Tribute to comic accused of racism

Tributes have been paid to the controversial stand-up comedian Bernard Manning who died yesterday at the age of 76.

Manning, whose brand of humour stirred up accusations of racism, was rushed to hospital with a kidney problem two weeks ago.

A spokesman for North Manchester General Hospital said: "He died here at 3.10pm today."

Until ill-health took hold, he had continued to entertain audiences in clubs despite being cold-shouldered by the TV industry.

The comedian denied being a racist, saying: "You never take a joke seriously. It's a joke.

"We have to tell jokes about everything and everyone."

He recently attended his own 'wake' - a gathering of 600 friends and fans in Manchester, to celebrate his life for a proposed TV show called This Was Your Life.

He heard tributes from colleagues but told the audience, "I'm going to be with you for a long time yet!"

Manning was set on the path to fame with a 1971 Granada TV series, The Comedians, based on an act developed at his club.

He was born in 1930 in Ancoats, one of Manchester's poorest suburbs, the second of three brothers and two sisters.

Manning, who had an Irish-Catholic background and also claimed Jewish roots, left school at 14 to work in a tobacco factory, and then in his father's greengrocers.

He only decided to go into the entertainment business after doing national service in Germany, and singing to comrades to pass the time.

Manning went on to become a singer with the Oscar Rabin band, and made his TV debut on The Comedians.

But he fell out of favour in the 80s and was replaced by more politically correct comedians.

Frank Carson, who worked with Manning on The Comedians, defended his brand of humour tonight, saying: "The only people that misunderstood him were those people who didn't have a sense of humour.

"We had a great laugh together. That sense of humour overpowered everyone. He put bums on seats.

"Everyone loved Bernard. At the end he was still a very funny man.

"Bernard Manning was a legend. There will have to be a statue of Bernard Manning and I will be the first to throw bricks at him," he joked.

Carson said of Manning's ill-health: "He'd been suffering for many years. He had three injections a day for diabetes, was stone deaf in one ear, and his sight was going due to the diabetes.

"He was really suffering. Some days he couldn't even speak.

"He ran a function for his wake and there was a joke that as soon as he'd get to the Pearly Gates they'd have to be checked to see if they'd been nicked."

Fellow comic Stan Boardman also paid tribute to Manning, who was recently rated one of the top 100 Stand-Up Comedians of All Time.

The pair appeared on The Comedians and remained friends for more than 30 years.

Boardman said: "We were working-class comics and appearing on that show changed our lives completely.

"He loved working and he kept working right until the end.

"Bernard never ever cared how he would be remembered. He wouldn't have even thought about it.

"All these new comedians came in, but how many of them can you remember? There have been millions of them, they came and went. But Bernard carried on performing."

Showbiz agent Mickey Martin, a close friend of the comedian, told Sky News: "He made people laugh at one another.

"You couldn't take that seriously. If you can't laugh at one another, what's it coming to?

"He put Manchester on the map. He was the best comedian that this country has ever produced."

Earlier this month Manning had to cancel a show at his famous Embassy Club for the first time in six decades as an entertainer.

He was put in the intensive care unit of the hospital over the weekend, but his son Bernard junior told the Manchester Evening News there had been positive signs.

In 1995, World in Action secretly recorded Manning entertaining senior police officers with a joke containing the word "nigger".

The episode earned him a rebuke in Parliament from the then Prime Minister John Major.

Manning's biographer Jonathan Margolis told the BBC News website: "I think he'll inevitably become famous for this question of whether he was a racist comedian - and it's a funny thing because it's some way down the list of things he was.

"He was a man of his age - and as people of his age went, he was relatively un-racist.

"Until his dying day, he didn't understand what all the fuss was about."

Manning had his celebrity fans - among them film director Michael Winner.

Winner, who paid for Manning to perform at a party, said: "He was the last of the comedians who put the PC brigade behind him.

"He took no notice of them and just got on with the job of being funny.

"It was ridiculous that he was somewhat ostracised. His audience included all the people that he made jokes about. None of them gave a damn because he was just so funny.

Sir Cyril Smith, former Rochdale MP and friend of Manning, said: "Bernard was a heavyweight in more ways than one. A heavyweight to the literally hundreds of charitable causes that he supported all his life and raised thousands of pounds for.

"Bernard was kind, generous, honest and straight and will be missed. He was often maligned and wrongly so."

Writer and broadcaster Barry Cryer said: "The thing about Bernard was that he looked funny, he sounded funny and he had excellent timing. It was just what he actually said that could be worrying."