Channel 4 takes Bernard Manning to Bombay for a documentary. It sounds about as likely as Tinky Winky presenting Newsnight, or Sir Patrick Moore being filmed trekking in the Hindu Kush, but it really happened. The result is Bernard’s Bombay Dream, an intriguing look at one of Britain’s most controversial comedians as he travels to Asia for the first time. One of his regular jokes involves his displeasure at having an Indian neighbour, so the idea of him trying to cope with a billion of them isn’t without its appeal. But where on earth did the idea come from?
Bernard’s answer is characteristically forthright. “One of the head men – what was his name, a fat little fellow with glasses – saw a programme where I said I’ve never been on a holiday, which I haven’t. Every time I’ve gone to Las Vegas, or the Isle of Man, or Tenerife or wherever, France, Paris, I’ve always been working. So he said ‘I’d like to take you on holiday’. They asked where I’d like to go, and I said I’d like to visit Berlin, where I was stationed in the army, and see what it’s like. They said they’d think about that, then they came back with the bloody idea of going to India, so I thought “Hello, this is a f****** stitch-up here”. And I was supposed to be going on holiday, only they booked two shows in India. Anyway, everything went well, and it was an eye-opener for me really.”
So if he thought it was a stitch-up, why agree to it? “I like a challenge. I went to Las Vegas with Granada, and did very well. I like a challenge. I’m 73 now, and I’ve never seen any of the Asian world, so I thought I’d go, ‘cos I was getting well paid for going. So I went, and it’s been an eye-opener, and experience, put it that way.”
“I can’t stand the heat, and the heat was like walking around with a blow-lamp on the back of your neck. It was terrible, terrible. And the poverty – I’ve seen poverty in the 1930s in England when I was a kid. I’ve seen people turned out of their houses for non-payment of rent. Living in one-up, one-downs with beetles and bugs and mice and rats and everything, but I’ve never seen a place like that in my f****** life.”
Bernard Manning the third world campaigner? It sounds improbable, but when asked if the conditions people suffered over there bothered him, the answer is genuine enough. “Yes, it did really upset me. Why that country is like it is I just don’t know. They’ve got an atom bomb, and people queuing for f****** water in cans. It’s so ridiculous, you’ve got people living high on the hog, and people dying in the f****** streets.”
One hesitates to ask, but did he enjoy any aspects of the trip? “No, no, not at all. The travelling was 11 hours, I’ve got diabetes, I’ve got angina, I’m not a well man really, even though I went travelling. I must’ve been out of my f****** mind, I must’ve had a f****** brainstorm.
“I can understand people not wanting to go back there that’s come over here. I mean, anybody with any f****** sane mind wouldn’t want to go back, and you could understand why they’d want to come here. Green fields, the beautiful water coming through the taps in the houses, and the beautiful roads, and the beautiful trees and flowers and people. Humorous people with laughing eyes and smiling faces. There’s no country like this, it’s the greatest country in the world. You come to that conclusion when you come home.”
So, if nothing else, the trip made him appreciate home that bit more? “Oh, absolutely. I kiss the front door when I come home. Oh dear. I mean, I’ve had poverty, don’t think I haven’t had poverty. I was brought up in the early 1930s, when there were flag floors and one cold water tap, and people were f****** starving. There was a depression on, there was about 2 or 3 million out of work in those days. So I know what poverty is, but I’ve never seen f****** poverty like that in my life.”
So, um, would he go back? “Oh never. Never. £1 million wouldn’t make me f****** go back. Well, £10 f****** million wouldn’t, and I like money.”
Bernard’s Bombay Dream also features Bernard doing stand-up on his two shows in Bombay. One of them, frankly, makes for excruciating viewing, to be watched through the fingers, as he dies on his feet. How did he feel his performances had gone down. “Okay. I went well at the first place, but the microphone broke down at the second place, so it made it very hard. I had to turn it in. I said ‘I can’t work without a microphone,’ and being India, they had no back-up. In most of the clubs in England and America, and where they think about these things, your microphone breaks down, you get provided with another one. There’s about six back-up systems in Las Vegas.”
A notable feature of the film is the amount of time Bernard spends sitting around in his large, white y-fronts talking to the camera, or to those around him. He doesn’t seem remotely phased by being filmed in his pants. “Oh no, no. I’m in my y-fronts now, as a matter of fact, in my vest and my underpants, with a pair of slippers on. It’s how I’m comfortable. When I’m working at night time, I’m dressed, and that’s it. I’ve worked the London Palladium, Royal Command Performances, Las Vegas, Paris, Berlin – you name it, I’ve f****** done it, and I don’t do it in my underpants.”
And what’s next for Bernard Manning? A tour of Nigeria? A holiday in Beijing? “No, I think a good funeral. A bloody good funeral. You ask me how I am, I’ll say ‘Well when I got up this morning, I put my elbows out, if I don’t feel wood, I know I’m right for another day”. But it’s unlikely to be one spent in Bombay.