Sunday 30 June 2013

On Bernard Manning and others

I'm in a reminiscing mood, so this is a long and potentially sentimental blog. Stay with me, gentle reader.

Manchester in the late 1970s was the place to be. Still a soot-stained industrial northern city it was an architectural marvel, a labyrinth of silted canals and derelict warehouses, cavernous pubs and vast acres of undeveloped wastelands. It was, for a callow southerner, a bracing environment.  

It was the centre of a richly complex music scene centred on the scruffy Factory Club in Hulme (I lived a few yards away), where bands which have since become legendary performed on Friday and Saturday nights. Not just in the Factory (which was known locally as the PSV club, an after-hours hangout for the city's bus drivers) but in pubs and clubs around a city with the largest student population in Europe. I didn't see them all but I saw a lot - Joy Division, The Fall, Magazine (fronted by the enigmatic hipster Howard Devoto) and (much further down the bill) The Distractions and The Cheetahs and a band called The Selves fronted, in what was to be their only gig, by my pal Steve Garner. I saw Captain Beefheart on his last ever tour perform Bat Chain Puller, and, unforgettably, the Buzzcocks supporting the Ramones. The student unions (three of them) hosted every band touring in the UK - Patti Smith, the Clash, the Stiffs Tour (with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello and Larry Wallace and Lene Lovich and Ian Dury & the Blockheads and the great, great Wreckless Eric). Gruppo Sportivo and Joe Jackson and Alberto y los Trios Paranoias, John Cooper Clarke and Pere Ubu and Richard Hell, Talking Heads and John Otway (and Wild Willy Barrett) and the legendary Roy Harper. I saw Blondie in Salford (although the gig was cancelled after three songs because the building's structural integrity was compromised, as the Manchester Evening news reported, by the energetically pogoing audience. I saw The Tubes at the Free Trade Hall. And Young Marble Giants at a club called Rafters in Oxford Road.  And Tom Waits, but I can't remember where. All this, of course, before the rise of Tony Wilson's Hacienda Club and the Madchester scene and all that, by which time I had graduated and was sobering up in London.

But what Manchester meant to me then, and even more today, was the comedians. This was before the rise of 'alternative' comedy and the end of a certain type of entertainer was in sight. Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson were performing raucously (as 'Twentieth Century Coyote') in the university's Stephen Joseph Studio but my tastes took me elsewhere - to see Ken Dodd and Tommy Cooper and Dickie Henderson and Frankie Howard at the Palace Theatre and the Opera House. They never pulled in a student crowd but they mesmerised me. Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

Bernard Manning (1930-2007) owned and ran the Embassy or, to give it its full title, Bernard Manning's World Famous Embassy Club on the Rochdale Road in the rough suburb of Collyhurst north of the city centre. It was a hell of a place and (I hope) still is. Manning was the star turn. I went there one Tuesday night in December 1979. 

Parked outside an enormous American automobile - probably a Cadillac - with the registration plate I LAFF announced the owner's presence. There were few other cars around - most punters came by bus or taxi, You trekked to the entrance across a windswept cinder forecourt and paid two quid for a pasteboard ticket at the box office (which I think was managed by Mrs Manning), in a lobby dominated by a photograph of the owner sporting a cartoon crown and topping a miniature cartoon body draped in ermine robes. The club was tightly packed with tables, surrounding a tiny stage, with a busy bar at the back, serving drinks at pub prices (which were very low in those days - 40p a pint). The place smelled like a heated armpit and was fuggy with last night's smoke.  

The walls dribbled and there were locally-printed carnival-style exhortations to play bingo or eat meat pies or join the Christmas Club bubbling with condensation.

Manning's son, Bernard Junior, manned the sound system. The place was rowdy, boozy, smokey and permanently damp - there was no central heating, no air conditioning. Boddingtons beer in aluminium barrels from Strangeways Brewery served in plastic beakers soaked into the sticky carpets and stag nights and hen night parties roared and shrieked as Manning, a chubby, sweaty, rasping behemoth with piglet eyes let rip a relentless string of devastating gags, not all of which were outrageously offensive.

I loved everything about the place and even had a sneaking admiration for the bloated MC himself - he represented something undiluted, uncompromising and (to be fancy) Dionysian. He was a lardy Lord of Misrule, bellowing the unsayable.

So you can imagine my delight at coming across this archive footage filmed at the Embassy Club around the time I was there, and living nearby in student digs. It may not mean much to you, but to me it's a land of lost content.

If you can stand it there's a sanitised anthology of Manning and his peers in Granada Television's The Comedians from 1975. You could do a lot worse, if you have 48  minutes to spare in a busy day, than click here. It's everything we're expected these days to despise. All the performers looked unhealthy at the time, are all now all dead and most of them forgotten, but look out for Frank Carson (very good) and (at 15:54 et seq); the wonderful Ken 'Settle down now' Goodwin; at 27:35 the sepulchral, utterly bizarre Colin Crompton ('They don't bury the dead in Morecambe they stand them up in bus shelters with a bingo ticket in their hand'); and finally at 32:55 a weird buzz-cut William Burroughs lookalike in thick horn-rim glasses whose name escapes me. There's plenty of dross, of course, but some nuggets of comedy gold. I've watched the whole thing - you don't have to.

What may dismay the prim critic is how entirely innocuous their material is - and how funny, for the most part, the quick-fire jokes are. They may of course have edited out the sexist racist stuff, but I think not. The jokes are all about marriage and the things kids say and obtuse Irishmen and mothers-in-law and sharp predatory women and thick men and booze and doctors and sickness and religion and poverty. All human life is there, in gag form. It's mostly funny and also very sad. They're all dead now, and most of their guffawing audience has also been gathered. We're next in line, and what have we got? Ken Goodwin's obituary is here. He was a good man.

Of course television had its own regulatory discretions, and a bowdlerising tendency, but all the same what you get here is something worth knowing about, and valuing, especially if you're under thirty, or even forty. It's the swan song of a certain tendency in working class culture, of course, and preserves a cultural sensibility that offered diversion and consolation to enormous popular audiences. I could bang on about Henri Bergson's Du rire, here, but shan't, because the last word on intellectualising comedy comes from Ken Dodd, who quoted Freud's observation that a laugh is a conservation of psychic energy. But, he added: 'the problem with Freud is that he never had to play the Glasgow Empire second house on a Friday night'.

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