Monday, September 18, 2006

Bernard Manning R.I.P.

“I do like to be beside the seaside…”
By Arnold Brown

In July 2006, I went with Keith Palmer, the Director of The Comedy School, up to Blackpool to see Bernard Manning at a club on the sea-front for a Channel 4 documentary to be screened after his death, “Bernard Manning R.I.P.”, a bizarre obituary…

As one of the founder-members of the right-on “p.c.” “Comedy Store” and “Comic Strip” in the early 1980’s, I obviously had conceived ideas about this particular performer and his racist, sexist ideas. Channel 4 wanted to find out my reactions after seeing this ‘alternative comedy’ bête noire live for the very first time.

The club itself was in a 50’s time-warp, run-down, slightly sleazy and packed with about 100 punters who definitely knew what they had come for: a great night out, lots of cheap laughs about foreigners and minorities, fuelled by a never-ending supply of booze. The audience was unashamedly working-class, men and women, a mixture of the middle-aged, a number in their twenties and thirties and a sprinkling of obviously regular elderly fans, some of whom Manning even seemed to know by first names.

He actually sat on a chair on stage (he’s now 76, seriously overweight and trying to cope with the ravages of diabetes) in front of a tacky old-fashioned aluminium-foil curtain, introduced by a toothy, grinning compere whose heyday had long since gone.

As indicated, Manning is quite frail now, obviously well past his “Comedians” TV prime, but he still managed to keep up a briskish pace throughout, albeit having to be bolstered up now and then by occasionally bursting into song (his early days were as a singer with the big show bands of the 1950’s). Shrewdly, he chose Scottish and Irish favourites with which the audience could even join in, clearly always pressing the right nationalistic buttons. Strangely enough, I found this aspect of working-class culture rather moving, but maybe I can put this down to my inherently middle-class patronising pre-assumptions about the dangers of patriotism…

To be fair, throughout the evening there were a few brilliant jokes (the one about the chicken crossing the road is a classic), his timing is still pretty good for his age and he managed to maintain a beatific, avuncular demeanour – always a benign, cheery glint in his eyes – even while spouting the most vicious of his jokes. Despite all this, it was a depressing thought that there is still an audience for such mostly misanthropic material.

Keith Palmer was the sole member of the African Caribbean community in the audience and within 10 minutes of the start of his act, he was brutally picked upon:

Bernard Manning: “I see we’ve got a black fella in tonight. Where are you from, son?”
Keith Palmer: “London.”
Bernard Manning: “Where are you from before that? I think he thinks he’s English.”

Then he went on to say:
“Just because a donkey’s born in a stable, it doesn’t make it a horse.”

Manning went on to suggest that he would pay for Keith to go to any country he might care to choose… The audience lapped it all up. This was their kind of comedy. Very, very racist.

The fact that the media – TV, radio etc. – have long since marginalised this brand of offensive “humour” is satisfying, but less comfortable is the knowledge that there will always be a hard-core minority who seek it out and relish it. Usually at the lower end of the social order, these are the ones who still need a scapegoat to blame their lack of economic success on, and who better a target than minorities – and all types of foreigners – with their different customs and life-style? Being of the Jewish persuasion, I can obviously understand where all this blatant demonisation can lead to… Or am I just being paranoid?

Throughout the evening, there was an obvious contradiction between the frequent exhortations by Manning that “we should all look after each other blah-blah-blah” and the hateful underbelly of his act.

As Keith explained at length on the train home, the tirade of abuse he was subjected to was so traumatic, he actually switched off for the rest of the act – and I can sympathise with this. In such a hostile environment where everyone else is applauding the most racist attitudes on stage, the person at the butt of the diatribe is humiliated, demeaned and insulted.

Sadly, it was all too predictable. In the safe knowledge that the whole club shared his obnoxious views, Bernard Manning was given carte blanche to say exactly what he knew the audience had come for: an evening of hate-filled bile.

Afterwards, when Channel 4 filmed Keith, myself and others challenging him on all these issues, time and time again Manning dismissed our criticisms with the allegation “It’s just a joke”. This was emphatically belied later by one of the cameramen telling us that on Manning’s mantelpiece at home is proudly displayed a bust of Enoch Powell. Remember him and his “rivers of blood” speech?

A final thought. When asked what limitations in terms of content or subject matter he imposes on himself, he pondered for a moment and said that he was disgusted with comedians like Jo Brand referring to tampons in their act. This seemed pathetic and misogynistic when compared to his choice of material, for example being quite at home making a gratuitous nasty crack about the holocaust. It’s a very strange world…


At 13 July, 2007 17:10, Anonymous Simon WIlkinson said...

I know I write rather belatedly, but I write after watching last night's programme.

Firstly, the issue of the late, great Bernard Manning. Your comments show clearly that you do not understand his humour at all. I do accept that he had certain racial prejudices. He shared those with many of his generation (my late grandmother included), who witnessed the large unstoppable wave of immigration in the 1950s and were worried. Hindsight proves their worries unfounded, yet sadly these people were not gifted with some supernatural power of hindsight. Incidentally I believe that a slight xenophobia/jingoism is inherent in a majority of Britons today. As the late and great Parliamentarian Eric Forth summed up- he stood up for the "bigotted majority" in his Bromley constituency.

Mr Manning repeatedly said that his jokes were to instil humour. Your colleague and yourself did not seem to grasp this point on your programme. He had no political motive. He hated the evil, (I hesitate to say Right-wing as they are not) extremist politics of the BNP. He simply believed that no subject should be taboo. As general banter amongst friends I constantly find myself the butt of jokes. Were I to be offended I should be a sad and lonely young man. Should Les Dawson's mother-in-law have told her daughter to divorce him? Should all office workers and film extras launch a mass rally against Ricky Gervais? Should all villagers in the UK have boycotted the Vicar of Dibley...I think not.

As Mr Manning repeatedly pointed out- although he did not aim to put politics into comedy, the leftist PC brigade (yourself seemingly included) have done. That is why he was sidelined. I think that all people who called themselves "comedians" who hated Mr Manning simply through a lack of intellectual openess which prevented them from understanding his humour should be ashamed.

Secondly, I take issue with your comments about Northern life. I class my situation, or my family's (I am a poor student!) as middle class. Yet being on the Right of the political spectrum and not part of the Chattering Classes I do not take a patronising view of Northern life: the "tacky" working men's clubs, silver foil curtains and working-class entertainers that those like yourself do. I am Northern myself and proud of it. A gradual London-isation of Britain is taking place with the complicit help of all left-thinking organisations and patronising champagne socialists.

Finally your implicit reference to Enoch Powell as a racist. As anyone with a modicum of understanding of British Politics would accept, Mr Powell was a great Member of Parliament and a great Briton. His Rivers of Blood Speech has been wildly misinterpreted and sadly taken too literally by the BNP and others of their ilke. Mr Powell spent his life devoted to this country. A giant of British politics who put beliefs and Britain before pandering to the left-bias media or those in his own party (sadly including Mr Heath) who wished to put their own careers before principle. I suggest that you read about Mr Powell's life in Simon Heffer's authoritative biography "Like the Roman", that is if you can bear to read anything written by the "evil" Mr Heffer- I hope you not my sarcasm. As a Conservative party supporter and a huge fan of Enoch Powell's beliefs in monetarism, the EU and social policy (immigration policy and Rivers of Blood aside), I take offence to your remarks. Because I support Powellism am I a racist? Because Lady Thatcher took economic ideas first proposed by Mr Powell and turned them into the most successful economic policy our country has ever seen is she racist? I think not. Before making such flippant remarks and fallacious arguments in the future please think.

Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions of Mr Manning. If you just didn't find him funny then I accept that. But to accuse him of racism, or to dislike him because he was some grubby little Northerner who was jumped up enough to play at the MGM Grand and dare to meet the Queen when good un-Northern socialist comics do not is simply inexcusable, naive and plainly daft.


Simon Wilkinson

At 22 May, 2008 14:38, Anonymous Eve Guevara-Sansom said...

the real problem with Manning was - he was ELTIST - in his own eyes he was an 'IT' - women took as much of his twisted 'humour' as Blacks. I feel he just targeted the lowest rung humour in U.K. to encourage a 'following' for himself. He did have Black friends - he was only bothered about reaching and staying at the top - meeting top status people - we were all really beneath him - in his own terms.


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