Friday, November 23, 2007

Bernard Manning: From Beyond The Graaaaaaaaaaaaaave

There are plenty of weird things in life. Eyeballs that secrete milk, salmon that travel thousands of miles for a shag, women who can fire ping pong balls from where the sun does not shine. But I think having Bernard Manning who is now dead presenting his own televised obituary has got to be at least up there with hermaphrodites. Apparently Manning gained some kind of psychic insight into when his demise was going to occur and so set about making a film about his life and saying goodbye to people for Channel 4. Or he might have known his death was imminent because his kidneys were playing up due to his diabetes, the programme didn’t make that clear.

What was made clear from the first minute was that this was going to be a bizarre fucking programme if ever there was one. Watching someone look down at themselves lying dead in a coffin and taking a chair at the funeral service, chuckling along as if the speakers were making birthday speeches through the magic of blue screen is a pretty unnerving way to kick-off a programme. It’s the televisual equivalent of arriving at a large scary castle in the middle of a dark stormy night and having the door answered by a hunchbacked Igor character.

The theme continued throughout as well with Manning being filmed picking out a coffin, cracking jokes along the way. And the weirdness didn’t even stop there. Oh no. Clearly Manning wanted to raise the ante in the surreal stakes so we were treated to him sat in a spot-lit chair in the middle of a stage answering moral questions about his life from a man in a box dressed as St. Peter. All very symbolic yes, but when you’re dealing with a man who even has to turn his obituary into a slice of entertainment you know that this is a mind already slightly askew to the norm.

These moments were interspersed with clips of his best gags (not all of which I was shocked to learn were racist) and a kind of documentary trying to answer the question ‘Bernard Manning: Fat racist bigot, or Britain’s funniest comedian?’ Not really a question in my eyes, there are 127.8 British comedians funnier than Bernard Manning, but I could see the point they were trying to make, and it is an interesting problem.

Unfortunately this is where the programme hit a bit of a snag. For a documentary to be good it has to be objective. And it was in places, there were honest interviews and footage that commented on a lot of issues surrounding Bernard Manning. However, it is a bit of a challenge to stay unbiased when a man is weeping into a camera making his final farewell speech to his family. And it jars horribly when there’s a clip showing Manning singling out and mocking the one black man in the audience, followed immediately by a real heart tugging moment with Manning close to death. I found myself thinking, ‘He’s a bit of a racist cunt… but I’m so sad he’s not with us!’ Confusing to say the least. Then again, humanising an apparent racist is better than labelling him and making him a symbol. Symbols be divisive.

At other times they felt the need to play totally inappropriate wispy spiritual music over the top of his gags, as if to remind the viewer that he’s dead. Like that wasn’t made abundantly clear from the start. It’s this ridiculously saccharine way that we have to venerate the dead which meant it was difficult to make as balanced a judgment as if it had been shown when he was alive. Which would’ve undermined the concept a little.

That aside, on to the big question: was Bernard Manning just a big fat racist and is there a place for his brand of comedy in the world? Well for starters his brand of comedy was first and foremost in his ability to tell a gag. Stephen Fry was quoted as saying that Manning delivered a joke better than anyone else. And as we all know, if Stephen Fry said it, it must be true. If something is said in just the right way it triggers off some bizarre involuntary spasm in the brain that produces a physical response. It doesn’t entirely make sense but it’s one of the nicer things about being of the species homo sapiens.

Gags also require a setup and racist characters are perfect for this. They provide a character that is different or ridiculous to laugh at. All comedy is based on someone else’s tragedy, or whatever the damn quote is.

This is why I wasn’t sure if Bernard Manning was actually a racist or just a comedian with an act. The programme wasn’t sure either. It flipped back and forth between implying that he was actually a racist, due to his upbringing and the time he came from, and then implying that it was actually just an act, just a joke, harmless and all that. There was a clip from when Manning went on the Mrs Merton Show in the 90s, when it all went completely tits up for him. She asked him directly, “Are you a racist?” to which he replied, “Yes” and went on to explain how there are “some people I like and some that I don’t”. Meanwhile, Future Manning was looking back on the incident saying that it was a show that set people up and he was trying to do that to her and, in his eyes, out funnying her. Then there was the one about when Bernard told a joke about policemen beating black suspects at a police event. I couldn’t tell if it was all an act aimed at offending anyone and everyone, or if these really were deep-seated racist beliefs.

I don’t think poor old Bernard did either. The lines between comedy routine and personal life blurred long ago. Which is fucking obvious given that he took part in this headfuck of a concept for a television programme.

If it was all just an act then there is something to be said for being controversial and saying things that society doesn’t necessarily see as acceptable. I am a firm believer in the fact that anything can be funny if presented in the right way. The problem for Manning was that his style of comedy was so out of date with every other modern comedian. When he first started out, it was ‘just a joke’. Comedians told jokes, they were there to make people laugh and so to certain extent it didn’t matter what they said. Nowadays though the role of the comedian has become much more one of social commentator. Manning’s excuse that it was just a joke and you shouldn’t take jokes seriously doesn’t hold water now when it comes to a topic like racism. Modern comedy aims to attack and ridicule racism, to mock it rather than use it to get a laugh. The likes of Gervais get away with being controversial because it’s done with a sense of irony, you’re laughing because he’s playing an idiot character, you know he doesn’t really mean it. When looking at Manning I was trying to apply that same sense of playing a character to see if it would fit. Doing that was a mistake, more likely than not he was just a good old fashioned racist, as were most people then. And probably still are.

Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Comedians become big and famous because they’re saying what people want to hear. Once the crowd want to see something new, the comedians fade into the background. Manning wouldn’t have become big when he did if racist jokes weren’t acceptable and funny at that time. And if he didn’t have racist jokes he still would have succeeded because he was a funny guy, but then he would have faded out into obscurity. It’s just because everyone cares so much about racism that we’re still talking about him. Why? His views used to be the majority, he said them because he was a comedian, they’re not relevant now, let’s move on.

Manning knew he could stay in the public eye if he kept up the racist act, and everyone allowed him to do it despite changing attitudes because they wanted to stare in at him in that curious way that people have observed social freaks through the ages, be it Imperial Games, Freak Shows, or Big Brother. Everyone wants fame, Manning was no exception. The most damning part of the whole show was when Manning was trying to defend himself to a comedian and the director of a comedy school. When he got in a tight corner he started getting angry and saying that these two were nothing, he’d played the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, what the fuck had they done? As if being famous and talking to lots of people makes your view better and right. Yeah, the Nuremberg Rallies were pretty well attended too (fuck Godwin’s Law and fuck you).

It seems some people will do anything for the attention; even play up to the fact that people think you’re a racist if it keeps people talking about you just a bit longer. No one wants to fade out and be forgotten; the proudest thing about Manning’s life to him was that he would be talked about for a long time, that he’d live on past other comedians. Which said more about him and everyone else than the rest of the programme put together.

Bernard Manning’s final words to the people of the world were, “Get fucked the lot of you.” At least I can agree with him there.

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