Jason Manford’s autobiography is so full of authentic Northern ‘we we poor but we were happy’ charm that you can almost hear the Coronation Street theme play as you read it. Well, maybe with a touch of Shameless, too.
The book starts with the Christmas that was cancelled, in 1990, when his parents didn’t have enough money to buy any presents for him, or his brothers Colin and Stephen. The only thing Dad did hand over to nine-year-old Jason was a cassette tape of comedy greats, from Dave Allen to Lenny Bruce. And so the seeds were sown...
He grew up in an area of Manchester some newspapers have called the ‘Triangle Of Death’ on account of its gang-related crime. Not that Manford knew the term at the time.
In some ways, this is an account of a normal working-class family, from hiding from loan sharks to family outings to Blackpool illuminations, then still full of wonder for a small child.
But then several instances are much less commonplace, no matter how matter-of-factly Manford relates them – such as the heroin addict uncle who used to crash on the family sofa. And there surely can’t be many people who have a story about liberating a cooker from a murder victim’s house on the 12th floor of a notorious tower block with a dodgy life, a flat which was still decorated with black-and-yellow police tape – and even the chalk outline of a body on the floor. The adventure is like a modern-day Laurel and Hardy sketch, though told with a mordant humour.
More farcical entertainment comes as Manford describes the ill-fated first family holiday – all the way to glamorous Southport. Seven people were crammed into a Vauxhall Cavalier, with Jason curled up in the passenger footwell, seeing the motorway rush past at 70mph, inches from his face, thought the rust-worn holes in the bodywork.
There’s a strong sense that family is all-important here, even though the current Manford clan did not have the most auspicious start. Jason’s dad was 25 when he met his mum in the pub where he worked. She was just 16, and became pregnant with Jason very quickly. Their wedding day – at the insistence of family - was ‘essentially a pub crawl with a ceremony sandwiched in the middle’.
Characters from both sides of his family loom large in his life story, too, from his beloved grandfather to his Irish nana, singing bawdily in the pub while sneakily chugging wine from a box she smuggled in. Perhaps entertainment runs in Manford’s blood.
As he child, he was certainly a show-off. ‘I felt like my whole school life up till eleven was me being told to shut up,’ he writes. And at secondary school, he wasn’t much better, naughty and cheeky without straying into ‘problem child’ territory, with a rap sheet that involved trying to steal an empty crisp box from the tuck shop, annoyingly following a dinner lady around for her whole lunch hour and several counts of answering back. Getting laughs what what he did to impress Amanda Rose, the girl he had a crush on.
Manford’s mixed fortunes with the fairer sex also feature heavily, from his first snog with the local female bully down the gunnel to meeting his future wife, often in remarkably honest terms as he went from childish fumblings to devastatingly serious problems in adult relationships.
Outside of school, Manford managed not to fall into a bad crowd. The worst he did was one guilt-ridden spot of petty theft on his paper round, done through peer pressure but with a conclusion that would fit an old-fashioned morality tale.
In fact the young Manford was more likely to be a victim of crime, and suffered a couple of muggings, one of which left him losing not just a few quid – but some teeth and a lot of his self-confidence, just as he was getting into stand-up.
The story of how he got into comedy has been oft-repeated. Manford never worked well in a conventional environment, where he had a tendency just to walk out the door rather than deal with petty frustrations. It started in Burger King, after he was berated for having the gall to put a piece of processed cheese on the Junior Whopper meal he was allowed for free, and carried on in call centres for CIS Insurance and an accident at work helpline when a wise old man he’d cold-called on Christmas Eve made him re-examine his life. Very Capraesque.
But one job he stuck at for a while was as a pot-washer at The Northern pub in Chorlton, which used to host all sorts of events: wakes, weddings – and the Buzz Comedy Cub run by John ‘Agraman’ Marshall.
It was there he first saw Peter Kay, who got him – and the whole room – laughing from the belly at stories that had such strong resonance with everyone’s life. It revived his interest in stand-up, first piqued when his father gave him that old C90 for Christmas, and he was again hooked. Seeing it week in, week out, he analysed how the comics worked, and would chat to them after every show.
So one night, when two acts travelling from London broke down on route, and Agraman couldn’t find anyone else, he persuaded Manford to plug the hole. He told a few recycled lines, such as the apocryphal stupid answers told on Family Fortunes, to polite titters, but when he started telling the tale of his mugging, with a little embellishment, the seed began to germinate.
He entered the North West Comedian Of The Year – and won. But such success, as any comic knows, is only the start of the long slog to becoming a professional, and here Manford shares some of his tales of existing on a shoestring (again), playing shitty gigs (the Daily Sport Christmas party), and odd B&Bs, such as the one in Oxford where the owner was convinced Manford and fellow comic Steve Edge were lovers, and knew he had to hide his homophobia, even though he clearly wasn’t happy wit the situation.
The book ends before Manford got famous – though a postscript set in last Christmas brings the story back to where it started, although in far different circumstances, and contains at least a nod to the tabloid scandal that cost him another job, but also made him all the more famous.
Maybe that’s another thing he’s picked up from Peter Kay, whose own bestselling memoirs came in two parts: Always leave the door open for a sequel.
- Brung Up Proper by Jason Manford is published by Ebury, priced £18.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £10.43.