Time has not been kind to the legacy of Bernard Manning, like that of many other comedians of his generation. Like Benny Hill, his career is as much remembered for the criticism of the act itself as for the act itself. Manning, like Hill, found themselves at the end of their lives seeing their careers re-evaluated through the lens of changing tastes and different standards in terms of what it was acceptable to joke about. And just as how Hill's occasional blackface and impersonations of "Chow Min", a local Chinese businessman are painful to watch, so too are the quips Manning was famous for.
This writeup will not concentrate on Bernard Manning, the man. He was apparently a very private man outside of his comedy act, in which he appeared on stage, obese and sweating with huge bushy eyebrows and tiny eyes submerged in a swollen face and told a rapid series of one-liners. He had a pronounced Mancunian accent and hinted at an upbringing with one tap in the house, which only ever dispensed cold water.
As a comedian, who honed his skills in "working man's clubs" and eventually opened his own - he was equal parts insult comic and teller of jokes, which he delivered rapid-fire. In keeping with his audience and his career in general, they were offensive. Nothing was generally off limits - he'd make jokes about race, religion, sexuality, and pepper them with expletives. He had the kind of banter in which he'd welcome a guy celebrating his bachelor party and point him out and wish him well, get in a couple of below the blow digs, but then end with having the crowd applaud him to ensure no hard feelings.
And it's this, in part - that has made Manning's career such a stone in the craw of the darling, politically correct later comedians who mocked his act. Because Manning didn't have any actual animus or hatred towards any of the groups he mocked. If anything, they tended to either mock the trope that the racist joke was made on, or mocked the general British public attitude to it. Though his material is offensive by today's standards, one could never actually accuse him of trying to generate any actual hatred. He bracketed jokes like that with softening comments such as "they can't stop us from laughing" or "it's all in fun".
The second reason they hated him was because he was a damn good comedian.
Whether you love or you hate his material, his timing was flawless. He could work a crowd and was able to take up, tone down, and win over large groups of people.
He had a way of taking an offhand obvious joke and playing out the material, or adding tiny flourishes which turned an obvious and puerile premise into a cleverer one. In one sight gag, he'd take a flute and "play" it (actually ventriloquist-whistling) first with his mouth, and then mime inserting it rectally. Before bringing it back to his face, and absentmindedly thinking twice and turning the flute around so that he'd continue to "play" it via the other end before bringing it to his lips.
He would also play with an audience's expectations AWAY from the expected prejudice. At one point he would tell a Jewish joke, then pause and get incredibly serious, bring up his Jewish heritage - and say "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with a concentration camp joke... I just found out one of my relatives died at Auschwitz." When the audience went all somber on him and the energy fell out of the room, he'd go with "Fell out of the guard tower." Or the time he pretended two men in the audience had fought very valiantly in Goose Green in the Falkland Islands War, and lauded their bravery. As the audience whipped itself into nationalistic and patriotic fervor, he'd then congratulate them on having served their country, Argentina, very well.
Though he was discovered on TV with a special, the 1970s "The Comedians", he generally shied away from television, preferring for many reasons the intimacy and interplay of working a comedy club. His act wasn't really tailored for the kind of "HBO Special" show modern comedians live for - but the kind of atmosphere in which you'd hear the bar backs clinking glasses and he could riff on people standing by the bar.
One interesting experience is watching one of his final TV appearances. Caroline Aherne, playing an elderly talk show host Mrs. Merton, brought him on her show and sat him down next to the "You wouldn't believe it!" plummy-mouthed curmudgeon from One Foot In the Grave, Richard Wilson - who simply sat there angrily staring at Manning the entire time.
Whereas Manning knew he was walking into a hostile audience and a hostile interviewer, he did it anyway, garnering good laughs from the audience (and even the hostess, trying to conceal it because of her own politics)... at first. Though Manning's gags were getting old by then (he referred to the completely silent man beside him as "a trainee corpse") he was getting laughs. Aherne, on the other hand, could think of literally nothing to do but simply call him racist, say over and over (with a sycophantic crowd) "wouldn't it be better if you weren't racist", and remarked that she'd had a lovely time at his Embassy club - the night it burned down. Aherne didn't have the comic skill to make that line work, and it just came across as the dismissive PC putdown it was meant to be "your place burned down... ha ha ha". But then again, Aherne was an overpromoted, untalented but young, hip woman who had the right politics at the right time. Manning had spent decades in rough bars through bad sound systems, hecklers, drunken fights and being heard over clanking glasses. He could write a line, he could time a line, and he could work the emotional responses and swerves required to make it work.
Manning, on the other hand, made an excellent insurance fraud joke out of the whole thing and got the crowd laughing again. It was something about the fire brigade learning that he'd lost a $12,000 gold watch in the fire and were seriously looking for it - saying they were very sorry, but weren't sure they were going to find it. Manning was all like "aye, pal, I'm pretty sure you won't."
But with repeated insult, Manning finally lost his temper, went off script and suddenly started asking the two comedians tag-teaming him how much had they earned, how many command performances had they done, how many countries had they visited, and how many crowds had they entertained. Wilson simply sniffed - "I didn't do any command performances, I turned them down" which got the applause of the young, hip and republican crowd. But the remark stuck. For all they hated him, he'd certainly accomplished more with his life than the recently-now deceased Aherne ever had.
Aherne, after leaving the unfunny "Mrs. Merton" show, went ahead with the show she's famous for, The Royle Family, based entirely on observations of a poor white family who she repaid for rescuing her unconscious off a sidewalk by making fun of them and their social class making a show around them. It ran for two seasons, and then she disappeared in disgrace and drink and drugs after drunkenly heckling a much beloved recipient of a lifetime achievement award repeatedly on live television.
And of course, "edgy" racist, sexist and homophobic-based ugly comedy has made a comeback, what with Daniel Tosh and others making quite a living from learning how to dig nastily at the scar tissue of past racial and sexist wounds. Because despite the brownie points of the likes of Aherne and Ben Elton in the UK and Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho in the US aside - doing nothing but buttering up a left liberal crowd with left liberal platitudes gets applause, but few laughs.
Comedy is an evolutionary response to pain, and requires pain to work. If you're not put off balance and uncomfortable by the setup, you can't get the catharsis of a laugh from the punchline. That's an unfortunte problem with comedy, and it's a painful truth. The most politically correct of comedians, if you look at it - simply do the same thing as the people they mock - just with different targets.
Manning, later in life was invited to see the country he made so many "Paki" jokes about - India - for himself. He went and toured the place and came back with a greater appreciation for the plight of people fleeing circumstances he could never have imagined. For all of the hardships of growing up in post-war Northern England, it paled in comparison to the levels of brutal poverty he saw there - and he was very open and very public about saying he begrudged NOBODY seeking to escape that and seek a better life in the UK.
Taken in the context of community standards of his day, his own personal belief system (no Klansman would ever come back from Africa and say "we have to help black folks there!"), and his repeated admission that it was only ever about a laugh- his material is worth studying not only for its delivery, but as a capsule of the kinds of things that were acceptable humor in England prior to the 1990s.
His "Spiritual" successor, Roy "Chubby" Brown has kept the weight and the sexual humor, but avoided race completely and most of the homophobic jokes.
And of course, given we've forgotten much of the humor from the period, it's great to be surprised by the gems we can still use today - (which I've taken the liberty of retelling in American English) - like Santa Claus being interrupted by a beautiful 19 year old with pert breasts wanting to thank him for all those presents, all those years. He says "I'd love to, but I've got so much work to d..." trailing off as she opens her creamy thighs and reveals her lack of underwear. "Well, I might as well", he sighs, "there's no way I'm getting back up that chimney otherwise."