I’ve always believed there are two types of people: those who find Bernard Manning funny, and those who pretend they don’t.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion about Bernard Manning and most people have one. I never met the guy but those people who knew him well swear he wasn’t a racist. Most who maintain he was never knew him, only his act…and many not even that, given how few of his detractors ever saw him in the flesh. I don’t know what, if any, conclusions we can draw from this, but informed opinions do, on the whole, tend to be a better guide than the uninformed variety.
Those who defend Manning often mention his tireless charity work. Mike Reid, who worked with Manning on The Comedians, commented that unlike some other celebrities who earned regular plaudits for giving their time free of charge – sacrifices invariably accompanied by fat expense claims for hotels and travel – Manning never took a penny for his efforts. Indeed, he was better known for marking his pro bono appearances with sizable, personal donations of his own. No fanfare, no kudos. There are countless stories of audience members at one of his gigs receiving lifts home in his limo and his bankrolling of numerous community projects – youth clubs, local football teams, etc. – is common knowledge around the north west.
So far as his stage material is concerned, the case for the defence rests on Manning’s scatter-gun approach which ensured all ethnicities, colours and religious persuasions received their fair share of abuse, although jokes about the disabled were out. And of course, his live acts never were just a flood of ostensibly racist gags, as his critics would have you believe.
For all its faults, Britain is a tolerant country and for very much the most part, minority communities are not persecuted or intimidated for their race, colour or creed. They don’t live in daily fear of a flying fist or a brick through the window. This is the context for a working class comedian making the jokes he did instead of writing six episodes of “My Family”. If Manning had lived and worked in Mississippi during the periods young black men could finish the night hanging from a tree by the neck, the context would have been different and, consequently, his jokes would have been less funny. Considerably less funny.
I don’t know for sure if Manning was a racist but then I was never asked to vote for him or endorse any of his views. He got up on stage and his job was to be funny and he usually was – in a way that Jim Davidson never has been and Roy “Chubby” Brown manages all too infrequently. And even if he was racist, the fact is that funny fat blokes with an inexhaustible supply of one-liners don’t dictate the social agenda: they really don’t. I’ll take my moral lead from my parents, maybe my priest, and I’ll demand our politicians and law-makers create a country in which genuine racism and hate – the kind that makes you bleed – is deplored and punished.
In the meantime, I want firefighters to put out fires, doctors to make me feel better, plumbers to fix my washing machine and comedians to make me laugh. If they can manage this by relaying stories about the high jinks performed by colourful characters at the Tuesday night book club, then great. If, on the other hand, I have to turn off my racism antenna temporarily in order that I can laugh until I’m physically sick, then that’s okay too. The reason it’s ‘okay’ is because like the vast majority of the thousands of aching souls who have left the Embassy club for several decades, I’m actually a good bloke who knows what is right, and who appreciates a joke for what it is: a construction of words arranged in a way to maximize comedic impact, and emphatically not a design for life.