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Bernard Manning: the oldest and truest punk in town

Some brief thoughts penned in sorrow upon hearing of the death of the foul-mouthed comedian.

Ed Barrett

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Bernard Manning, one of Britain’s most famous comedians, died yesterday at the age of 76. He was the very antithesis of the politically-correct, right-on ‘alternative’ comedy of the 1980s, and was generally regarded by liberal performers and commentators as little more than a racist bigot (1).

Here, a long-time fan explains why Manning was actually the funniest comedian of them all.

  1. Contrary to popular misconception, Bernard Manning could be very funny without being ‘blue’ or otherwise offensive. Fortunately, he preferred to be offensive and was downright hilarious when he was. His view of clean gags was simple: ‘They’re childish, aren’t they?’
  2. Manning never intellectualised his appeal, but he instinctively understood that humour cannot be controlled or policed. ‘They can’t stop us laughing’, he used to say, and he was right. A joke may be deemed inappropriate or unhelpful, but even Ben Elton can’t make it unfunny. (Unless he tells it himself.)
  3. His prejudices were real, and his outspoken opinions genuinely held. He was a racist ­- no point in pretending otherwise – but his claim that he picked on everyone was true. He regularly bit the hand that fed him (hence his absence from TV) and he was more than happy to cause grave offence to the great and the good, to their faces when he got the chance. He never seemed happier than when he was upsetting all and sundry at private engagements, prompting gasps and walk-outs from those unaccustomed to his distinctive brand of comedy.
  4. Unlike Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, Manning never made clever satirical points about the royal family. He preferred to insult them instead. At a recent charity dinner, he approached a friend of the late Queen Mother and said: ‘One corgi turns to another and says, “Thank fuck the Queen Mum’s dead, now we won’t be blamed for the smell of piss.”’ Readers can make up their own minds about this sort of behaviour.
  5. Today’s Sun declares: RACIST IN PEACE. But Bernard was no hypocrite and he wouldn’t have complained. He often spoke ill of the dead, and never more pointedly than when Roy ‘Record Breakers’ Castle passed away. (‘No-one had heard of him till he got cancer. The doctors told him he had six months to live; he said, I’ll do it in four!’) Right to the end he was still accepting cigarettes with a cheery ‘Fuck Roy Castle!’
  6. He didn’t go in for showbiz back-slapping. On the contrary, he relished running down the competition (‘don’t go mixing up our wage packets’). The sense of danger that surrounded him could disconcert even seasoned pros. During The Comedians reunion special he lurked in the first row like a crocodile and heckled Stan Boardman and friends as they sweated through their routines. Needless to say they were the funniest heckles you will ever hear. Even during his ill-advised appearance on The Mrs Merton Show it was noticeable that Caroline Aherne, the queen of the barbed one-liner, was more nervous and disoriented than he was.
  7. The Mr Nasty image helped put a Roller outside his house and a roll of ‘deep sea divers’ in his trouser pocket. But it also reflected other things that set him apart, such as his refusal to compromise or give in to the demands of ‘public taste’. Manning was the oldest ­- and truest ­- punk in town. He said and did what he liked, and didn’t give a flying blue word what anyone thought.
    Standards and sensibilities in the entertainment business have changed dramatically over the past four decades. Mainstream figures have been banished; rebels have been co-opted and rehabilitated. Yet Bernard Manning has remained persona non grata for the entire time. The only other celebrities to share this distinction are Moors Murderer Ian Brady and Adolf Hitler (both of whom enjoyed considerably more TV exposure).

  8. For his epitaph, he once suggested: ‘At least I’m not at Old Trafford.’ I would suggest something less modest – The World’s Greatest Stand-Up, perhaps. Or better still, the tag once given by the Sunday Express to anti-IRA politician Gerry Fitt: The Bravest Man in Britain.
  9. He was the last man in England to eat chops, boiled potatoes and peas for his tea.
  10. He was a bloody nice bloke, actually. Farewell, Bernard. I for one will miss you.

Ed Barrett writes for Anorak.

Previously on spiked

Ed Barrett praised his other favourite comedian: Michael Palin. Jennie Bristow discussed the case of the politician who told a racist joke. Tim Black praised the excruciating comedy of Peep Show. Patrick West wanted to kill off catchphrase comedy. Or read on at spiked-issue Arts and entertainment

(1) For a sample of the reaction against Manning, see Surplus Manning, Marcus Brigstocke, Comment is Free, 19 June 2007

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