POSTED DECEMBER 10 2007
by Derek Smith
There’s nothing quite like nailing your colours to the entertainment mast, and with a title like The Real Variety Show, nothing less than varied, quality acts were expected by a clearly discerning audience for JLA’s annual, prestigious Cadogan Hall bash. For any such big hitting show, you always need a big hitting compere, and with Lenny Henry you get exactly that - all sweat, effort and bundles of enthusiasm. Only let down by somewhat predictable material, he nevertheless instilled that essential early feel-good factor. “It’s good it’s not an awards evening - there’s too many of them anyway,” he said, with several nods in the audience.
Welsh comic, Rhod Gilbert, was the first of a number of performers on stage whose act showed just how much comedy has changed since Henry’s real heydays. Gilbert expertly weaved some surreal scenarios with twists on the mundane - like hassles with luggage arriving terminally damaged on the carousel at the airport. His skit on a Navy recruitment TV advertisement turned into an epic, becoming ever funnier and wonderfully silly.
Silly doesn’t even begin to describe the skills of Bruce Airhead, a one-off if ever there was. A man with a hugely inflated ego - in the nicest possible sense - his act, to quote that old cliche, has to be seen to be believed. Smothered in more oil than a chicken drumstick from the local take-away, he metamorphoses into a human balloon dressed only in minimal attire, only to emerge as the king of rock and roll, complete with quiffed coiffure. An act you just cannot take your eyes off, he is a brilliant throw back to music hall eccentricity - and a very welcome spesh talent on the worldwide circuit.
Comic Paul Sinha, described as ‘one of the new breed of Asian comedians’ in the programme notes, adopts a more cerebral style than others, preferring a slow burn approach, offering not so much one-liner gags but lengthier social observations with decent tag lines covering subjects like racism, football violence and gay issues. His relatively short set here didn’t lend itself to his style of slow-build comedy and his talents could only really be judged on a full routine. A practising GP, he should, of course, know if laughter really is the best medicine.
True to its title, the evening’s next act offered a nice switch to something altogether different. Celloman, the brainchild of Ivan Hussey, who has worked with the likes of Take That and the Rolling Stones, is a certainly interesting blend of classical, jazz and world music, one that worked extremely well here given the fine acoustics of the Cadogan Hall. Hussey’s talent is to immediately make you forget all the preconceptions you may have about the cello being a somewhat staid instrument and his opening solo here blew those away in just a few minutes. By the time he’d been joined on stage by two other musicians for the second part of his set, there was nothing left to prove - in his hands, the cello just could be the new violin.
It’s always hard to tell whether a comedian/impressionist of the calibre of Jon Culshaw treats such ‘showcase’ gigs as just a day at the office or they really do feel the need to prepare some new material. With a catalogue of voices claimed to number around 360 people though, he’s never going to be lost for words - or jokes - at such industry events. Even when, on asking the audience to suggest people for him to imitate, the name of Stephen Hawkins was shouted out. Only on a very few occasions was the material to go with the lampooning not that sharp, but with Culshaw hitting the bullseye time and time again with his impressions, that was never likely to matter to an audience that loved every minute he was on stage. Russell Crowe as Les Dawson? Just one of many all too brief highlights.
Genuine spesh act number two Raymond Crowe describes himself as an ‘unusualist’ blending visual comedy, ventriloquism and shadow puppetry. The visual comedy, which he started with, I wasn’t that keen on - a case of flamboyant style over much substance - but his shadow puppetry launched his act onto a whole new level. Brilliantly effective, it soon had the audience ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ along to his various creations formed on a big projection screen. A unique and impressive talent then - beyond a shadow of a doubt, as it were.
Apparently described by The Sun as “the funniest new comic in the English speaking world,” I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but Michael McIntyre definitely has the ability to tap into all manner of mundane things that affect mostly metropolitan folk. The trials and tribulations of tube travel and the ludicrous post code envy of fellow Londoners were right on the comic button and you could only warm to McIntyre as he became increasingly got worked up about various subjects. More than anything, he has that element that’s so vital for comics - that unmistakable air of originality.
As, to be fair, does male comedy trio, Lost Locos, as loony a musical, knock-about threesome as you’re likely to see on the circuit. Stars of the European cabaret scene, according to JLA, there’s no doubt that some of their act gets lost in the translation to the UK. Like the Three Stooges in sombreros, what you get with this act is fun slapstick, some flamenco music thrown in and decent visual humour. Quite whether it would hold the attention for a full set, I’m not sure, but it would probably be fun finding out.
Those corporate bookers on the night seeking sharp, uncompromising comedy needed look no further than Frankie Boyle, the regular panellist on the excellent Mock the Week. Always daring to go into comic territory that many others would shy away from, there’s always a wicked “have I gone too far?” smile on his face - then he goes a bit further. Inevitably, some won’t like his material, and that’s a risk he’s clearly willing to take, but the best comedians never got far without taking risks.
Earlier in the evening, even when he had slipped in a quick Tommy Cooper routine, Lenny Henry’s style of comedy hadn’t quite cut it with what was a savvy, quite young professional audience. But, and I’m sure unknown to many present before the night, Henry has another string to his bow - as lead singer in the band Poor White Trash and the Little Big Horns. Suddenly, here was a whole new Lenny Henry stomping around the stage, working up a sweat Lee Evans would have proud of, and evidently having a ball of a time while breezing through some good old standards. Free of the pressure of having to make people laugh, he looked a new man - and one with a pretty decent voice.
Come the end, The Real Variety Show - true to its word - had offered quality, imaginative variety. The only criticism was that apart from some members of the final band, not one female comic or act was in evidence. I’m sure JLA must have a least a few on their books worthy of appearing at such an important event - it would have just given the evening an extra dimension.
POSTED DECEMBER 5 2007
By Henry Deedes
Vince Cable's rather successful stint as the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats has seen his star rise in the Commons faster than a spotty pop hopeful on The X Factor.
As a result, and presuming that he accepts a frontline job from whoever wins the party leadership battle, he can expect a far higher media profile among his parliamentary colleagues from now on.
Cable, an accomplished ballroom dancer, has already revealed an ambition to appear on the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing. It seems he could also, if he so wished, explore a lucrative sideline on the public speaking circuit. After a string of impressive performances, Cable has caught the eye of the theatre impresario Clive Conway, one of the leading agents for public speakers, who counts the likes of Tony Benn and Alastair Campbell among his clients.
"He is entertaining but he also has that all-important gravitas," says Conway. "Having seen how successful people like Tony Benn and William Hague can be, you get a feel for the kind of thing that attracts the public and he has those qualities. He has the kind of calibre that you need."
Conway hasn't made contact with Cable's office yet, but not everyone agrees with his verdict. Jeremy Lee, who runs the prestigious JLA speaking circuit, will not be calling Cable's office. "No, is the short answer," says Lee. "In my opinion, one swallow does not make a summer. It's nothing personal against Vince, but he is just not someone I can see us being inundated with requests for."
POSTED AUGUST 3 2007
by Celia Walden
The last day of the Labour conference will never be the same again: now that John Prescott has left office, who is there to fill the final rabble-rousing slot?
But if you are already missing the incomparably mangled rhetoric of the former deputy prime minister, I have good news: Prezza is now available for hire.
He has signed up with leading speakers' agency Jeremy Lee Associates, which also represents the likes of William Hague, David Blunkett and Charles Kennedy.
The blurb from JLA highlights some of Prescott's serious political interests - such as regeneration, housing and his experience at the Kyoto negotiations - not to mention trumpeting his role advising the Chinese Government on its plans to build a thousand new ''sustainable'' cities. But his many brushes with scandal do not escape notice.
"Always a colourful character, Prescott is also known for a number of controversial episodes - not least punching the farmer who threw an egg at him during the 2001 election," it states.
Jeremy Lee is delighted to have the political bruiser on his books - although he would not be drawn on what kind of fee he would expect to command. "I'm anticipating demand for him for keynote addresses and after-dinner speeches and in both cases there's a lot he can draw on," says Lee.
"The initial response has been a staggering amount of interest."
POSTED JUNE 18 2007
By Rhymer Rigby
Josh Mendelsohn is a programme manager in online sales at Google. But in his spare time he, along with a team of dozens of volunteers, helps bring in speakers to talk to his fellow Googlers. So far, the roll call of people who have addressed the company is a pretty stellar one: it includes Senator Hillary Clinton, Martin Amis, the novelist, and Joseph Stiglitz, the economist.
One might reasonably wonder what the likes of Mr Amis have to do with Google, and the answer is not much at all. Rather, they are bought in to tell staff about their latest books. Such was the success of the Authors@Google programme that it has now been renamed @Google and broadened out to include other categories of people such as filmmakers, political candidates and high-achieving women.
"It started as a programme to take advantage of the interesting individuals who stopped by at Google HQ," Mr Mendelsohn explains.
The lectures take place during work hours and the programme has the support of Google's senior management.
It operates in eight offices worldwide and employees who are not lucky enough to attend the lectures in the auditorium can watch them live online.
There are a few stipulations. Speakers must agree to their talk being put on YouTube and they must allow an audience question-and-answer session afterwards. Mr Mendelsohn says this is to ensure Google does not get US political style stock speeches with tame audiences. "John Edwards [the former US senator] was recently asked a question which he refused to answer. We want a lecture series that puts folks on the spot," he says.
Law firm Clifford Chance runs a similar programme under the name Clifford Chance Conversations. Stuart Popham, senior partner, says some speakers are work related, while others, such as Sir Christopher Meyer, the former UK ambassador to Washington, are not. The company has even hosted Peter Blake, the man behind the Sgt Pepper album cover, talking about pop art and culture. On average, Clifford Chance has a speaker every two weeks and Mr Popham says it is always well received. The talks are advertised on the intranet and open to all. Indeed, sometimes the firm opens them to neighbouring companies based in London's Canary Wharf.
Jeremy Lee, founder of the speaker bureau Jeremy Lee Associates, says that in many ways this is simply an extension of the older convention of having conference speakers who provide a "general interest" speech. "We have six to seven hundred live enquiries at any given time and a sizeable minority of them are from people who've heard someone speak on, say Radio 4, and thought: 'They're interesting. Let's get them in.' "
This type of thing, Mr Lee adds, tends to be more prevalent in City firms than areas such as manufacturing. He suspects this may simply be because financial institutions are more likely to have in-house auditoriums - which tend to get people thinking about how nice it might be to have a lecture series.
According to organisers of these events, the benefits go beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets from exposing one's employees to the great and the good.
"The greatest benefit is for our staff to have major intellectual leaders engage with them," Mr Mendelsohn says. "It's part of continuing education. It makes people think and extends their boundaries and keeps them engaged."
He also views the online lecture archive as a public resource. In fact, the company is looking for a broadcast partner.
"A 25-year-old won't normally get a chance to meet Peter Blake or listen to an ambassador," says Mr Popham. "In some ways it's an extension of sponsoring art galleries and museums. Also, there's been such a blurring of the work/life boundary that employers have a responsibility to provide these sort of opportunities - because people no longer have the time to pursue them."
Mr Lee buys into this idea, although he warns that it needs to avoid becoming a PR exercise. "For employees to really benefit from it, you do need to see someone live and feel the energy in the room. If you watch it online or on television, the impact is greatly diluted."
POSTED APRIL 5 2007
By Oliver Duff
Ed Vaizey has come a long way since filling the wretched role of writing speeches for Mikey Howard.
Mate-of-Cameron Vaizey, a nice chap who has been touching up possible Lib Dem defectors for the Tories, is entering the potentially lucrative world of after-dinner speaking, signing for the London agency JLA. Says boss Jeremy Lee, whose books boast William Hague and Alastair Campbell: "We're very excited to be working with Mr Vaizey. He is an interesting speaker."
The MP becomes a "C-grade" talker, on a par with Christine Hamilton and snooker's Steve Davis. Small potatoes compared to the £20k commanded by A-graders, but £2,500-£5,000 for a night's work ain't rough.