This piece of mine appears on The Guardian's Comment is Free website.
Jim Bowen was on great form on Newsnight last night defending his friend, the late Bernard Manning. "Who is to say that a man dressed up as a woman who goes around urinating everywhere is not offensive, but Bernard Manning's jokes are?" he said, bemoaning the fact that his fellow comedian had been barred from television for years.
Bowen's got a very good point.
Manning's brand of comedy, poking fun at black people, Asians, Jews et al is not my type of humour (give me Tony Hancock, the movie Airplane! or a Perry/Croft sitcom any day) and I would never have paid to see him perform. Yet the condemnation of this undeniably popular working-class icon, nevertheless smacks of hypocrisy.
Make no mistake: Bernard Manning's great "crime" was not that he was a comedian who told offensive jokes, but that he was a working-class comedian who told offensive jokes.
If you're a middle-class comedian, you can get any way with anything, no matter how misanthropic or racist. It wasn't Manning who said: "The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away - and that fact also works if you remove the word 'moth'." It was the middle-class comic Jimmy Carr (Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe; Caius College, Cambridge). In contrast to Manning, Carr is a regular fixture on our television screens and on the airwaves.
Then there's the sneering, offensive humour of Little Britain, brought to us by Matt Lucas (Haberdashers' Aske's, Bristol University) and David Walliams (Reigate Grammar School, Bristol University). Targets of the show include single parents, disabled people, the incontinent and people with mental health problems - but of course it's all perfectly acceptable, because Lucas and Walliams, unlike Bernard Manning, are good middle-class chaps who went to university. And when it comes to the humour of cruelty, is there anyone as culpable as Sacha Baron Cohen (Haberdashers' Aske's, Cambridge University) whose elitist, middle-class sneering at plebs and peasants has made him one of the richest men in Hollywood.
The reason why such non-working-class comics dominate today is that commissioning/production positions in television and radio are now monopolised by middle-class (and mainly Oxbridge) graduates. Thirty years ago, when Billy Cotton Jr was head of light entertainment at the BBC, working-class, non-university educated writers like Jimmy Perry, Eric Chappell, Galton and Simpson, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais were responsible for much of the comedy output. Because they knew their territory and had a genuine empathy for the class they came from, the comedy they produced laughed with the working-class and not at them.
To answer Jim Bowen's question, it's the middle-class, Oxbridge-educated television and radio supremos who decide that Manning is off limits, but the equally unsavoury humour of Lucas and Walliams, Carr and Baron Cohen is not. If only Bernard Manning had gone to the "right" school and made it to Cambridge, who knows - he might even have ended up being nominated for an Oscar ...