First and foremost, and it's the nature of the man's life's work that I have to do this - I will state unequivocally that I found Bernard Manning's material abhorrent, racist, and downright mean.

That being said, I also agree with Stephen Fry who said of him after his death that he was the absolute best at being able to tell a joke.

Manning was not a well man towards the end of his life. His wife had predeceased him, having died of a heart attack in her fifties - but he ballooned up to over three hundred pounds later in life. Described as sweaty for a reason, he dealt with type 2 diabetes and with high blood pressure as a result. He knew in 2006 somehow he wasn't long for this world - either he'd been given a diagnosis, or at 76 he realized he couldn't live forever. But either way, he decided to make a video that served three purposes.

The first was as his own eulogy. In his classic presentation tuxedo, he tells a few jokes that will be rebroadcast at his funeral - as he eulogizes himself. Some of this is inserted into the DVD, and it is a strange sight to behold. An anachronistic view of a man in an old school outfit, with his classic delivery, punctuating his delivery with a suck on a lit cigar as he literally says goodbye to all his friends.

The second is as an apologia of sorts - the classic Greek sense of apology - not our modern understanding of "I'm sorry" but a literal defense of something. He accomplishes this by staging his vision of the afterlife. First reading "The Catholic Times" in a kind of celestial green room, and then taking a stage lit with blue light and being heckled by Saint Peter. Asking him if he wants to apologize to anyone for any reason - he states "no" emphatically. He told jokes, that's it. Never hurt anyone. Maybe a couple of weighted business dealings, but overall he was a kind family man who had this act as a boorish bigot spewing jokes about The Chinese, and "Pakis". 

What surreally and eerily kicked this off was footage designed to be inserted into the actual funeral recording. Through the magic of digital composition he comments on his own body in the coffin, lying there in his trademark multicolored shirt he wore later in his career. He sits in the audience at his own funeral making sarcastic heckling remarks about those eulogizing him. It's very Tibetan Book of the Dead in a way - the international theory that ghosts hang around their loved ones and body for a short while before moving on. It's morbidly eerie watching him comment on his own corpse while appearing to stare directly at his own enbalmed body.

Threaded through this is a documentary of sorts, and footage of him winding his life down. We see him shirtless (thankfully, from the neck up) dealing with the 14 pills and two needles he needs per day to maintain his medical conditions. He shuffles awkwardly into the church that will eventually hold his funeral. He and his son visit a funeral parlor to choose a coffin so that the son won't have to make all manner of painful decisions in the aftermath of his death. The camera records his last ever joke: "Do you want to be buried or cremated, Dad?" "Surprise me." Hie eyes tear up and you suddenly get a real human empathy for him. You may have hated Bernard Manning, the sweaty racist comedian - but this broken-down, pale, weak voiced human being trying not to think about losing his son is hard to watch.

His most staunch supporters were his neighbours, who were of Indian origin. He made the husband the butt of one of his most famous jokes: "The fella next door to me says "I'm better than you", he says. I ask him why is that. He says "Because I don't have a Pakistani living next to me!" - but according to them, who were very vocal in their defense of him over the years - they insisted that it was an act. He was nothing but a gentleman to them and genuinely loved them. If that's racism, they said, can we have more of that? That never stopped the accusations flying and you could see the disgust on Manning's face as he's asked if he'd vote for Hitler or if he was going to play a BNP rally.

Others try a better apologia of Manning's life. They put him into a historical context: when he was young, they still celebrated Empire Day. When he was a child, "all these here, were shops" and so forth. He watched, over the years - his neighborhood change from mostly friends and neighbors to brown faces speaking strange languages that he'd been taught as a very young child were basically possessions of the Crown. He honed his craft in rough, working man's clubs in the North of England and eventually ran his own. He may have disappeared from Manchester to go down to London for a TV taping or once to Las Vegas for an engagement - but he never stayed. He was always desperate to get back to the "World Famous" Embassy Club - that he started with his father and which was run by his family. He died within five miles of where he was born, never leaving the Manchester of his youth. He was a workaholic, running his club and telling the same jokes to the same appreciative audiences - while the world passed that by.

They also try and put his two most infamous moments into perspective: 

 In the 1990s the alternative comedy left leaning right-on comedians included Caroline Aherne who played an elderly talk show host called "Mrs. Merton". From the get-go she insulted Manning before he even appeared, warning the audience for their health that this program might contain Bernard Manning. Most people remember the incident in terms of the aftermath, sound bites taken in isolation. Merton was the queen of the acid barbs, but in this particular show she looked off her game and terrified, as well she should be. Manning had spent decades dealing with hecklers, and was more than ready for her. At first he had the audience on his side, but made two critical errors: ones that would have played well in his club milieu, but that were disastrous on television.

Realizing that (this was live TV) Aherne had a whole host of gags, ripostes and sarcastic comments based on his expected "no, no I'm not racist" response to being questioned about same - he called her bluff and said "Yes, I am. There's people I like, and people I don't." It may have taken the wind completely out of her sails, but that was a terrible sound bite to hit the news the following day. He also took a tack that Carlos Mencia would later steal, saying any criticism of him was pure jealousy. He pointed out that he was basically funnier, richer, with a more lasting audience and greater social impact than she or any other detractor would ever have. He was, of course right. Manning is known to generations of English folks, whereas Caroline Aherne has had a couple of minor hits but nothing more. But basically flashing a wad of cash at her and saying "I'm a success, and you suck" Sucka MC rant came across as petty, combative, and frankly rather crass. Watching the sequence, you realize that it went where it went quickly because Aherne wanted to do nothing more than use him as a punching bag, and when he didn't play ball, it descended into personal attack on both sides very quickly. And frankly, of the two, he came out the victor in the battle - but not the war.

The other was a carefully edited surreptitious recording of a concert he did for police officers recorded by World In Action. In it he told a gag which basically amounted to when you're given the British equivalent of the Miranda rights and everything you say is being recorded and will be used in court - say right away "stop hitting me, officer". Or if you're a nigger (sic) add "again and again and again" to the end of it. It was clearly an anti-police joke, but his use of the word "nigger" was what they focused on hard. Again, this was a function mostly of Manning's upbringing. I myself have very aged British relatives who will describe a certain shade of brown as "nigger brown" and think nothing of it until reminded that the first word in that sequence is not acceptable to use ever, at which point they will say it was merely force of habit. And whereas Manning himself used to say "they're only jokes, can't tek em serious" certain things for him were off limits. Much as he didn't like his country being overrun by people from India and Pakistan, he would never, ever use the word "wog" (which is a racist demonym of people from those countries) and jokes about tampons or the handicapped were absolutely off limits. To him the word "wog" was nothing more than a racist insult, but the word "nigger" was a word that we used with historical roots until some po-faced, picky complainers decided everything was racist. Manning was of course absolutely wrong, but it showed that it was more of a function of him thinking the word nigger wasn't racist versus him tolerating racism. And completely lost in this exchange was him basically mocking an entire room of policemen to their face that they abuse minorities.

To him, there were no sacred cows. He was a staunch royalist, but he joked that the corgis were glad when the Queen Mother died because they would no longer be blamed for urine on the couch. 

From within and without, the DVD shows (mostly from others) that this was a man who had basically stayed in an insular bubble in a coverted billiard hall in Manchester - and the world outside changed and passed him by. He lived long enough to see his neighborhood change, community standards change to reject his life's work, and the decline and fall of the working man's club. Along with that came his physical decline, which he documented in a very wistful and extremely sad revisiting of that small, insular life. He's seen, in a particularly sad montage standing in the middle of the Embassy club, wishing he could take it with him. The Embassy club would fail after the death of Manning, whose presence was the only thing keeping it alive. Like a lover who dies just after her husband, the club ceased to be and the building quietly put up for sale. 

We do see Manning's funeral in this - him being carried by a carriage drawn by four horses (black ones, which caused a eulogist to joke how could he be racist given that choice) and laid to rest. And around him crowds and crowds of old, white Britons remembering him. And remembering a lot of what he represented, which died with him.

Whether you agreed with the man or not, this is a sobering and haunting piece of work, and worth seeing because it tries to judge the man fairly - as fairly as St. Peter must as he looks down at the stage in the middle montage. The DVD doesn't decide where Manning ends up after the Judgment - that is up to the viewer.




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