Interview with Bernard Manning, by Mark Hodkinson in The Times, 29 March 1999
A lady in shell-suit bottoms answers the door, presumably his cleaner. "He's in there. Bernard," she says, pointing to a room across from the hall. I hear him before I see him. "Look what he's done now. What a pillock!" Bernard Manning is shouting at the television, and cackling that famous Woodbine cackle. He empties another swear word from the packet, and suddenly he's in front of me, except I don't see him at first. "Hello, son." I follow the sound. "I'm here," he says. And boy is he here, behind the door, which is the last place you'd expect to find Bernard Manning.
He is reclined in a luxurious leather chair wearing nothing but a white vest, white underpants and black ankle socks, his hair neatly combed and parted. He looks like a schoolboy waiting to see the district nurse. "Right lad, you want to talk about City do you? We're jinxed, we can't get anything right. If Dolly Parton had triplets, Joe Royle would be the one on the bottle." Boom-boom.
By his side are life's essentials - several television remote controls, a copy of The Sun, a cup of tea, and a tube of insulin. He was mugged a few years ago outside his nightclub and has been diabetic since. "They were tooled up and everything," he sighs.
The house is crammed with trinkets and pictures. The mantelpiece, which runs along the length of the room, contains scores of framed photographs. "That's my life story along there," he says. "Have a look if you want."
Clearly, his state of undress leaves him unabashed. As we begin to talk, he lightens the load even further, slipping out his top set of teeth every time he takes a sip of tea. "I'm blue all the way through, me. Blue on stage, blue with my football team. It's always been City for me. I never dreamt of going to Old Trafford."
He was first taken to Maine Road by his father in the 1930s. "I'd do all my chores in the morning, black-leading the grate and things like that, and my dad would take me in the afternoon. There was always a good atmosphere at City," he says. Whenever a joke comes to mind, his eyes dance. "There were five kids in our family and we all slept together. The other four used to wet the bed. I learnt to swim before I learnt to walk." Boom-boom.
While he has not been coy about his wealth - there's a stretched limousine outside his house - he has never been tempted to invest in City, though his son, another Bernard, is chairman of non-league Radcliffe Borough. "I am too much involved in show business. Give me a microphone and a spotlight and I can give non-stop entertainment for a couple of hours. It is my forte. I wouldn't know where to start buying and selling players. If I did spend any of my money on football, I'd buy Old Trafford to build houses on it."
He is proud of his friendship with footballers. "That's me and Mike Summerbee there, and me and Georgie Best," he says, pointing to photographs. "Bestie went to launch a ship in Newcastle, but he wouldn't let go of the bottle." I ask about his relationship with black players. His infamous racial intolerance must make them wary. "I have a go at everybody when I'm on stage. A joke's a joke, nothing more. They go on about me being racist, but so is every comedian, they just single me out. I get on well with Alex Williams and I like Shaun Goater. He knows what he's doing."
He is a wholehearted supporter of the new regime at City, though he claims to have also been a friend of previous chairmen, Peter Swales and Francis Lee. "I've always got on with the people down at City. David Bernstein is a thorough gentleman and he knows his football. Joe Royle knows the game inside out. They're slowly getting it right." Inevitably, City are included in his stage act. The eyes dance, time for another joke, of an uncertifiable age. "Snow White's house got burned down. She went inside and heard a voice from under the floorboards saying: 'City will Win the Cup, City will win the league.' Snow White said: 'Thank God Dopey's OK'!"
After the interview, Manning faces a long drive to Peterborough to appear on stage. "I'm 68 and I'm working harder than ever," he says, proudly. He plans to live out the remainder of his days in "Shalom" - the name of his detached house in north Manchester - among his photographs and prints of The Hay Wain.
"Aye, they'll be carrying me out of the front door here," he says. And what of his ashes, will they be scattered over his beloved Maine Road? "Ashes? There'll be six tons of lard left when they've done with me. They should pile me up by the posts, I might be a help to the goalkeeper!"
Manning announces that he's "got to take a pee" and slowly levers himself out of the chair. Close up, close enough to see the white of his eyes and the off-white of his vest, Manning is surprisingly guileless company, your kindly, trusting grandfather. On stage, of course, he is crude and cruel, bombastic and barbaric. Manchester City is a broad church, all are welcome - the insanely loyal, the insanely optimistic and, even, the insanely undressed.