MENTION the name Bernard Manning these days, particularly to those of the Leftie persuasion, and the response will be: ‘Vile old racist homophobe’. Yet while he did tell racial jokes back in the Seventies, so did every other comedian – today’s arch-luvvie Lenny Henry for one, with his crude black caricatures. It was the culture of the time.
I prefer to remember Bernard, who died in 2007, as a kind and loyal man, entirely unpretentious, proudly working-class and with the talent to time every gag to perfection. As another uber-luvvie Stephen Fry put it, ‘I do admire Bernard Manning’s ability with a joke. Few comedians I’ve ever seen have been able to make the art look so simple.’
And watch this clip from TV-am when Bernard appears beside none other than the ultra-camp Kenneth Williams and they have each other in stitches.
Bernard John Manning was born in the poor Manchester district of Harpurhey in 1930. He had Jewish and Irish ancestry – so when he used both races as the butt of his jokes, he was poking fun at himself. His early ambition was to be a singer and he moved to London as vocalist with the Oscar Rabin Band, but was homesick and came back up north, where he honed his craft as a compere and comedian. In 1959 he bought a rundown billiard hall near the family home and turned it into the World Famous Embassy Club, which was an instant success. Among the acts he booked in the Sixties were the Beatles. ‘They were 14 quid and they just did a one-off show,’ he recalled. ‘All nice boys, got there dressed, went on and did the show and then buggered off. That John Lennon drove me potty because he wanted a dressing room with a washbasin. What did he want that for? You come here to work, not to wash.’
Although he put in a nightly appearance at the Embassy, Manning worked all over the North West in cabaret and at working men’s clubs, which is where he came into contact with my father. Jim Ashworth was the entertainments secretary at the Tacklers’ Club, officially the Overlookers’ Association, run by mill workers in Nelson, Lancashire. He booked Bernard several times and he always went down a storm. I was allowed to go and watch, spending my time frantically writing down every joke ready to repeat them at school the following day. He was also the biggest star of the ITV series The Comedians, which turned him into a household name.
Some time after Dad died in 1980, aged only 48, my mother contacted Bernard to tell him the sad news. One night a chauffeur-driven car arrived at her home and whisked her and my sister off to the Embassy Club, where they were fed scampi and chips, plied with alcohol, serenaded and thoroughly cheered up at Manning’s expense before being returned the 30 miles to Nelson.
In his excellent autobiography I Wanna Be Yours, the poet John Cooper Clarke describes how his own career was launched by Manning. The long-haired Mancunian beanpole turned up at the Embassy one night and asked for an audition. ‘It didn’t start well,’ he recalls. ‘Don’t waste your time,’ Bernard told me. ‘They don’t like poetry here, kid. Half of them can’t f***ing read. You want to try one of them colleges.’
He agreed, however, to listen to JCC’s act and enjoyed it. ‘All right, go on then, give it a go,’ he said. Clarke salutes ‘my mentor, the late Bernard Manning, the first man to give me cash money for doing what I do’.
He adds: ‘Bernard was a self-made hate figure who over time achieved the status of folk devil. It was in his personal interest to keep it that way. He was, however, capable of doing good by stealth and there are many stories of his personal generosity.’
The last time I saw Manning in the flesh was in 1990, at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend-on-Sea. It was a disturbing night, with most of the Essex crowd clearly there for the racist language and nothing else. Mentions of the N- and P-words were greeted with cheers while his best jokes met with baffled silence. Not so much a comedy gig, more a National Front rally.
That reminds me of a night at the Embassy Club when Bernard turned the audience’s jingoism on its head. It was in the aftermath of the Falklands War and he announced: ‘I’m proud to say that among us here tonight are two lads who fought in the battle of Goose Green.’ Cue clapping, cheering and banging of tables. ‘Take a bow, Pedro and Juan.’ Cue stunned silence, then eventually embarrassed laughter.
Asked if he was really a racist, Manning replied: ‘I get up on stage and I do an act. It’s not me, just as an actor playing a part in a film isn’t the character. It’s my act, not me. It’s all a joke.’
I could go on about Bernard’s many charitable acts and his friends of all races, but I shouldn’t think this will change many people’s opinion of him. So I’ll conclude with a selection of his gags, to be read out in a gruff Manchester accent.
Irishman is accused of rape and they put him in an identity parade. The victim walks in and he shouts: ‘That’s her!’
Little lad walks into a sweet shop, says, ‘Give me a quarter of bloody dolly mixtures’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ says the shopkeeper. ‘Give me a quarter of bloody dolly mixtures and get on with it, I haven’t got all day.’ ‘Right,’ says the shopkeeper. ‘You stand behind the counter, I will come in and show you how to ask properly.’ He goes out, comes back in and says, ‘Please may I have a quarter of dolly mixtures?’ Lad says, ‘P*ss off, you wouldn’t serve me.’
People say I’m fat and ugly but I’ll have you know that I once won second place in a Robert Redford lookalike contest. Frank Bruno won it.
I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, ‘toys not included’.
I don’t believe Scots are as tight as people say, but I did hear that when two taxis collided in Glasgow recently 48 people were injured.
I went to see that Pavarotti last week and he was a right miserable git. He doesn’t like it when you join in.
I’m glad I’m not bisexual. I couldn’t stand being rejected by men as well as women.
I like to go to Liverpool once in a while to visit my hubcaps.
And finally, my favourite:
Chinese bloke runs a takeaway next door to a Greek kebab shop. Every day when the Greek sees him he shouts: ‘Flied lice, Jimmy, flied lice.’ Jimmy is upset by this and starts going for elocution lessons. Three months later the Greek says: ‘Flied lice, Jimmy.’ He replies: ‘Fried rice, you Gleek lat.’
Calling all Crimson fans
HAVING written here some time ago about the early days of King Crimson, I was pleased the other day to receive an email from Yasmine Giles, wife of founder member Peter.
She informs me: ‘He is alive and well and running (an international athlete), playing bass and singing in a band with his me. I play piano, keys and sing. We have just released an album of 10 x original songs:
‘We wrote, arranged, played, sang and recorded everything in our analogue home studio in Claygate, Surrey. We are playing at the newly established Esher Theatre for 3 x dates in March: Also at Pizza Express, The Pheasantry, King’s Road, London. Incidentally, Robert Fripp’s wife Toyah Willcox is playing at Esher Theatre the week before us.’
A PS from PG
He had been looking like a dead fish. He now looked like a deader fish, one of last year’s, cast up on some lonely beach and left there at the mercy of the wind and tides.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves