By Jonathan Brown
The clean cut style, cheeky grin and quick wit of Manchester’s most exciting comedy export, Jason Manford, are qualities you might also expect to find in his tight knit family and for the most part you’d be right.
But Colin Manford’s straggly beard, glasses and lesser bank balance set him far apart from his nationally acclaimed brother and as he sits across from me in a busy city pub, most punters are unaware of his comic talents.
Despite appearances, the star’s younger brother is also taking to the stage after a somewhat chequered few years in and out of colleges and odd jobs.
After leaving school, the six foot plus, larger than life Mancunian hadn’t a clue about his future and stand up comedy wasn’t even on his radar, in spite of his instinctively witty personality.
His ability to make light of things was a necessity when growing up, as the Manford family struggled to make ends meet during Colin’s early life in Whalley Range, Manchester, and for years he shied away from the spotlight.
He explains: “We grew up with pretty much nothing, so you have to entertain yourself and come up with your own stuff.
“As far as family goes, it’s full of entertainers especially on my mum’s side, even my other older brother, who is a plumber, is also a part time magician.”
In fact after re-taking some school exams, the self confessed class clown ended up on a mundane communications course at a local college which he seemed destined to fail from the start.
“It was just dire, I only lasted six months. My decision to leave was based on a Tuesday because I used to get home when it was dark and I just didn’t like that,” he says with a wry smile.
And this became a recurring theme as the unmotivated joker stumbled through several colleges before taking an unexpected two year detour.
As Jason broke into mainstream TV, Colin was asking if you wanted your sandwich toasted at your local Subway as he continued to search for his calling.
“These last few years have been mental, I often sit back and think what am I doing, why did I work in subway for two years,” says Colin.
“At the time it was only supposed to be a stop gap but I just got comfortable. Living at home with no bills to pay, getting £300 every two weeks with a Wetherspoons down the road, I was like a full on alcoholic for two years.”
But after eventually pulling himself away from the beer and butties, he did some teacher training and eventually worked his way on to a media and performance course at the University of Salford.
And after years of ignoring his ability to make people laugh, he finally took the leap of faith into stand up comedy in 2007- but it wasn’t all going to be ovations and encores straight away.
The bumbling funny man pretty much fell in at the deep end by entering ‘King Gong’ at the Comedy Store in Manchester, where comedians get a tiny five minute berth on stage to avoid getting gonged off by a rowdy crowd.
He explains: “I thought about it just before uni and then I finally caved in to one of my mates. Doing King Gong at the Comedy Store was honest to god the worst day of my life.
“Beat the Frog is friendly, it’s a nice one, even if you get gonged off. But King Gong is brutal, it’s hostile, the compere encourages the crowd to heckle but I got the two mixed up and signed up for King Gong. I lasted two minutes.”
A shattered Manford was drowning his sorrows in the club’s foyer when veteran comedian Mick Ferry offered the young amateur a pep talk and within days Colin was back on stage at Beat the Frog, which he duly won at the first attempt.
“Mick basically told me to keep writing as not every audience is going to like every joke you write, it’s not all about acting like a mentalist like they do at King Gong and he was right,” he recalls.
Colin’s baptism of fire into the world of stand up made him begin to appreciate his brother’s success and now he hopes to emulate Jason’s achievements having seen the blueprint.
“I mean because we’re so close and because he’s grafted so hard, now I know what can happen if I graft hard. He’s done his education, finished uni and he’s doing brilliantly,” he says proudly.
But as a result of his brother’s huge success, made Colin was so wary of becoming pigeon-holed as some sort of tribute act that for his first two years as a stand up he all but dismissed his identity, working under the pseudonym of Colin Charles.
He explains: “It’s difficult for me because I’m immediately cast as Jason’s brother. I mean I don’t use Jason’s jokes and I don’t talk about him so why should I be presented to people using his name?”
Following a two year crash course in comedy, during which he built up an admirable reputation, Manford finally unveiled his identity at the comedy Mecca of the Edinburgh Festival last year.
“I’m proud of what I achieved as Colin Charles. It’s just because I didn’t want to be labelled back then and I got fed up eventually. It’s my name too, it’s for my parents, wanting them to feel like there’s another Manford out there making it but I’ve got a long way to go,” he continues.
“Now I use my name as a plus point because if people say you’re just Jason’s brother then I get on stage and prove to them that I’ll be funny off my own back.”
Now in his third year as an aspiring comic, Manford is gigging at least three times a week in and around Manchester and the North West with the ultimate aim of reaching the big time.
As he sits back, takes a gulp of water and explains his grand aims, it’s clear that he’s ambitious.
Yet the burden of his brother’s success has meant that some promoters have tried to market him by using Jason’s name, something which Colin despises.
“He’s not going to be here and our material is not the same so that does annoy me. Some people take the piss like that,” he says.
His enthusiasm is tangible as he talks you through his favourite stand up moments. He clears his throat and gestures a 3D image of his favourite gig, compelling you to listen intently.
“There must have been 350 people crammed into the Frog and Bucket and I was warming the crowd up for the competition, it just felt like it was the best gig of my life,” he excitedly recalls.
“I don’t usually get hecklers either but this time I did because I slagged Salford off and there was this crazy, fat woman from Salford on the balcony and she started threatening me.
“She even gave me the gun signs and then she flashed me, the biggest black bra I’ve seen in my life. I managed to get a standing ovation after that, I had a really good gig.”
Unfortunately the life of a young journeyman stand up is not all that glamorous and more often than not Colin finds himself working for free at charity events and club nights.
And although these venues, that are more suited to sequin jackets and bingo callers, couldn’t be further from the limelight, they certainly beat Subway as he searches for more experience.
“I’m one of those people who can’t say no to anyone so I’ll end up doing charity events for people and more often than not they’re just shambolic. I did one last week for Age Concern in Heaton Norris and it was just brutal,” he continues.
“I mean beforehand I came up with all these new jokes and ideas to try and when I got there the crowd was literally age concern.”
In fact Colin is keen to get the most from someone who has been there and done it, and fortunately for him he doesn’t have to look far for guidance.
“He’s dead interested in what I’m doing, we have a lot of banter and he’s always putting me down in front of people in a friendly way, with the whole ‘he’s trying to be a comedian’ joke,” Colin smirks.
Slurping the final dregs of his water, he makes it clear that there’s still something missing for him as his brother has never actually seen Colin’s stand up.
“Performing in front of Jason is one thing I’d love to happen because I’ve performed in front of my mum, dad and my other brothers and even a girl who I used to be in love with, which was petrifying.” he says.
Despite all this, Colin can still rest in the knowledge that although his brother is nationally known, the mutual respect that they share remains unblemished.
“I even did an interview for Manchester Radio Online and Jason rang up and tried having a go, saying that when I realise I’m not good enough and I give up, he’s going to buy my jokes off me and I was like alright, okay,” he smiles.
“At least my jokes are good enough that he’d want to buy them.”