Though it was briefly something of a fashion, it must be slightly strange for a comedian to perform a stand-up show about the death of their father. Not just because they must rake over the ashes of grief night after night, but also because such a intensely personal moment runs the risk of becoming just another part of the show’s engineering – a scene to be wrung for maximum poignancy, night after night.
But the impact of such an event almost inevitably leads to soul-searching; a reappraisal of the father-son relationship, a comparison of your respective lives and a reflection of whether you lived up to paternal expectations. Such eternal questions are an obvious inspiration for comedians seeking more than knob gags.
It was little surprise then, that Des Bishop decided to talk about his father Mike after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer – just one of the many things father and son had in common. Des was treated for testicular cancer in 2000, as he has discussed in a previous, similarly honest, show. Both, too, suffered with alcoholism. Both were uprooted in their youth. And both had a career in showbusiness, with Ken a model and actor, who was said to have been narrowly beaten to the 007 role by George Lazenby.
Quite whether that story was true, myth, or an embellished version of reality was the hook for Des’s original show, which explored, in part, the sacrifices his Dad had made to become a family man – trading in a glamorous in the heart of Sixties London to working in a New York menswear store and raising his children in the suburbs.
There’s a lot more to Mike Bishop’s story than this, though – as a subsequent RTE series, and this book, demonstrate. Delving into his father’s life, he discovered a troubled upbringing, blighted by booze and violence, as well as tall tales and manifold regrets.
Initially, the book is something of a jumble, jumping impatiently between the various strands of the story: the family tree background, the impact of his father’s declining heath, childhood reminiscences and Mike’s life as a dashing young man about town. It takes a while for this fog of sometimes repetitive stories to clear to form a clear picture, which can be frustrating.
But that only reflects Des’s own experiences in completing the Jigsaw puzzle of his father’s back story – a story Mike himself seems to have confused either by accident, design or desire to create a more palatable narrative. Even at the very end, Des discovers yet another secret that, although relatively minor, Mike was determined to take to the grave.
But as the pieces fall into place – including a couple of particularly hilarious anecdotes – what emerges is an intriguing portrait of a complex, funny man, determined not to fall into the casual brutality that characterised his early life. And he was always keen to be in the limelight – even in death – which makes this book seem like a genuine collaboration.
It also offers a frank, unsentimental look at how cancer affects family relationships, sometimes via Des’s diary entries on particularly tough days. This may sound worthy or mawkish, but these are not emotions that run in the Bishop DNA. Yes, there are moments of contemplation as the son becomes the carer of the father – but these are perceptive and lightly handled – while Des, and indeed all his relatives, can always see the humour in a situation, however outwardly bleak.
The tone may be the result of his mixed background: the open American way of talking about your innermost feelings mixed combined with the Irish distaste for genuine sentiment (though not, strangely, sentimentality). The outcome is essentially an extended eulogy to his father, occasionally a little muddled when the emotion takes over, but exuding love, respect – and even a little honest criticism – that is heartfelt, inspiring and touching in equal measure.
He’s done his Dad proud, in more than one sense.
- Des Bishop: My Dad Was Nearly James Bond is published by Penguin at £14.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £9.89.