Bernard the working-class hero

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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?

5 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    June 21, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Well it tells me that Bernard wasn’t known for the originality of his material.

    I’d wonder whether his audience didn’t age with him. There’s a parallel to be drawn with Enoch Powell here, who (before he graced the Six Counties with his presence) was elected for a constituency in Wolverhampton and for many years afterwards was assumed to speak for the true opinions of people there. Oddly enough though, when he died people by then seemed to be a bit embarrassed by the connection and weren’t queuing up to say how great he’d been.

    Incidentally, wouldn’t he have been banned for his language rather than his racism because at the time, racist jokes were considered perfectly all right? But some thing are loathsome even though nice, liberal people find them loathsome.

    Can I be the first on this thread to invoke Trevor Griffiths? Ta.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Bod!

    Actually, in my more PC moods I used to think it was a pity that Bernard would pander to the crowd, and yes he did end up attracting a racist crowd since nobody else was still doing those gags. He was a good enough performer not to have needed to do that.

    Still, he made his bed…

  3. plaintain1 said,

    June 21, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    A ‘soft spot’? No way.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I should probably have made it clearer that having a soft spot for the old codger in no way implies agreement with anything he ever said…

  5. Martin Wisse said,

    June 21, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Jim Davidson was/is better at sucking up, which is why this terminally unfunny man was kept on telly for so long.


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