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Bernard Manning

Bernard Manning

Bernard Manning, was comedy's bete noir, with a repertoire that included vile, racist jokes designed to wind up the politically correct brigade he hated so much.

For the alternative comedians, he came to epitomise everything that was wrong with the tired old-school acts, using generic material based on lazy stereotypes. But to his fans, he was a no-nonsense hero.

Manning was born in 1930 in the Ancoats district of Manchester, at the time one of the city's poorest areas, and his entire life revolved around the city.

He left school at 14 and worked briefly in his father's greengrocer's shop before becoming a big-band singer while doing his National Service in Germany.

He started compering shows, and gradually put more and more jokes into his act, until he was considered primarily a comedian.

He made his TV debut on Granada TV's stand-up show The Comedians, which made him a household name. So when producers wanted a host for The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, an attempt to recreate the working men’s club nights for television, he was the obvious choice for the host.

But gradually his stand-up fell out of fashion - and became considered too offensive for TV.

He continued to work on the Northern club circuit, however, and was the big draw at his own club, the Embassy Club in Manchester.

His act was a mix of old pub gags, racist comments and cloying sentimentality - although he would defend himself by claiming he took the mickey out of everyone. 'I tell jokes,' he said. 'You never take a joke seriously.'

However, although he would claim anything was fair game for humour he had his own code, saying it was unacceptable to quip about bereavement, tampons or disability.

Yet he was happy to use words like 'niggers' and 'coons' in his act, claiming they were historical terms with respectable roots. And of black Britons, he would say: 'If a dog is born in a stable, it doesn't make it a horse.’

Manning died in June 2007, aged 76, of kidney disease. His son, Bernard Jr, took over the Embassy Club.

Reviews

Bernard Manning : Original Review

Note: This review is from 2002

Bernard Manning : Original Review

Ah, alternative versus mainstream, comedy's perennial debate.

In one club, a young black comic positions himself in front of the dark backdrop and asks: "Can you see me?" Twenty-four hours and 120 miles away, a comic pledges support for the striking firefighters, and calls for higher taxes for the rich.

The different approaches almost need no comment. A strong political standpoint is integral to the alternative comedy scene, and a bit of 'Uncle Tom' banter always goes down well in the working men's club.

But the audience that was so delighted with that standard 'black' line was at The Comedy Store, the venue synonymous with the birth of politically-correct alternative comedy. And the second comic was Bernard Manning.

Not that this expression of sympathy for a left-wing cause mark any major U-turn for the comic vilified above all others for his racist, sexist comedy of hate. Rather, it's the alternatives who have gradually changed, not the dinosaur too set in his ways to evolve.

His comment about the firefighters was a bizarre out-of-character aside, just one of several cloddingly sentimental comments that punctuated a tirade of tired pub gags. It's an utterly surreal experience to be bombarded by a torrent of aggressive one-liners and nasty put-downs, peppered with momentary reprieves as Manning's mind wanders onto some trite, mawkish comments about how we all should look after each other.

These aren't even intended to be funny - and some are tinged with depressing melancholy, such as his brief reminiscences about family members who died young (in which he finds time to mention that his dead brother's bank balance was in the millions).

Perhaps these are simply the sentimental ramblings of an old man, or perhaps Bernard's trying to show a softer side; that he's not the monster that he's so often portrayed.

But it's all so schmaltzy. And never more so than when he launches into song (he boasts a surprisingly good baritone voice), literally singing the praises of 'My Kinda Town' - ie wherever he happened to be playing that night. However since tonight's town is Birmingham, the sincerity is hard to swallow.

Indeed it's difficult to square any of his professed humanity with his obvious hatred. You can't take a love and peace message seriously when he follows some almost tearful sermonising about homeless children with a gag starting: "So there's these three niggers..."

His bafflingly mournful laments are simply at odds with his cocksure, often offensive gags. At 72, Manning shows no sign of mellowing - after all, he has an image to maintain.

His usual defence over charges of racism is that he takes the rise out of everyone, himself included. But whereas most of his material is ribald teasing, there's a vile undercurrent of festering hate in anything involving race - and it's not just because it's an automatically sensitive subject to liberal ears.

For while he may mock, say, Liverpudlians as thieving Scousers (an easy stereotype still popular among the lazier hacks on the 'alternative' circuit), gags involving blacks or Asians are always filled with seemingly genuine bile. Even the language shows his disgust - it's always 'niggers' and 'Pakis', whereas 'Irish fellas' are always that, never 'Paddies'.

That said, it's not a relentless tirade of hatred. There are probably no more than half a dozen such gags in his act. But every one is stomach-churning. He likes boxing because it involves black people hurting each other, a lion who eats an African has to lick another beast's backside 'to take away the taste', he'll solve the Northern Ireland problem 'by dropping 1,000 Pakis into Belfast' to give them 'real' Troubles.

All abhorrently nasty stuff. Whether he believes it or not, who can tell? For Manning's comedic landscape is populated by one-dimensional stereotypes and he uses a supposed universal hatred of blacks as part of the same lazy shorthand as, say, stupid Irishmen or tight-fisted Scots.

It truly is comedy of a different era. Although the expected mother-in-law gags are notable by their absence, every other reference is ancient, such as the creaky line about reverse gears in Italian tanks, topical in 1945. (As a cautionary footnote to any 'alternative' comics still peddling doing this, his most up-to-date reference is a line about pro-cannabis marchers being too stoned to protest and demanding munchies instead.)

It's all formula gags you're almost sure to have heard before - and if you haven't, you can work them out ahead of the punchline as they all follow such a familiar pattern.

Twice, at most, I was geniunely wrongfooted by a gag. And, I admit, I laughed. Was that, perhaps, down to Manning's much-vaunted delivery skills?

I doubt it. He's hardly an exceptional performer. But what he does have in his favour is an incredible efficiency - there's not an ounce of fat on any of the gags: set-up, punchline, laugh. But that's easy to do when the jokes have been honed in hundreds of bars across the country.

What Manning also has, of course, is a dedicated audience already on his side. For better or worse, he's an icon able to attract legions of fans, and in interviews, Manning always counters any criticism of his act by the number of people who pay to see - and enjoy - his show.

This night was no exception, Birmingham's Glee Club was filled to its 400 or so capacity, though the audience demographics held few surprises. In this most multicultural of cities, the only non-white faces belonged to the waiting staff.

Oherwise, Manning's fans are predominantly male but from all classes and ages - with as many trendy young lads as old married couples enjoying a rare night out.

And enjoy it they did, every gag being greeted with gales of laughter, no matter what its age. It may be a Pavlovian response, but few will have left the venue feeling that they hadn't been entertained.

Manning himself left the venue with great difficulty. He's now a frail old man, struggling with the single step that leads off the stage. It would be tempting to paint some pathos here, but it's hard to muster any sympathy for a man who revels in causing such offence.

His biggest failing, though, is not his hatred, but his predictability. For most comics, there's little worse than the response: "Heard it." And while his fans don't seem to mind, that's the reaction Manning's ancient material truly deserves.

Steve Bennett
Birmingham
December 2002

Sunday 1st Dec, '02
Steve Bennett

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