Jason Manford is no mug. In a Manchester café, chatting unguardedly about his life, he has a smile on his face that says some of the things for which he is criticised, he would readily hold up his hands to.
Yes, a comedian doing an arena tour is profit-driven and yes, releasing an autobiography when you’ve just turned 30 is perhaps a little opportunistic – but he’s also not about to apologise for making make hay while the sun shines.
“Is it about cashing in? Part of it is, of course, a case of ‘I better do this while I’m popular because in two years time no-one might care’,” says Manford, whose autobiography is released this month.
“If you’re on tour performing to a quarter of a million people, you sort of go, ‘I just need 20 per cent of those people to buy the book and you’ve done all right.’”
It’s a frank admission, but has a logic with which it is hard to argue.
As for going on the road and performing in an arena – when most comedians will readily admit that nothing kills comedy quicker than a space that size, he is equally unapologetic.
“This comedy bubble has to burst at some point and doing an arena tour, I don’t know if other comedians will admit to this, but it is terrifying,” says Manford, a master of an artform that for many years was confined to small, poky clubs – where it is demonstrably at its most effective.
“I have to spend 10 minutes backstage looking out of the curtain just getting used to the size. It is a ridiculously massive space to do comedy – it becomes more of an event. On the next tour I will definitely be sticking to theatres.”
But here’s the remarkable thing about Manford – he can sit there and openly admit that his comedy isn’t going to change the world, that, sure, his drive to write an autobiography might have been influenced by a rather large paycheck at the end of it. He will happily agree that an arena tour is certainly not the natural place to be showing off his skills. He even became, last year, the centre of a tabloid sleaze story when it was discovered he had been flirting with fans and sending messages that should not be sent by a married man. Shortly after the revelations, he left his job presenting The One Show on BBC1.
But in all of this, it is entirely impossible not to like the man. It is his down to earth-ness, his normal-ness that is so very likeable – and much in evidence when we meet. A couple of people come and sit opposite us while we speak and neither take much note of the famous comedian.
Some might think the “I’m just a northern bloke who says funny things” schtick is a routine, but with Manford it is real – and it is all due to one, very obvious, thing – as the title of his autobiography explains, he was “brung up proper”.
For Manford that means a proper northern childhood, a poor childhood where community and family were the central pillars, where laughter was a vital commodity and in which, because good manners cost nothing, they were paramount.
Reading the book ahead of our interview, is, for me, a very strange experience.
He describes an incident where he walked into a lamppost, so distracted was he by the girl he fell in love with as a schoolboy. I did the exact same thing at a similar age.
He fell out of an open window when a baby – so did my mother. His maternal grandfather was called Dennis, as was mine. As he arrives for our interview I am revisiting a particularly intimate chapter which I had to re-read because it is so close to an experience I had myself that first time round I found it eye-wateringly difficult to read.
Can we really have had such similar upbringings?
Well, yes, there are lots of coincidences in the story of Jason (which happens to be my brother’s name) Manford and my own, but the chances are, if you’re a northerner, you too will find plenty in there with which to connect.
It is this everyman quality, this ability to talk about a subject that makes his audience sit up and say “that’s exactly what’s happened to me” that has turned Jason Manford into one of the biggest names in comedy.
Peter Kay held the crown for several years, but Manford has inherited the mantle of the nation’s favourite northern comedian, a title that is being solidified as he sets out on a 45-date tour taking in arenas around the country.
It is a remarkable position for the 30-year-old to have reached, clearly helped by the comedy boom, but it is one that has been attained by plenty of graft.
Manford often laughs at the idea that he has become an overnight success, as he is regularly described in the press.
His route into stand-up super-stardom is a story that has been often told – he was 17, working in a comedy club, collecting glasses... Manford picks up the story.
“It genuinely happened, it’s become one of those stories where people go ‘come on, did that really happen?’ and it really did,” he says.
“I had been thinking about it, obviously, I didn’t just think ‘I’ll give that a go’ and get up on stage. One night two comics didn’t turn up, they were driving from London and they had a problem with the car. The landlord asked if I fancied it and – well, you have to take into account that I was 17. I went up and I got a laugh. I did 15 minutes, the landlord reckoned I had five good minutes of material and so I worked on it and started performing regularly.”
Regular bookings and impressive reviews began to come his way, but long before his storming performances on BBC prime-time he was working small rooms and tiny crowds.
It was not so long ago, perhaps six years, when I was asked to judge a new comedians open mic competition by one of Leeds’s most popular comedy promoters, Toby Jones.
It was in an upstairs room of the Original Oak pub in Headingley, where Toby runs his weekly comedy nights, in front of an audience of about 30, that I first saw Manford, who had driven over from Manchester to enter the competition.
One of the jokes I saw that night I later saw him perform on TV, to an audience of millions, on the Michael McIntyre Comedy Roadshow. Sure, there were embellishments, the joke had been refined, polished, but the premise was the same (someone asks a Scouser for directions, gets a mouthful of abuse; the pull back and reveal is that the Scouser is a police officer).
We declared him, you won’t be surprised to hear, the clear winner that night in The Original Oak, his everyman ability with a joke leaping off the stage even then.
It was still something of a surprise that he became such a comedy sensation a few years later, performing to millions on the BBC.
Manford believes the secret is simple – he is in the right place at the right time.
“It happens every few years – a TV producer goes to a comedy club and thinks he’s the first person to have the idea to put stand-up on TV. It’s cheap to make and people enjoy it,” he says.
“I also, honestly think that when times are hard, people want to be able to pay £20, go on a night out and know that they’re guaranteed a good night.”
It is the guarantee of a good night, with Manford, like Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and other comedians of that ilk, that has left them open to criticism from some of their comedy peers.
Comedy is supposed to be dangerous, unpredictable – not a “guaranteed” good night.
“People say I’ve sold out, but I think ‘well, I’m trying to sell out every night’, to be honest. That’s the aim, it’s the whole point,” he laughs.
“People have a go at me and Michael and John Bish because we’re ‘in the middle’ and we’re ‘mainstream’, but I look at it like this. Someone’s got to make your nanna laugh. Someone’s got to host quiz shows. The edgy comedians that criticise us – and they are comedians I really respect and admire – should realise that in order to be edgy you need to have something in the middle.
“You can’t have everyone on the edge.”
He is happy to describe himself as safe and TV producers certainly think he’s a steady pair of hands, but all that nearly fell apart when it was revealed last year he had been using social network site Twitter to flirt with female fans.
There was a media storm.
“It was a hard couple of months, but what you discover in those moments when you’re sat under your bed thinking the world hates you, the phone doesn’t stop ringing – and it might not be for job offers, but it’s your family and they are there and they still love you.”
Because he was Brung Up Proper, Manford rarely swears, but there is one piece of advice – from his father – that still rings in his ears.
“Me dad always said, ‘Jason, you can please some people, some of the time and everyone else can f*** off’.”
Jason Manford plays Leeds City Varieties, October 17, tickets 0113 243 0808, Sheffield Arena, October 19 and Harrogate International Centre November 18 and 19. Tickets www.jasonmanford.com. He will be signing copies of Brung Up Proper, published by Ebury Press, £18.99, at WHSmiths, Sheffield, 5.30pm, October 19 and Waterstone’s, Leeds, 5.30pm, November 8.