Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.
It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I’d picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency whose clients included movie studios like MGM and Universal. When Hollywood films were about to get a video release (VHS back then), they would come up with all the pre-publicity. Press ads, mostly.
I had a lot of fun coming up with adverts that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job. The agency had other ideas, though, by which I mean they preferred having no ideas. So they would generally reject my concepts in favour of a straightforward pack shot of the movie with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.
But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two 20-second radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly entitled ‘Banging With Manning’. It was billed as a ‘hilarious’ spoof of the sex education videos that were popular at the time. Still are, for all I know.
Manning. He was much bigger back in the day
The recording is to take place in a Manchester recording studio. The agency’s account lady and I travel by train and arrive just as Manning pulls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. Really? One laugh? I’d heard his comedy routines were a bit hit and miss, but if I was him I wouldn’t shout about it. But no. We’re supposed to read it as ‘I Laugh’. Well, as long as one of us does, Bernie.
The driver gets out and opens the passenger door. Manning, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to slowly leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.
“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part and that normally me and boxing are joined at the hip.
He sets off towards the studio entrance, with me and the account bod adjusting our walking pace accordingly. We’ll be there soon, I think. Manning is still on about the boxing. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he reveals, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”
I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.
And it is, only not in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently, the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.
“Both of them,” she says.
“What it is about them they don’t like?”
She hesitates. “The word banging.” But ‘Banging With Manning’ is the name of the product! This is going to be a challenge.
I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms, there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones. Surely he’s familiar with at least one of those.
“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”
I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting more specific.
Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not writing in a corridor with a pad balanced on my lap, about a product I’m not allowed to mention while an enraged shouty comedian stomps about and an anxious account manager keeps reminding me of the time.
It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds … pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis on all THE wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of talent, and all the engineer does after each abysmal take is to ask hopefully “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling and no gaps, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying ‘fucking London wankers’.
Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves, a desperate need for strong drink but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.
Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.