POSTED SEPTEMBER 26 2008
by Natalie Lambracos
You know the pressure’s on when you’ve been asked to take part in the prestigious JLA Real Variety Performance. Known throughout the entertainment industry as being the best in the business, what did this year’s bash at London’s Cadogan Hall have in store?
Impatiently clock-watching as the performance was late to start, my premature negativity soon dissipated when Rob Brydon bounced out on stage bellowing out the lyrics to Tom Jones’ Delilah.
Introducing, Far From Kansas as his backing singers, Brydon ushered the choir off stage and informed us that we would see more of them as the evening digressed.
First up was comedian, musician and writer James Sherwood. Described as the next Bill Bailey, Sherwood soon revealed his perfectionism for the correct use of the English language. Sat by a grand piano and performing renditions of famous pop songs, Sherwood’s compulsive obsession with grammatically correct sentences would cause him to stop mid-song and change the lyrics to what they should be.
Truly making me laugh aloud, this first act had won me over and even if the rest weren’t as good, I was still in for a good night.
Next out was Stephen K Amos who claimed to have upped the black population of Chelsea by 1,000 per cent. Winner of Time Out’s award for Best Stand-Up, Amos proved his worth. Ridiculing his family background, Amos painted a stereotypical black family living in England and comically poked fun at the challenges they faced.
Rainer Hersch and his Orchestra provided comedy with a difference giving the comedy circuit a musical twist. Under Hersch’s instruction, the orchestra played well-known classical masterpieces and encouraged the audience to guess which television advertisement they were from.
Hersch’s slapstick conducting provided amusing entertainment and the orchestra really came into their own when playing the Microsoft Windows waltz - an amalgamation of the opening, you’ve got mail and shut down sounds that a computer generates.
Continuing the musical theme, Far From Kansas are musical theatre’s answer to comedy. Dressed in black T-shirts and kilts with sparkly red shoes, they sung alternative musical style songs with jazz hands and generic, exaggerated movements.
Following on, Reginald D Hunter was next to hit the stage. Introduced by Brydon as the epitome of cool, Hunter certainly lived up to this description. The London-based American, drew comparisons between Britain and the States. Over here, according to Hunter there are so many different types of insult, there’s irony, sarcasm, tongue in cheek, it takes him three weeks to realise that he’s been insulted.
However, in my opinion Randy Thompson AKA Beardyman was equally as cool. Starting off by counselling the audience and telling us not to be afraid of ourselves, you truly felt that you were ‘on the couch.’
But, after a couple of minutes, revealing that he is not afraid of himself or what he can do, Thompson broke into DJ mode and became a human beatbox. Creating such an authentic club environment, you honestly couldn’t believe that the sound you were listening to was coming from another human being - it was mind blowing.
As Thompson exited the stage, the question on everyone’s lips was how will anyone top that? And that was exactly what the next act, Mancunian Jason Manford said himself as he stepped out on stage.
“Just pretend I was on before him,” Manford jibed to which the audience burst into laughter. “And I’ve got you back,” Manford added.
His anecdotal-style comedy revolved around Manchester, road rage and his lying, narcoleptic father. Proving to be a success, he had us in stitches and clearly succeeded in winning back his audience.
But the prize for the most unusual act has to go to Ennio Marchetto. Essentially a mime artist, Marchetto appeared on stage in a cartoonish cardboard cutout of a famous celebrity. Set to the soundtrack of one of their most famous songs, he would caricature a stereotypical vice. So, for example, as Amy Winehouse, he would stumble across the stage, downing paper cutout bottles of wine while miming the words to Rehab.
It was incredibly humorous and, as he re-appeared as another celebrity, you kept hoping that he had more up his non-existent sleeve.
Clearly doing what it set out to do, this show was a success with each comic providing versatility and variety. Each time a different act came out, I thought it was better than the previous, but, to be honest, I would be pressed to pick a favourite.
POSTED SEPTEMBER 22 2008
Mend your speech a little", as King Lear said to his daughter Cordelia, "lest it may mar your fortune". Lear's advice fell on deaf ears and yet today his words have never been more resonant. For the modern media personality, the after-dinner circuit has become a crucial arena for building one's brand, and making a fortune in the process.
Though cameras are rarely present, notebooks and recorders often frowned upon and audiences are bespoke, after-dinner speaking offers media personalities one of their most lucrative platforms. Almost all of the A-list of such oratory is made up of media figures; Sir David Attenborough, Angus Deayton, Alastair Campbell, Piers Morgan, Richard Hammond, to name a few. Almost all of them are men.
One man more than any other in Britain is responsible for this flourishing industry. With his open-neck pink shirt and rotund features, there is very little of Lear in Jeremy Lee, the charming brain behind Jeremy Lee Associates, the largest speaker agency in the country.
A graduate of York University, where he studied English, Lee's early acting ambitions were soon inhibited by forces beyond his control. "I was just too short to be an actor," he says. "I soon realised that my height [he's 5ft 7in] would be too big an obstacle. Plus I can't really dance".
So he got a job booking "talent" – the generic word Lee repeatedly uses – for the agency MECCA. In 1990 he decided to blaze his own path, setting up JLA and acquiring an ever-growing army of speech makers. This year, JLA's 18th, "was the year we finally came of age".
JLA now boasts of booking over 1,600 engagements each year, with an army of speakers numbering several hundred. Increasingly, Lee says, those doing the booking aren't just corporate entities; the public sector too is coming to value a good speech more than ever.
"Crudely put, there are two reasons why people want to see a speaker, and obviously they're closely related. The first is that it can put bums on seats, which most people who send out invites are keen to do. The second is – and I'm afraid it's a very objectionable phrase – the so-called "wow factor". There are some speakers out there whose very presence is motivational, and who lift people just by virtue of their presence".
On his website, Lee has graded his speakers from E to AA, with a price to match. To achieve AA status you basically need to have walked on the moon, like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Most after-dinner speakers will back themselves to make a good speech, which can be a source of satisfaction in itself. And with pay packets ranging from £1,000 for an hour (Band E) to £25,000 plus per hour (Band AA), the financial rewards are huge.
But there's more to it than that. In recent years, politicians in particular have been heavily admonished for accepting huge sums for their after-dinner speeches. The publicity has not been all good. And in times of belt-tightening across the country, readers may find the discovery that a familiar face was paid thousands for not much work galling.
Why, then, should a media personality wish to court such danger? Largely, Lee explains, because of money. But it's also partly because, so long as they manage it safely, the publicity needn't be all bad, and the audiences are usually decent company. The public may tend to be intolerant of politicians lining their pockets; but an established journalist or television presenter doing so is usually seen as fair cop.
"High-profile individuals attract attention when they start speaking on the circuit", Lee says. "But almost by definition, they are speaking behind closed doors. Apart from that burst of publicity, which is often written up as a "shocker" – so-and-so got paid x amount for speaking to blah, blah, blah – the circuit doesn't actually get that much profile unless the speaker is already hugely in the public eye."
Lee says that the motivation is rarely the kudos of speaking or the opportunity to network with an audience. "Yes, of course you'll make contacts, just as you would if you went for dinner with friends of friends, but that's not always explicitly what speakers are after. It's often the slightly coarser fact of getting paid well".
There are those in the media who decide that, because of the negative headlines generated by speech making, and the dangers of guilt by association with the wrong crowd, they want nothing to do with the "circuit". Lionel Barber, the Editor of the Financial Times whom Lee describes as "a deeply impressive individual", refuses on principle to do after-dinner speaking.
Lee claims that the system of banding speakers according to their price tag is his own invention. But though he has a role in influencing which band a speaker enters, he says he remains subservient to the market.
"I explicitly reject the idea that I am some sort of arbiter of social worth. Quite the contrary, in fact: this marketplace works according to the laws of supply and demand, just like any other. Where I do come in, if at all, is in recommending that speakers who are new to the circuit enter at a lower band than they think they'll end up, because moving upwards is a lot more commercially sensible than moving downwards, which looks awful".
Nevertheless, distortions exist. Award ceremony hosts from Bruce Forsyth to Stephen Fry can command huge sums, depending on the size of the ceremony. And somebody like Peter Fincham, the Director of ITV who was chosen to give this year's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, ranks only as a "C" according to JLA.
Though methods vary, the secret of a good speech can often be boiled down to a simple dictum. "Try to tell your audience something they don't know about someone or something they do know," Lee says. "Know your audience, and make sure to get your pitch right from the beginning."
More famous speakers get an easier ride. "Someone like the comedian Dominic Holland, who is excellent, might have an awkward opening minute where he's got to immediately win over a crowd that may be unfamiliar with him. Someone like Gorbachev [the former Soviet President] usually gets a bit longer".
Over the past few months, Lee has been obsessively working on a new website for JLA, which will have expanded biographies and forums on which audience members leave moderated comments about speakers they have recently seen. Bookings for next year are up between three and five per cent so far, despite widespread economic gloom. "Ultimately, though much of the coverage of the circuit focuses on the money involved, it's getting more and more popular with both audiences and speakers," Lee says. "I think that's because, at some level, everyone can enjoy a good speech well delivered. Most of our speakers leave their audiences feeling either better about themselves or enlightened. That's a fantastic thing to be involved in, frankly".