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.