Boycotting Bernard

Bernard Manning's racism is beyond a joke, so I went to Derry to protest at his show
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE many cliches available for Englishmen writing about Derry. How it appears strangely normal, or how the graffiti reveals a divided city, but I bet no one has ever started with: "I arrived in Derry to do a comedy show on the city walls as a protest against Bernard Manning."

When they heard about Manning's visit, those Unionists opposed to the peace process must have felt the way ex-miners do when they hear about inbound shipments of Polish coal. "To think we used to produce tons of bigotry every week, and now we have to import it from abroad", they must have wailed. The protest gig would begin outside the 1,000-seat Rialto theatre where Manning was performing, before moving into Badger's Bar across the road.

But there's another reason why comedians take little persuading to do shows in Ireland: to experience the shambolic informality surrounding a typical performance. I once spent the hour before a show in Cork in the promoter's van, as he drove to his mother's to retrieve the microphone stand she'd borrowed the night before.

Yet, despite the chaos of equipment arriving late, tickets lost in a river and the venue being double-booked with a country- dancing class, the evening somehow passes off twice as smoothly as it would in London. This is a cross-border experience, as likely in Derry as Dublin, and represents the most compelling case for the republican argument that Ireland is all one country.

So when there was no one to meet me at Belfast airport as arranged, the bus I was advised to catch turned out not to exist, and the rain made it impossible to do the show on the city walls, the omens were that it would be a brilliant night.

And all in the cause of opposing Bernard Manning. Manning, it should be understood, is not just a man who tells racist jokes because he thinks they're funny. He tells them as part of a crusade. Asked whether his own club was mixed, he replied, "Yes. White, white and white." He's been sued by two black waitresses whom he humiliated at a police function, and on one performance, shortly after a Tory election victory, he said Labour lost because they'd promised to get people back to work - with the punch line "Who wants to get back to work? You slog your guts out, come home and the Paki in your road hasn't had to work, he's on social security."

So protesters asked people not to go, and stood outside the theatre with placards saying, "Save your money, he's not funny." The result was that Bernard Manning walked on stage to an audience of 90 people.

Every comedian suffers the ignominy from time to time of doing a show to a tiny audience. Every cough and crisp packet wrinkle is individually identifiable, and if two people go to the toilet it seems worthwhile to stop the show until they come back. After all, they may make up 4 per cent of the whole audience, the equivalent of 1,000 people at a Madonna gig all leaving for a slash.

And while these depressing thoughts circulate your mind, you have to be at your most chirpy, to breathe humorous life into this echoey canyon of failure. So when that happens and you're the star of The Comedians, a Las Vegas veteran, known throughout comedy clubland as The Governor, you must feel suicidal.

After all, 90 is 110 fewer than went to Derry's comedy club, and 410 fewer than attended an evening of Christian country and western singing. It was less than the number that went to Badger's.

At the pub the first task seemed to be to organise the lock-in. In England the usual strategy is to wait and hope, and if you're still there at 11.20pm mutter "d'you reckon they're still serving?" to each other. Finally one of you pleads for a last drink in your politest "we won't make any noise, and we'll help wash up if you like sir" voice. In Derry, at half past eight the barman shouts "We'll be doing you a lock-in till one, so we will."

There is an argument from defenders of people like Manning that it's only the middle class who get upset by him, whereas honest proles are too earthy to care. But the working- class content of the protest was proved by the quality of the anecdotes. "There's a fella comes in called Liam," someone told me. "He does judo an' all that. Well he got in a fight with an RUC man, and gets charged with assault. So he starves himself. Three months later he goes to court, he's about seven stone, he can hardly stand. The judge says to the copper, 'Yer not expecting me to believe a big fella like you got turned over by yer man here. Case dismissed.'"

David had a different type of anecdote, which explained his presence at the protest. Shortly after the Irish government responded to the screams of racists by tightening their immigration laws to deter asylum-seekers, he was travelling on the bus from Belfast to Dublin.

"At the border the police got on board, walked straight to where I was sitting and demanded to see my passport. I was the only black person on the bus. I told them I didn't need my passport as I was from Belfast, and that they were only asking because of my colour, but they insisted. So I made a speech to the other passengers, who were brilliant. One of them shouted, 'I'm German, why don't you ask for my passport?' So the police were persuaded to leave, but they escorted the bus all the way to Dublin."

When I spoke to Manning's manager he blamed the low turnout on staff at the theatre for not advertising the show, and on the rain - though it was only drizzling, and the theatre did have a roof.

Instead he should blame an aspect of human beings that worked against him. Most people, even if they're prepared to laugh at racist jokes, don't approve of abusing waitresses for being black or accusing all Pakistanis of fiddling the dole. When it was gently pointed out that this is what Manning stands for, people who might otherwise have gone decided not to. One of the winners of free tickets didn't go, because her family persuaded her not to.

The argument that to protest against racism only gives it publicity is thoroughly pessimistic. The protesters put their case, and all but 90 responded. If he's invited back, it should be on the condition that he calls an immediate cease-fire, followed by a de-commissioning of his act.

At the gig in Badger's, everyone was delighted with their success in making comedy based on stereotypes unacceptable. Then, as this was Ireland, a band played until the early hours and we all got pissed.