It may surprise readers to know that I had something of a soft spot for old Bernard. He was essential, I think, for anyone wanting to understand northern working-class culture. This proud working-class Mancunian, whose Jewish family background few would have guessed, was in my opinion one of the most important figures in post-war British comedy, and had a stage presence and sense of timing that could make you laugh at the corniest old gag.
You come up, of course, against the race thing. What’s surprising is – although a repeat of The Comedians would put the Big Brother hoo-hah into some perspective – in his heyday Bernard wasn’t known as a racist comedian. Others specialised in that sort of thing, but Bernard’s reputation was as a blue comedian, and it was his language that initially got him banned from the airwaves. Race served as a justification for not bringing him back in later years. By that time, most of the Comedians generation were dead or retired, and only Bernard and the terminally unfunny Jim Davidson were still doing the dodgy ethnic jokes – though, perplexingly, that never stopped Jim getting on the box.
But, unlike Benny Hill, Bernard’s life was not sunk into TV, and he could just return to his real spiritual home in clubland. It’s fair to say that there would be no Phoenix Nights, at least not as we know it, without Bernard. And such was his legendary status that he could inspire take-offs from a younger generation. Readers will, I’m sure, recall John Thomson’s politically correct Bernard from The Fast Show, or maybe Kulvinder Ghir’s turn as a Sikh Bernard, complete with spangly turban.
There are two episodes from his later life that come immediately to mind. One is Bernard’s Bombay Dreams, where Channel 4 sent the great man out to India. Nice liberal people who didn’t know much about Asians were bemused to find that his Pakistani jokes went down a storm with the Indian audience.
The other is from a few years ago, I think the last time he played Belfast. I didn’t go to the show, but do remember him being interviewed on Talk Back. It went something like this:
Dunseith: Do you know some people are going to be picketing your show tonight?
Bernard: Who’s that?
Dunseith: The Socialist Workers Party.
Bernard: Workers? Workers?! I’m a worker! I’ve worked every day of me life! They should be supporting me!
And doesn’t that tell you something?