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a blog by Chris Barrow

Tearing up the rule book

A Manchester-born man died on Monday – described by film director Michael Winner as “the funniest man alive”, Bernard Manning passed away at the age of 76. Although he achieved national fame in the 1970’s TV series “The Comedians”, he quickly disappeared from the media as his jokes were considered too politically incorrect for the time (and would be even now). Accused of being a racist, a sexist, an anti-religionist, an age-ist – and every other “ist” around – he told jokes at the bleeding edge of acceptability – and yet his privately-owned Embassy Club on the outskirts of central Manchester was packed full of multi-racial audiences every night for over 30 years. An audience that was always made up of the very ethnic and cultural minorities and majorities that were at the receiving end of his humour – they went there to laugh at themselves, at each other and at this funny man taking outrageous liberties with their most sacred cows.

I had a distant German relative who died at Auschwitz – he fell out of a watchtower. In the 1920’s when 20 white guys chased a black guy, it was called the Klu Klux Klan – now it’s called the US Open. I don’t want to be bi-sexual – why be rejected by men as well as women? I bought my kids a pack of batteries for Christmas – and left a note inside saying “toys not included”.

And Manning virtually invented the Mother-in-law joke – and it’s most famous version:

My mother-in-law told me she would dance on my grave. No problem – I’m being buried at sea.

He was bold, outrageous and provocative – and the British entertainment establishment sent him into exile – and yet this was a man who raised countless thousands for charity through his work – and at the same time prompted underground stories in the town about hoarding cash so that he could avoid tax payments. He was secretly filmed by the British TV giving a charity concert to 199 white and 1 black policeman and his racist jokes were considered so offensive that the Prime Minister had to answer questions in Parliament. And yet he devoted endless hours to supporting local charities that provided help for his community of birth – in Ancoats, one of the poorest areas of the city. A flawed and controversial genius – aren’t they always the best? There is no doubt that some of his material would be considered highly offensive if broadcast openly – there was even a sign on the door of his club warning the potentially offended to stay outside. But he was authentic and there were no surprises – I saw him a few times over the years – usually at drunken stag parties (a speciality – of his, not mine) where he would simply pick out EVERY type of person in the audience – based on age, race, appearance, gender, background, education, geography, height – you name it – he would observe it – and then tell the most mercillously funny stories. Not for everyone’s taste – and that’s why you had to volunteer to listen. He wasn’t a great man – didn’t change nations or history- will not be canonised – but he made a difference to some poor and under-priviledged people by tearing up the rule book.

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