POSTED DECEMBER 30 2003
By Friederike Tiesenhausen Cave
With the death of Bob Monkhouse, the circuit of after-dinner speakers has lost one of its veterans. His wise-cracking cheered up generations of guests at often dry and formal functions.
Monkhouse was so skilled at sharp one-liners that he became the only performer to win twice the Best After Dinner Speaker of the Year Award by the Guild of International Professional Toastmasters. Peter Prichard, Monkhouse's manager for 38 years, said: "Bob has done after-dinner speeches throughout his career. He was incredibly experienced."
Jeremy Lee, director of JLA, the speakers' bureau, said Monkhouse excelled at customising speeches by tying in anecdotes about a host with news events: "This is something the contemporary comedy world would worship him for. Nobody would be more topical."
Monkhouse's success on the circuit was built on his television and comedy career. Many agents say he will be hard act to follow at functions held for well-fed middle managers from the insurance industry or members of provincial chambers of commerce. While fame in other walks of life is a prerequisite and can make a speaker pricey, not everybody can establish a link to a reluctant audience. Mr Lee said: "It is a special talent to relate to people who did not especially come to see you."
Among speakers in the premium category are Sven-Göran Eriksson, the England soccer manager, whose ingenuity on management and the philosophy of winning can cost a host £25,000-plus. John McEnroe, the former Wimbledon tennis champion and commentator, offers words of sporting wisdom that command a similar fee.
Out of reach for all but the grandest of bashes is Bill Clinton, the most expensive speaker in the world for the third year running at £100,000-plus a time. "The only one who would probably create the same kind of exciting aura is Nelson Mandela," said Mr Lee. "But sadly, he is not available."
The most sought-after speaker in the UK, according to JLA, is William Hague, the former Tory leader, who gained speaking experience at the age of 16 with an address ataparty conference. Listening to the former opposition leader take the mickey out of senior politicians comes at a price ranging from £10,000 to £25,000.
"Hague humour" has become a lucrative sideline for the Yorkshireman who resigned from frontbench politics in 2001. Last month, however, Mr Hague found himself on the defensive after an aside to members of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders backfired. Gay activists were not amused by his take on the prime minister's declaration that he did not have a reverse gear. "I, too, wouldn't have a reverse gear if Peter Mandelson was standing behind me," Mr Hague had said.
Alastair Campbell, a fellow former Westminster insider who charges similar money, is a newer recruit to the circuit but has so far avoided big splashes despite eager anticipation. Mr Campbell, who quit as Tony Blair's spin doctor and media guru in the summer, has spoken at a number of fundraising dinners without spilling the beans about Number 10.
For £5,000 to £10,000, price-conscious hosts can decorate themselves with the medals and wit of sportsmen Kriss Akabusi and Matthew Pinsent. A touch of criminal glamour comes from Nick Leeson, the rogue trader, who recalls how he lost Barings £860m on the Simex money market and served four years in a Singapore jail for his efforts.
At a lower end of the market, Jilly Goolden, the wine critic, charges £2,500 to £5,000 for her thoughts on the merits of old world versus new. Tim Yeo, Tory health and education spokesman and a golf fanatic, intimates how he bends doctor's orders by taking his clubs on the long walks he has been prescribed.
If the belt is truly tight, Ian McCaskill, the former BBC weatherman, charges £1,000 to £2,500 for jokes about the highs and lows of meteorology. Another contender in the budget category is Christine Hamilton, who is happy to dine out on her experiences in the reality TV show I Am A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here.
POSTED DECEMBER 12 2003
By Steve Jelbert
The corporate show is scorned by some comedians, who feel that it is compromising their "artistic integrity". But others embrace it, seeing it as a way of subsidising their careers.
CORPORATE SHOWS are the hidden ginger stepchild of comedy. No one really likes to talk about them, save the ubiquitous Jonathan Ross on his radio show. Yet they take place all the time, those after-dinner shows at which comedians are brought in to amuse dozens of post-prandial businessmen, comforted only by the fact that the huge fees they command effectively subsidise their more prominent — and less well paid — work.
Many of us will have been to such an event, in a group of several hundred drunks, heckling Gary Wilmot with an obscene chant which wouldn’t have disgraced the rowdiest of football crowds. Legend has it that David Baddiel once finished a set to a boozy crowd of City yobs with the words “You’ve been a s**t audience and thanks for the twelve grand”, before wisely fleeing, presumably aware that he would never again be as funny.
“It is a world of whispers. People don’t usually talk about it,” concedes Dara O’Briain, a stand-up comedian experienced at such events. “I think there’s an element of ‘artistic integrity’ involved, something which is massively overstated in the comedy industry, given that we’d hit ourselves on the head with a frying pan to get a laugh when it isn’t going well. It doesn’t make us whores. It’s not like you’re endorsing a product.”
Jimmy Carr, another comic familiar on this shadow circuit, has no illusions about the nature of the work. “I’m about as important as the starter in the run of things, and that’s always salmon or chicken,” he says. But he rather likes doing them. “If you get booked for the right thing they can be great. It’s like the whole audience are one gang, so if you hit it right it’s a brilliant gig, because it’s like a private party.”
O’Briain concurs. “I enjoy them, I have to say. Comedy is something where people don’t usually come to you, Edinburgh excepted. The other 11 months of the year, you’re trying to find their level. But with these gigs you’re not struggling to find it, because if you hit one of them, you’ve hit the whole lot of them.”
There are perks, too. Carr was flown to a company jolly in Mexico. “It was an absolute joy, because obviously everyone there had been flown to Acapulco. If you want to play to an audience in a good mood, that’s the environment. ‘There’s a comedian? Great! We’ll laugh at anything now’.”
But even corporate entertainment has its pecking order. The two best known firms dealing with the talent are the unlikely sounding Jillie Bushell Associates and the speakers’ bureau Jeremy Lee Associates, whose brochure is something of a comedy barometer, and features a code system which gives a rough guide to the fees involved.
“It always excites comedians because it has grades which go up and down, depending on how you stand in the industry,” O’Briain explains. “There is A to E, and the prestigious ‘double A’ for Bill Clinton and the like.” That represents the “price on application” level, though their website actually gives price bands for Category E as under £1,000, D as £1,000-£2,500, and so on, up to A at £10,000-£25,000, which includes well known names such as Frank Skinner and Victoria Wood. Nice work if you can get it.
It’s not all about glamour, of course. The winners of the Perrier newcomer award in 2002, The Consultants, Justin Edwards, James Rawlings and Neil Edmond, have worked at both ends of the scale.
“You’re just exercising crowd control over 50 people who throw rolls at you for three minutes,” says Edwards, though he has a few tricks up his sleeve. “I get the name of the boss and the name of some bloke from accounts who’s always drunk, so all I have to do is find the drunkest man in the room and go, ‘You must be Dave!’ Even if he’s not, it’s usually still funny.”
Rawlings goes on: “There’s a sense of trepidation about going on at nine in the morning to open a conference. But we make more for doing ten minutes than waiting tables for three weeks.”
Corporate shows are really about displaying corporate muscle, at whatever level. “Unlike any other gig you’ll do, there’ll be one person that you’ll meet at the start of the night who’ll look worried, and keep asking if you’re all right,” O’Briain says. “That’s the person who said, ‘I saw this guy at The Comedy Store and he was really good’, and they’ll lose their job, or at least their standing, if I mess up. If you do well, the handshake you get off that person is phenomenal. When you don’t work in that corporate world, you don’t realise that these people are walking on eggshells all the time.”
Sometimes the boss’s idea of a joke proves downright peculiar. Rawlings recalls a curious role-playing day. “A property firm had arranged for four of us to play people working at this hotel. Justin was the maitre d’, I was dressed as a waiter, another actor was supposedly putting together a PA for the speeches, and we gave the worst service imaginable, clearing plates while people were still eating, that sort of thing.”
“All the way through this lovely dinner. They really weren’t enjoying it,” Edwards says. “At the end they announced, ‘Thanks to the cast for amusing us all.’ But nobody got it.”
Who loses out here? “Every stand-up gig is about tailoring your stuff to the crowd and this is more honest,” says O’Briain. “I’m young and hungry and I have a tuxedo, so I’m happy to do them.”
HECKLES AND JIBES
SOME years ago a friend of mine was employed by one of Britain’s largest companies, and one of the perks was the annual Christmas bash, held in a London hotel. Rumours circulated that this year’s event would feature a comedian. Names such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle were bandied around.
So groans broke out when the warm-up act turned out to be a cosy veteran song-and-dance man. Still, surely the corporate giant in question would be aware of the tastes of its young folk. Sadly not. Instead one of the best known of Britain’s golf/ comedy performers leapt on to the stage.
But the star is the star after all, and free booze is free booze, so the crowd settled. Yet spewing forth some racially-charged material was hardly a wise move in front of a mixed audience typical of the capital. Some brisk heckling kicked off, until the white performer turned on one accuser and suggested that if he had anything to say, he could say it to his face.
Emboldened by liquor, the critic accused the star of racism. “Racist! Me! I’m no racist, son, and I’ll prove it,” the comic exclaimed, and called upon his black support act from the wings to join him in a number about their chumship.
Chastened, the heckler returned to his seat, only to be stopped by another punter. “Look what you’ve done, you stupid bastard!” the interloper shrieked. “He’s singing now!”
THE A-TO-E OF COMICS
THE STAR ratings for corporate speakers and comedians:
AA (over £25,000): Ant and Dec, Clive James
A (£10,000-£25,000): David Baddiel, Angus Deayton, Jack Dee, Cat Deeley, Rory Bremner, Jasper Carrott, Bob Monkhouse, Lenny Henry, Phill Jupitus, Mark Lamarr, Patrick Kielty, Alistair McGowan, Frank Skinner, Victoria Wood, Jonathan Ross
B (£5,000-£10,000): Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ed Byrne, Jimmy Carr, Bobby Davro, Omid Djalili, Jeremy Hardy, Lee Hurst, Ross Noble, Emo Philips
C (£2,500-£5,000): Jeff Green, Rich Hall, Kit and the Widow, Derren Brown, Terry Alderton
D (£1,000-£2,500): Simon Evans, Sean Lock, Men In Coats, Sean Meo, Julia Morris, Colin Murphy, Dara O’Briain, Tim Vine, Jason Wood, Consultants, Rhys Darby
E (up to £1,000): Shazia Mirza, Ian Stone, Otiz Cannelloni
POSTED OCTOBER 28 2003
Given the current difficulties of the Tory leadership, it all seems plain sailing for its former incumbent William Hague.
The Richmond MP, who resigned as Conservative leader two years ago, was yesterday identified as being among the most in-demand after-dinner speakers in Britain.
According to speakers agency JLA, which has Mr Hague on its books, he is in the A-list of after-dinner speakers, costing between £10,000 and £25,000 a time.
Only the likes of England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, tennis star John McEnroe and actress Lauren Bacall command more.
JLA director Jeremy Lee said there was "universal agreement" that Mr Hague was a great speaker, who performed wonderfully well when it came to entertaining guests after dinner.
Mr Hague was unavailable for comment and the eulogy seemed to take his office aback.
A spokeswoman said: "We didn't know about this but it's obviously good news for William. He has his parliamentary commitments, which come first, but he will do a certain amount of after-dinner speaking every year."
Mr Hague has previously held the reins for an episode of satirical news programme Have I Got News For You. His appearance went down so well that he was said to be in the running to replace former presenter Angus Deayton.
He later said he had underestimated how much politics involved who or what was fashionable at the time, adding: "More people noticed what I said on the programme than almost anything I did or said in four years as leader of the Conservative Party."
POSTED OCTOBER 26 2003
The Prime Minister's former spin doctor is the 'ultimate catch' on the celebrity speakers' circuit, reports Tom Leonard
Rory Bremner does it all the time, Alastair Campbell is thinking of doing it and John Culshaw would rather not do it with any more builders. As for William Hague, apparently he does it better than anyone.
Good evening and welcome to the lucrative world of after-dinner speaking. Reports that the Prime Minister's former director of communications is about to dip his toe into the speaking circuit has come as little surprise.
Mr Campbell is understood to be about to sign with JLA, the biggest speaking agency, and as one of its "A-band" speakers he can expect to make as much as £25,000 for a single appearance. Even more lucrative engagements beckon in America.
How much he will be prepared to say on the subject people will want to hear about - his time in government - remains to be seen, but agency insiders have described him as their "ultimate catch".
If he signs up to the circuit, Mr Campbell will join a list of 250 names on JLA's books, each profiting - sometimes enormously - from that unshakeable belief in corporate entertainment that no event is ever really complete without a few words from someone famous.
Mr Campbell supports Burnley FC in the First Division, which is about where he can expect to be in the speaker league. The JLA assigns fee grades to all its after dinner speakers. The most expensive, the "AAs" who cost more than £25,000, are a small bunch. They include Sven-Goran Eriksson, John McEnroe, P J O'Rourke, Sir Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall. The "A"s - worth £10,000 to £25,000 - include the television presenters Angus Deayton, David Baddiel and Gary Lineker, the actor Richard Wilson and Mr Hague.
Spending £5,000 to £10,000 gets you a "B" - including Clive Anderson, Ken Clarke, Will Carling and the writer Meera Syal. Too expensive still? The "C"s (£2,500 to £5,000) include Kate Adie, the young explorer Bear Grylls, Loyd Grossman and the former government spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith.
The "D"s - a snip at £1,000 to £2,500 - will still get you a household name such as the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Trevor Brooking and Terry Waite. It will also get you Graham Cole, alias Pc Stamp from The Bill and Christine Hamilton.
Internationally, Bill Clinton currently sits at the top of the earnings tree. Next, is the former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani. Mr Clinton commands in excess of £135,000 for an appearance while Mr Giuliani is not far behind on £107,000, not including travel and accommodation. But who is most in demand in Britain? Mr Lee has no doubts - it is William Hague. "Whatever people think about him politically, the one thing on which there is almost universal agreement is that he's a great speaker," he says. "He was always well known for performing well at Prime Minister's Questions and that translates itself wonderfully into performing after dinner."
So why is Mr Hague not included in JLA's premier league? Fees are not solely determined by the level of demand but factors such as their availability (some only make a handful of speeches a year) location and the audience. Some speakers prefer a cross-industry audience to one made up from a single company as it is more likely to lead to further bookings.
Addressing potential employers has its risks however. Anderson was widely reckoned to have scuppered his chances of getting another chat show after he made a desperately rambling speech to television chiefs at a Royal Television Society dinner in Cambridge last month. Some delegates remembered a past speech to the convention by Bremner - one of the busiest and most popular speakers on the circuit - which would have been far more hilarious had it not been pretty much a carbon copy of one he had given at the Edinburgh Television Festival a month earlier.
"There are a lot of thankless gigs out there," says Mr Lee. "There are audiences who are very, very hard to please. There are people who think they've seen and heard everything." So what are the tricks of speaking? Mr Lee knows a few: try to connect with an audience by referring to one person in the room they all know so you don't look like a "complete hired gun who has only turned up for the money", he says. Be careful not to patronise your audience - Mr Lee recalls the American speaker who produced a platinum credit card to illustrate a point during a speech in Manchester - "From the moment, he pulled it out of his pocket, he'd lost them". Don't tell your audience how to run their own business and don't talk for more than 30 minutes. Finally, give the audience something to take away, such as a story they can re-tell.
The BBC presenter Jeremy Vine, a recent recruit to the speaker circuit, adds a few more. "I once did a speech for some computer operators. I tried some jokes about computers and the room went completely quiet - it was a disaster," he says. "The more you work on trying to convince the audience that you're one of them, the worse it goes down."
Another lesson he has learnt is not to believe everything the host says. "I was once briefed beforehand that it would be good if I could fit in my 'economic worldview'. As soon as I touched on it, I could see the shutters go down across the room. I knew I'd lost them."
As for the funny lines, they should never be generic but preferably drawn from personal experience. "There's a limited number of gags going round and most people have heard most of them," he says.
As the star of the impersonations show Deadringers, Culshaw is predictably in demand for dinners and award ceremonies. Like many entertainers who work regularly with comedy writers, Culshaw gets help with his speeches from the same team who help with his lines in Deadringers. "There's always a balance between taking the mickey and taking it seriously, because for the organisation involved, it could be the main event of their year," he says.
He discovered the hard way that thorough audience research can be crucial. Some years ago, he was booked to address what he was told was a "group of builders". He turned up with a portable disco and a repertoire of raucous party games to discover the audience were the top brass of an international construction company.
Meanwhile, the speaker business is growing - JLA will provide speakers for 1,200 events this year - and agents now hold auditions at which event organisers can watch a speaker doing a practice run.
POSTED JULY 3 2003
Who Wants to be a Millionaire? cheat Tecwen Whittock's attempt to make a few bucks on the after-dinner speaking circuit is looking like a non-starter.
Whittock recently announced that he would be "available for any occasions which require a speaker in the UK or abroad''. But the leading after-dinner speaking agency, JLA - whose clients include Nick Leeson - has blacklisted the coughing college lecturer. "If he thinks he can cash in on this, he's wrong," warns a JLA spokesman.
``There'd be nothing positive to take away from a Tecwen Whittock speech."
POSTED APRIL 10 2003
Almost two years after being thumped at the polls, William Hague's star is back in the ascendancy.
Having prompted nostalgic recollections of his Dispatch Box days with his contribution to the recent war on Iraq debate, Hague is now much in demand on the after-dinner speaking circuit. "He's shot to the top of our list," says a spokesman for speakers' agency JLA.
"His speeches on Iraq seem to have reminded people how good he is. He has the rare talent of being able to deliver keynote speeches as well as being a wonderful gag teller."