Gary Day

July 6, 2007

Eventually academics catch up with what is happening in the real world. Or is it the other way round? Anyway, we like to think that while the media merely reacts to events, we reflect on them. And while it is still too early to assess the effect of the Enlightenment, we can at least put Bernard Manning into perspective - the comedian who, asked where he wanted his ashes scattered, barked: "Ashes? When they burn me there'll be 6 tonnes of lard left. They should pile me up by the posts at Maine Road. It might be a help to the goalkeeper." So mourn not for Bernard, he may yet be made one with Manchester City.

Indeed, few have mourned. The obituaries paid lip service to his comic timing but not his time of leaving the world. After all, his brand of humour - racist and sexist - expired in the 1980s.

The man in a Hawaiian shirt, asking a woman who had seven children if she hadn't heard of f***ing Horlicks, was replaced by a man in a suit being rude about a woman who was screwing the country. Both were funny, though there's some debate about whether that is still true of Ben Elton. Does he make jokes about himself? Manning did. "You could do a sponsored walk round me," he quipped. And he remained true to his roots. As did Elton, come to think of it. Apart from that blip in the 1980s when everyone thought he was left-wing.

It was the sparkly-suited Elton who censured old-style comedians for telling gags when they should have been raising consciousness. But here's a funny thing. The attack on Manning's brand of humour occurred at the same time as the Tories attacked the unions. Manning's crime, like the unions', was to be working class. He was fat, rude and wouldn't do as he was told, so he had to go. The mines were shut down and Manning was shut up.

Alternative comedy was the cultural arm of Thatcherism, which gives a whole new meaning to it being "right on". In stipulating what was a good subject for jokes and what was not, it proved itself every bit as dictatorial as the Iron Lady herself. You couldn't mock foreign accents in case it upset people from Cornwall, but you could mock the disabled, something Manning never did. To each their own taboo. Look at Rowan Atkinson's sketch about the various afflictions of Tom, Dick and Harry on YouTube. It should not be funny and yet...

"Oh, scrap the sociology," someone shouts. "Manning was just a foul-mouthed racist." But readers of The Times Higher know better than to trust caricature. That would make them as bad as Manning was supposed to be. There are those who bandy words like "sexist" and "elitist" around because it is easier than thinking, but you won't find them in universities. We spend our time peeling labels off, not pasting them on. Don't we?

"Wait a minute, though, didn't Manning confess to being a racist on The Mrs Merton Show ?" Yes, he did. But he also denied being one on many other occasions. If he was a racist, he must have been a very confused one: he had friends from different ethnic groups, raised money for the developing world and once paid for a Pakistani boy to go to Disneyland. And he gave no hint that being a mixture of Irish, English and Jewish made him superior to the Welsh. It is possible that, coming from Lancashire, he believed himself better than anyone from Yorkshire. But that's a common delusion of those unfortunate enough to live west of the Pennines.

Some of Manning's material may have been offensive, but that's part of comedy. It started as a form of insult. It is also word play, delight in incongruity and confounding of expectation. The joke is a little piece of literature. To say Manning was a racist is like saying Shakespeare was a regicide. Humour is a controlled release of anarchy. Those who want to legislate on laughter are like those who want to legislate on literature. Neither understands the medium they want to control. Or, if they do, they hate the freedom that goes with it. A recent example is the fury in the Muslim world that greeted the knighthood of Salman Rushdie, whose novel, The Satanic Verses , was an "insult" to Islam. One of the biggest dangers to the Enlightenment is a mentality determined to be outraged by anything different from itself. We are being squeezed between political correctness and religious fundamentalism, and it is no laughing matter.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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