Updated: May 17, 2021
I grew up in the era when the old fashioned working men’s club comedians were coming down from their TV heyday.
The greats like Cannon and Ball, Frank Carson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Stan Boardman and Les Dawson were still getting on the telly. And that was along with the classic comedy of ‘Morecambe and Wise’, ‘The Two Ronnies’ with a bit of ‘Monty Python’ and Spike Milligan still ruling the airwaves.
And this was fused with the new breed of ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, ‘Friday (later Saturday) Night Live’ which most notably featured Ben Elton and Harry Enfield.
And as times changed in the ‘80s, we even saw– can you believe it- female comedians making massive impacts on the comedy world.
‘French and Saunders’ were the masters of so much but do you recall that Emma Thompson even had a six part series on the BBC??? Well I do!
And that’s because I made the mistake of watching it with my mother and she chucked her knitting in the basket in disgust before going mental at the risqué nature of one of the jokes and rang the ‘Beeb’ to complain!
And whilst cultural norms of what was acceptable in comedy was evolving, the comics that I grew up with do still hold a fascination for me. They still engender a nostalgic sense of goodwill.
The baddest boy of the old guard was larger than life character of ‘Northern’ comedian Bernard Manning.
A man with the physique of a small rhino who, for some reason I cannot explain, I can only think of by visualising him naked save for a pair of large, grubby looking ‘Y-Front’ underpants.
He was well known for his fairly gaudy outfits too but is the skanky knickers that I recall most!
He was also renown for his jokes which were generally felt to exist in only the following formats: racist, sexist, misogynist and xenophobic.
He declared himself to be someone who ‘..was brought up right with good parents and I have never been in trouble or harmed no-one.’
And its true that despite all of the seemingly inappropriate lines he came out with on stage, he was well regarded by those who knew him off stage.
There is even the suggestion that it was all an act, that he was playing a character in public and that he wasn’t really the person we were being told that he was.
I have to admit that I was an attendee at one of his last shows when he toured and came to Belfast a short time before he died.
The impression I formed of the man was that he was a gentle giant. He was incredibly soft spoken. And to his credit I can genuinely say I do not recall on the night feeling that there wasn’t a single funny thing he said where the subject of the joke couldn’t be changed and it have no impact on why it made you laugh.
It wasn’t that the person was Irish or Scottish or male or female, or Indian or Pakistani that made it work. It was just a funny thing to say.
So it is odd that he felt the need to continue doing his act the way he did; if he could have been making us all roll about laughing in a different style. Maybe it was just that he could sell more seats doing it the way he always had.
I recall in the second half of the show a protestor from a group of such people who had waived placards outside the venue, both before and afterwards, objecting to his performance had managed to make a move in the auditorium.
The man stood in the aisle about 2-3 metres from the stage and had a momentary exchange with Bernard hoping to show him the error of his ways.
Before security were able to get there and escort the interloper from the room, Manning had already cut him dead with a short sentence which was delivered with total calmness and compassion.
‘Listen Son, you might be saying the most important things and you might be right, but no one will ever know. They can’t hear you as I’m the only one on stage with a microphone.’
From a hundred metres or more away I could still see the guy’s shoulders slump when the words hit him with the force of a ten-tonne-truck. Followed swiftly after by the massive laughter and applause of an audience glad the interruption was over.
And so it is that Big Bernard taught me one of the most important lessons in life – if you want to get your message across you need to speak-up and you need to speak loudly – but in doing so you owe it to the audience to improve their lives and their outlooks when they do listen to what you have to say!