A comedian is dead and it makes the BBC ten’o’clock news. It was part of Bernard Manning’s curse that he wasn’t just a comedian he was a symbol.
For many he was a champion of un-caged humour, a man of the people representing his generation and traditions: a man who mocked any target regardless of colour and creed. Thus if a black face stood out in a audience he’d have a go, but he did the same with a person just arriving late for his shows.
If we’re being kind the paper has just been caught up in the general confusion Britain feels about its identity – especially white Britain. If we’re being unkind they’re hoping for bumper sales in North Manchester.
To others, 99% of whom never saw him perform, Manning was a ludicrous dinosaur out of touch with the way the country was changing. For ethnic groups, feminists and gays Manning’s brand of joke-telling was obnoxious and threatening. For white liberals he was especially disturbing exposing a part of their own culture they’d rather forget. It’s fine when the working class are having jubilee street parties and singing jolly songs but not so good when they’re being stroppily independent. Manning, was never a benign working class representative like Les Dawson, instead he expressed the uncomfortable humour he’d grown up with.
And together with these polarised views Manning also occupied a carefully cultivated middle ground as a warm-hearted, family man who did lots for charity.
All these contradictions were - are - perplexing. So perplexing, that editors of newspapers get confused.
This is clear in today’s priceless Manchester Evening News. The main headline reads ‘Bernard has the last laugh’ and mocks the ‘politically-correct’ who turned their backs on him. Meanwhile the back page has a headline reading ‘Don’t let those race bullies win’, about City’s Nedum Onuoha being racially insulted during England’s match against Serbia. But surely dear MEN, the Serbians didn’t really mean it did they? They were just having a laugh like good old Bernard, weren’t they? Don't be so politically correct.
If we’re being kind the paper is caught up in the general confusion Britain feels about its identity – especially white Britain. If we’re being unkind they’re hoping for bumper sales in North Manchester - which is short-sighted to say the least. Hey, Hardman Street fellas, the world is changing.
So how will the big man be remembered?
Well, the simple fact of the matter was that Manning was racist – he admitted this live on the Mrs Merton Show. But maybe he was just teasing? That doesn’t matter in the end. By saying you are racist means you might as well be. And racism's an expired point of view – you can’t really have a popular face of racism as the MEN seems to think. This is a fact forgotten in the personal tributes following his death by people of many political persuasions. But then if you get too close to something you lose perspective, you miss the big picture.
In twenty years time Tony Blair will principally be remembered for the Iraq War, in twenty years time Bernard Manning, outside his family and friends will be remembered, if at all, as a racist, misogynist, homophobic comedian. Unlike Eric Morecambe, Manning will never get a statue tourists love to dance around. Nor will he ever gain the universal affection that his fellow north Mancunian, Les Dawson, still draws. This is a shame as he could have used his undoubted talent to be up there with this pair, in terms of love and respect.
But there is one lesson to be learned from all this. Liberty in the West is all about freedom of speech, which usually means we don’t shut up those we disagree with. We can ignore them or deride them but we don’t forcibly silence them. In the end time and public opinion does this, thus no TV company would touch Manning’s brand of humour.
These freedoms might be coming to an end if we’re not careful. Recent anti-terror laws and laws designed to protect people from discrimination may have gone too far. Some of Manning’s act in his heyday and latterly might now be considered illegal. If any action had been taken this would have exacerbated a sense of injustice, real or perceived, amongst inner-urban white working class communities. Surely it’s better to have the freedom to voice unpalatable jokes than have the thought-police in control. The bizarre contradictions in the Manchester Evening News are all part of this tradition of freedom of speech. And if they weren’t so ridiculous would be the real comedy moment of the day.
What do you think of Bernard Manning? Tell us below.
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