to international audiences, and even played the comedy club circuit in America. It was during this time that Jasper was given the highest praise he could imagine – being tipped by one of his heroes: Robin Williams. “He told people to go and see me because he thought I was brilliant, and that has stayed with me.
“I didn’t ever want to make it big in the States or anything, it wasn’t for me, but my daughter Lucy [Davies, the well-known actor] lives there.”
Looking back on his career Jasper says a couple of things spring to mind as stand-out moments.
“I did 14 nights in Birmingham on the trot with about 72,000 people,” he said. “I always thought that would probably be my swan song.
“I did a live peak-time show in 1979 for ITV in front of ten million people. That was probably a bit mental but it really cemented me with the audience in Britain.
“One of the happiest times in my career was doing The Detectives.”
The spoofy police sitcom with Robert Powell? I love that show!
“Well, Robert and I had a ball for seven years,” responded Jasper to my enthusiasm. “We became blood brothers. Wonderful actor. I don’t know what I was doing on screen with him. He seemed to appreciate me, and I very much appreciated him.
“The film crews used to fight to get on to do the show because it was so enjoyable. I made it my responsibility to make sure everyone was happy from the tea boy up to the director. We had running gags and the end of shoot parties were notorious. It was a very enjoyable time in my career, and Robert is still one of my best mates.”
You’ve been in the business 50 years, is there anything that would make you stop?
“I will know when I’m not up to scratch and then I will bow out. I thought long and hard with Covid: will I be able to come back and be as good as I was a couple of years ago? That’s something I will know very quickly and if I’m not up to it I will walk away. I know a couple of comedians who have gone past what they should have done. Adrenaline is a drug and it’s a very powerful, but I’ll know when I’ve OD’d.”
Are you constantly thinking of new material or if things are funny?
“I used to in the heavy days when I was doing live television with Carrott Confidential. You were always trying to avoid what everyone else was doing and it was a constant battle to come up with some original stuff. These days I don’t worry too much. I’ve got a whole backlog of comedy material that I can revamp and bring up to date.
“I always knew what wasn’t funny, but I didn’t always know what was funny. That was a key factor in a lot of the work I did. I used writers too because when you do live-to-air television you can’t do it yourself. Quite often I would reject material that was submitted and then I saw it later on being performed by someone else and I knew I had made the right decision.”
For the Stand Up and Rock show audiences can expect two-and-a-half hours of a rocking good time.
Jasper elaborated: “It does what it says on the tin really. I do the stand-up andy my very best friend Bev Bevan supplies the rock with some great musicians.
“We play music that my age group will appreciate. We don’t play anything that was written after 1943!
“The audience gets the comedy that I am well known for, and the musicians are superb. It’s a great night out and there’s a fair bit of nostalgia – especially my jokes.”
He added: “I love playing Stratford Play House, it’s one of my favourite venues. Genuinely! We’re doing three nights and we’re really looking forward to it.
“We’ve been doing the show five or six years now and we’re dying to get back on the road after Covid restrictions. We enjoy it more than the audience! We have a ball, we really do and I think that gets through to the audience. I do it for sheer pleasure and the money side is neither here nor there. I just love entertaining.”
Jasper says he’s first and foremost a family man.
“I’ve got six grandchildren and they came to see the show – the youngest is 13 and the oldest is 27 – and I thought blimey, they won’t know anything about this, but they loved it,” added the comic with a proud smile.
And how would they describe you?
“Victor Meldrew! My family have been my life. I have a marvellous wife, Hazel. I’ve been so lucky to meet her. Next year on the 2/2/2022 it’s our 50th wedding anniversary! She’s just a wonderful person and I wouldn’t be as successful without her help or backing.
“She was a brilliant mother and an even more brilliant grandmother. She’s an outstanding woman. Not behind every man, but in front!”
Jasper Carrott brings his show Stand Up and Rock to the Stratford Play House this weekend. Book tickets at www.stratfordplay.co.uk or call 01789 333990.