Heard the one about the dead comedian and the sports presenter?

Honesty and an appreciation of banter: two things that Bernard Manning and Adrian Chiles have in common.

Patrick West
Columnist

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I have seen a few famous people in my time. I saw Damon Albarn on Kensington High Street in 1991, when my friend called him something I would rather not repeat. I met David Trimble and Henry Kelly at the same party in 2004, and suffice to say, only the latter was game for a laugh. I even saw Margaret Thatcher in 1996, but back then in my youthful innocence I thought Thatcherism an anathema. All my left-wing friends think I’m either being facetious or actually evil for thinking the contrary today, but my views are genuinely held.

It was thus appropriate that, while I was at a wake in a pub in Holland Park, west London, on Wednesday, while discussing the legacy of the late comedian Bernard Manning, the BBC television and radio presenter Adrian Chiles should turn up on his bike. I’ve no idea what he was doing there, but I did take the opportunity to shout ‘You’re going to get relegated’ at the famous West Bromwich Albion supporter – to which he replied with much courtesy and humour. This is what I like about Chiles: he is an honest, working-class bloke without affectation, and he is proud of his Black Country and Croatian roots – two parts of the world few boast about being from.

It was strangely fitting that we had been talking about the late Bernard Manning. For he was honest, too. Of course, I had naturally expected my Guardian-reading friends to denounce him as abominable, just as they expected me to defend him. But I think Manning was an important figure. First of all, because he was not afraid of censorship (something that too many of the former libertarian left have become weirdly enamoured of). Secondly, he was provocative (another thing those who were so endeared of the That Was The Week That Was generation have stopped believing in).

Thirdly, he said what some in the British working class were thinking in the post-Windrush generation of the 1950s and 60s. This is not to justify Manning’s racism; it is merely to say that Manning was concerned with speaking the truth, or saying what people were thinking. In our present climate, where thought crime has actually become part of English law, and a racist attack post-Macpherson is one in which the victim (or anybody else) perceived the perpetrator to have racist intent, the need for reason and clarity is larger than ever.

And then there was Manning’s manifest debt to his Jewish roots. His humour was clearly influenced by this, in that it made light out of life’s tragedies, and often in a dark way. My favourite Manning joke was: ‘My grandfather died at Auchwitz. He fell of the machinegun tower.’ I know a lot of Jews did find this offensive, but the joke is rich with pathos, and also in a sideways kind of fashion it pokes fun at second- and third-generation ‘Holocaust survivors’, those who claim to be traumatised by the deaths of distant relatives during the Second World War, in order, it seems to me, to present themselves as ‘victims’.

Which brings me back to Adrian Chiles. He is of course not comparable to Manning in his politics, but he does have that similar honesty about him. In 2004 Chiles did a television programme spurred by the observation that looking at his wedding photographs, he noticed not a single black, brown or Chinese face among the 100-odd guests. He wanted to find out why he didn’t have any black or Asian friends. He went about doing so by neither condemning multi-racial Britain or himself, in a sack-cloth and ashes manner, as ‘institutionally racist’. He just had a sincere, childlike urge to find out why none of his friends was black.

And this is not to forget his role as anchorman on Football Focus, or Match of the Day 2, to which he brings the same vim and sheer likeability. Unlike so many other football pundits, Chiles is not conceited, smug, amateur or hammy. He is effortless because you know that he loves football, and you know that when he is criticising the shortcomings of the game today he knows his beans.

This is why if Adrian Chiles, spotted cycling around in a retro West Brom kit on Wednesday afternoon at about 5pm, wants to know who shouted abuse at him – it was me. And it was meant in the nicest of ways. His cheery response just went to prove what a good chap he is. This is what is called ‘banter’. Something true football fans, and dead Mancunian comics, understand.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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