“JUST a minute,” he says. True to his word a minute of silence rolls past as he finishes watching Maverick romp home in the 2.00 at Wolverhampton.
“I’m trying to get this bloody telly down — here, hang on a minute.”
As he fumbles with the remote control, he manages to turn over but fails to mute the sound for another half minute. So did Wilford Maverick earn him a few quid?
“No but there’s one going in the last race called Dark Parade. I think that’ll win.” (It did).
“Anyway, go on, son,” he growls, focusing on plugging his first shows in Nottingham for a good while.
“No, I was there about six months ago.”
He can’t remember where, but it must have been a private function. There’s no trace in EG’s files of a Manning gig in the city for years.
“I have many happy memories of Nottingham. The Commodore. The theatre there, I did that.”
He means the Theatre Royal but those days are long gone (as is the Commodore) as his bread and butter is now sports dinners and conferences.
“Brian Clough used to come and see me at The Commodore. I was his favourite comedian. I was with him a couple of weeks before he died at a sportsman’s dinner in Sheffield. He was falling about with laughter. He seemed pretty good but these things happen don’t they?”
Not to Manning, though. Despite being overweight and suffering with diabetes that requires three injections and 16 tablets a day, the 74-year-old still works most nights of the week. What sort of stuff is he doing these days...?
“Straight across the board, nothing has ever changed. The gags have changed but it’s the same thing: English, Irishman, Scotsman, Jews... everybody.”
I meant: what sort of work? But, anyway. He plays couple of charity shows a month at his own Embassy Club in Manchester, which he opened in 1959. His son Bernard now runs it. Aside from that, it is private functions and the like. A couple of years ago Madonna booked him for Guy Richie’s birthday party.
“That was smashing that, oh aye. She enjoyed it and so did he.”
What was she like?
“No problem at all. A real lady, you know. We’re in showbiz, you see. That’s why we are called acts. We put an act on.”
It is hard to believe that the Bernard Manning on stage is any different to the bloke off it. Aside from the constant gags. To drive home his point he begins talking about his family.
“I’m a father and grandfather. I have a good son, wonderful grandchildren. I had a good mum and dad. My mother was 95 when she died.”
When his wife died he moved in with his mother in the house in which he still lives. He’d bought it for her after his dad died.
“When he died there were too many memories for her in their house. So I sent her on a cruise with my sisters around the world, when she came back I’d bought her this new big beautiful house with beautiful gardens, a walk-in shower, carpets... I really went to town. And when she saw it she loved it. The only thing we fetched from the other house was a bucket of coal. I’ve still got it. I’m looking at it now.”
Manning grew up in Ancoats, a rough suburb of Manchester, with two brothers and two sisters.
“We slept six in a bed and five of us used to wet the bed. I learned to swim before I could walk. My dad said ‘where do you want to sleep?’, I said the shallow end.”
No one else in his family went into showbusiness. His brother John owned a paint firm and Frank a cabaret club and hotel. Both are now dead. His sisters Alma and Rene are retired restaurant owners living in Newquay.
“I was always funny as a kid. I used to tell jokes in the air-raid shelters and keep all the old folks going with George Formby impressions. I never stopped. I was always entertaining.”
In the Army he joined a dance band and toured Germany and Holland.
“I stood guard in Spandau Prison when Hess was in there and the German hierarchy. I was there on the parapet with my Sten gun watching over them... shut up Arthur!”
He’s talking to his pet cockatiel. Arthur is his sole housemate, although he does have a housekeeper. After the Army he returned to his father’s greengrocery business, and at night would sing with big bands in working men’s clubs, inspired by Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra. Soon quick-fire comics like George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope were encouraging him to do stand-up — but his shows were significantly different in one key way.
“There were, and are, a million clean comics. There’s no money in that. You can’t be the same as everybody else.”
His break on to TV was on the 70s show The Comedians, alongside Jim Bowen, Frank Carson, Mike Reid, Roy Walker and many others. His own TV shows followed throughout the 70s. He reminds me that he’s played Las Vegas in front of Dean Martin and Joan Rivers, a 14-week stint at the London Palladium and Royal Command Performances. He also reminds me that he still drives a Rolls Royce and has plenty of money.
Manning even tells me his booking fee for a night — £2,000.
He said pretty much the same thing, word for word, on the TV documentary The Entertainers and on the Mrs Merton Show. But it doesn’t seem to be boastful, rather a knee-jerk reaction to years of criticism. The Entertainers, which followed him for a few days, showed a man who didn’t seem to care what anyone thought or said, sitting in his underpants in the front room.
When Frank Carson and the rest of the big 70s comics, toned down their acts to suit the politically correct 80s, Manning carried on regardless, becoming an almost anti-Christ comedy figure. As alternative comedy took over, the old school resorted to TV presenting: Jim Bowen to Bullseye; Roy Walker to Catchphrase... Manning stuck with the live circuit and , although TV producers have given him a wide berth for more than 20 years he maintains he’s always been a popular booking.
“I always pack it out for them. I wouldn’t have been going this long otherwise. 53 years now.”
And you’ve never a thought of retiring?
“I’ll do a Tommy Cooper, I think. That’s why I always pull a crowd, they think it’s going to be that night.”