They say laughter is the best medicine… but comedian Jason Manford says many performers struggle in secret with their emotions, with conditions like ADHD affecting a “high percentage” compared with the general public at large. “There’s certainly a lot of mental health issues within the entertainment industry,” admits the Mancunian star, 42, who has spoken bravely about his own anxiety and depression in the past.
“You’re living in a world where every feeling is heightened… every mistake and every good moment. So where do you get the chance to come down? Your adrenaline’s gotta go somewhere.”
Manford is speaking two days after it was revealed Friends star Matthew Perry, wise-cracking Chandler Bing in the iconic US comedy, had drowned aged 54 in the hot tub at his Los Angeles home. Perry, who had a long history of addiction, once admitted: “If I didn’t get the laugh I was supposed to get I would freak out.”
It is a sentiment Manford, who religiously watched the show every Friday night in its hey-day, and now enjoys repeats with his own children, understands.
“Matthew had all the best one-liners and the funny reactions… as a young comic growing up and watching the show, you dream of being given a role in a show like that, and he absolutely smashed it,” he says.
“He had pathos, he had everything. You’re not in a worldwide, well-loved sitcom for that long if you’re not one of the most talented actors around.”
Manford believes fans should feel able to “grieve as if you have lost a friend” when a star loses their life, especially in untimely or in tragic circumstances.
“There was a point in time where someone on TV, in film or music, were very separate from the real world, but now people feel much closer [to them] than they once were,” he explains.“Some people feel a bit silly about being upset when a person they haven’t met on the other side of the world has passed away – but people mean different things to us and when they’re a joy bringer like Matthew, it’s doubly hard.”
As for his own life, the father-of-six relies on his friends and family to “keep a sense of self” during tough moments.
“Having kids is always so helpful because they don’t care who you are,” he laughs. “I’ve been very lucky that I get to do nice things – and I always remember that it’s a privilege to be able to get up on stage and make people laugh.”
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Which is something the Salford-born comedian has been doing since 1999 when, as a 17-year-old glass collector at a Chorlton comedy club, he stepped onto the stage after a billed name didn’t turn up. Since then he’s become one of Britain’s best-loved comedians and was a regular on prime-time panel shows 8 Out of 10 Cats and QI. More recently, the multi-talented Manford has segued into acting and singing, appearing in West End musicals Sweeney Todd, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Guys and Dolls, and The Wizard of Oz.
Right now he’s busier than ever and, for the second year running, will be hosting The National Lottery’s Big Bash with singer and TV presenter Alesha Dixon at London’s OVO Wembley Arena on December 6.
The free “house party” extravaganza will feature show-stopping performances from headliners Take That, Busted, Paloma Faith and Jax Jones, with more acts still to be announced. The event also highlights extraordinary people who have changed lives in their communities thanks to National Lottery players who generate more than £30million a week for UK charities and projects.
“It’s a really heartwarming end-of-the-year show,” says Manford. “Last time we reunited Ukrainian girl Amelia Anisovych, eight, and her mum Lilia, on stage.”
Amelia broke hearts around the world in the early days of the conflict when she sang Let it Go from the Disney musical Frozen inside a Ukrainian bomb shelter. She eventually escaped to safety in Poland and repeated her sweet rendition for last year’s 8,000-strong Big Bash audience.
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Manford says we can expect lots more moments like that. “We celebrate people who’ve done wonderful things – and that’s what the National Lottery is great at because the entertainment industry, arts and theatre world are still feeling the ramifications of Covid lockdowns,” he says. “The Lottery has done so much to keep a lot of things going whether that’s youth clubs, theatre groups or dance troops.” Of course, as well as celebration, the end of another 12 months also offers the opportunity for reflection.
Manford lost his grandmother, Leah, 99, in May following a long battle with dementia. Today, he says he and his family try to focus on the positives of knowing their much-loved grandmother lived for so long. But he admits his heartbreak resurfaced this summer when he recently played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium.
“It was lovely and great fun, but it was sad to do because I knew the Wizard of Oz was one of my nana’s favourite films and Judy Garland was one of her favourite actresses,” he says. “It was very bittersweet when you have memories like that.”
Manford will return to panto for a second time this Christmas, taking on the titular role in Jack and the Beanstalk at Manchester’s Opera House. And he’ll be back doing stand-up with a new live tour next year, A Manford All Seasons, across the UK. Does he still get nervous, I wonder?
“This is the nervous part!” he proclaims. “Not getting on stage. The point where you’re selling tickets for a show that you’ve not written yet is the nerve-wracking bit.”
As part of his preparation, he’s watched other comedians performing in the venues to gauge which lines got the biggest laughs. It takes him a year to gather his material and he’ll start writing after Christmas.
When I wonder if he ever fears so-called ‘cancel culture’ when he pulls together his material, he sighs: “Is it actually a real thing? Who’s been cancelled? I think it’s been made up.”
However, he does concede that you can still end up in hot water. “Comedians have always been criticised: Billy Connolly, Peter Kay and I certainly have,” he says. “Humour is like any taste – some people like a nice, simple cheese sandwich and others like a vindaloo. And that’s the way you always find your audience.”
He does admit that “there are topics you might avoid”.So what subjects wouldn’t he discuss? “Well, I’m avoiding them so I can’t tell you,” he shoots back before chuckling. “That’s how avoidance works.”
These days, when not on the road, Manford is a dedicated family man. He has twin girls, a daughter and son by his first wife, Catherine, and two children with his second wife, Lucy Dyke, whom he married in 2017. They’ve just had a big Halloween.
“My bigger girls are at parties now and aren’t as interested as the little ones,” he chuckles. Manford may be turning his attention to Christmas next but he won’t be making New Year’s Resolutions.
“I’m just trying to make sure I stay fit and healthy for my kids and to make sure I’m around as long as possible,” he says. “It’s all you can hope to do.”
Anyway, he laughs, he’s “too old” for them. “If I’m not doing something in November then I’m not going to start in January!” Quite right too.
- The National Lottery’s Big Bash takes place at Ovo Arena Wembley on December 6 – 8,000 free tickets go on sale at 1pm today and will be available to National Lottery players on a first come, first served basis. Visit bigbash2023.com for more details. Tickets for A Manford All Seasons 2024/5 UK tour are available from JasonManford.com
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