After dinner speakers
David Kendall makes ‘em laugh
David Kendall arrived in Cambridge at three in the afternoon and went straight to bed in the room reserved for him at Downing College. After a couple of hours he got up, showered and dressed. Then he came downstairs for a drink, before tonight’s gala dinner.
At the bar, he orders iced water. He avoids alcohol because he’s driving home afterwards: “I like to get back. There’s only the wife, now, and the dog.” (His children have left home.) “I used to drink – but if you do that you tend to think you’re funnier than you are. Then you wake up in the morning and think, ‘That lady over there wasn’t laughing, and nor was that man over there’, and so on. This is my job. Would you go to work on a drink?”
Taking his glass to a table, Kendall pulls a diary from his briefcase and opens it. Inside, there’s a list of the occasions where he’s appeared as the after-dinner speaker. At the top of each page is the name of the organisation, the date and the venue. Already this week he’s done Nestlé at York, a computer company near Slough and, last night, an NHS dinner in Manchester. Tomorrow, he’ll be in St Andrews to address the Rotary Club.
Flicking through the pages, Kendall randomly selects an event: Andersen Consulting, December 15 2000, at Aberdeen University. Beneath this heading he’s handwritten key words indicating which material he used on that occasion, which helps him avoid repeating himself if he addresses the same client again. (Kendall has many similar volumes at home.)
Another precaution is to ask his host during dinner what his or her organisation does, who the “characters” are, and whether certain things might be taboo. (“One of my tenets is never to upset anyone.”) When dessert arrives, he excuses himself: “I go and have a pee, and a cigarette, and walk around the room a bit, thinking.”
After-dinner speakers are a mixed bunch. Some are serious: politicians, scientists, economists. Others are essentially stand-up comedians. Others still possess neither gravity nor a sense of humour, they’re just famous. But they have one thing in common: unlike fond fathers-of-the-bride and jocular best men, they all charge a fee to stand before strangers and talk at events that just happen to involve a big meal. And with summer over they’re entering the busiest time of the year, with rubber chicken on the menu for most of the week.
The type of speaker depends on the event. Corporate bodies tend to book motivational speakers – someone who has overcome remarkable odds, or knows the secret of success. “You could pay £5,000-£6,000 for a well-known mountaineer,” says a booker at one of the better-known agencies. And for the same price – or more – you could hire a management guru or inventor. For informal events, clients can spend less and get someone who is basically an entertainer with an occupational angle: somebody like David Gunson, known on the circuit as The Air Traffic Controller because his former job supplies a substantial part of his shockingly funny talk; Brian Newbold, The Man from the Coal Board (who claims to have developed his “warped sense of humour during a life sentence at British Coal”); or Kendall, the retired bank manager from York.
Not, on the face of it, especially appealing. “You should see the number of events I’ve been to for sales people,” Kendall says. “They’ve been hammered all day about failing to meet their targets and then they’re told the speaker is a retired bank manager from York. They go, ‘Bloody hell!’”
Kendall joined Barclays in 1965, but quit in 1990 because he didn’t like the way the job had changed, with less discretion over customers’ accounts and new rivalry with old friends at the building societies. Still more than a decade away from receiving his bank pension, he decided to make his living from public speaking instead. After all, he’d been performing in front of strangers for years – as a choirboy, in a skiffle band, and giving talks at the local law society.
To have lasted so long, he must be OK. There’s a page devoted to Kendall on the website of Speakers UK (one of several agencies representing him). This includes an acknowledgement that Kendall is the best speaker ever to have appeared at Nuneaton Golf Club; and from PW Singleton, general manager of crop protection group Profarma: “I have been lucky enough to hear you on three occasions and each time your humour has had me in tucks of laughter.”
Many other speakers have also included comments from satisfied clients on their websites. Among the happy customers are the Denbighshire Golfing Union, the British Parking Association, and the Institute of Measurement and Control.
Kendall, who recently turned 60, has a head like a brown egg. His eyes bulge out from what must be a unique configuration of wrinkles: markers of emotional states I could never hope to interpret – some of them, presumably, tucks of laughter. His voice is soft, his manner uncommonly polite. Considering his dark suit with pinstripes, I ask if he dresses soberly for heightened comic effect. He looks puzzled: “No, this is what I’m like.”
Which means that he’s either (a) perfectly suited to tonight’s event, organised by the South Essex Society of Chartered Accountants, or (b) the last person they want to hear from. The accountants’ dinner marks the end of a two-day residential course in which they have endured updates on national insurance and on audit and accounts, a talk about “the role of the Inland Revenue accountant”, and considered “raising finance for the owner-managed business”. By now, one imagines, they must be desperate for entertainment. Can Kendall come up with the goods? Let’s hope so, because in February this year the Leicester City Chamber of Commerce demanded – and got – a partial refund of the £4,000 they paid another speaker on the circuit, Nicholas Parsons, because they didn’t find his jokes funny. (This may have nothing to do with it, but Parsons has earned his place in the Guinness Book of Records as the after-dinner speaker who spoke for longest: 11 hours.)
The amount of money paid to after-dinner speakers varies hugely, and precise figures are hard to come by. Newspaper reports indicate that Margaret Thatcher receives anything from £30,000 to £60,000 for each event. Angus Deayton trousered £50,000 for hosting the Baftas last year, but just £6,000, a few years ago, for addressing the Gwent Training and Enterprise Council. Others who can charge more than £20,000, reportedly, include Joanna Lumley, David Frost and Carol Vorderman.
Innumerable agencies offer their services on the internet, promising to find the speaker best suited to your event. One upmarket firm, Celebrity Speakers International (CSI), recently signed up the unexpectedly gabby former head of MI5, Stella Rimington; Ian Wilmut, the genetic engineer who created Dolly the cloned sheep; and the economist JK Galbraith. The speakers most highly rated by CSI’s clients – eager to lure the most eminent business people to their dinners – include astronaut Neil Armstrong, who charges about $75,000 (£52,000) a pop; Julie Meyer, one of the founders of First Tuesday; and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister. Also available are UN special envoy Carl Bildt, former EU competition commissioner Karel van Miert, and the former president of the Bundesbank, Hans Teitmeyer. (Don’t miss his account of the battles with inflation in Schleswig-Holstein.)
Organisations looking for an after-dinner speaker can refer to CSI’s website, www.speakers.co.uk, or call its audio “Speaker Bank”, where prospective clients phone in for pre-recorded highlights. Using a menu-based system, callers select speakers according to three criteria: the type of event (conferences, dinners, panel discussions), the speaker’s expertise, and the price (starting at less than £500, and rising in £500 increments to “above £5,000”).
Intrigued, I try it. First, I investigate a category of speaker described as “futurists”. Choosing the highest price bracket, I’m informed by a pre-recorded voice that there are two futurists available; and that I can interrupt them at any time. The first, identified as number 6227, does not give his name so I move on. The next, David Hurst, starts telling me about his work as a senior manager in the early 1980s but that’s not my idea of futurism, so I hang up.
Next, I look for a speaker in politics. In the cheapest band, £500-£1,000, the electronic voice informs me, with little regard for grammar, that “there are one speakers available”. This turns out to be the former Labour MP Oonagh McDonald, who, to my surprise, pops up again in the next price bracket (perhaps she speaks for longer if you pay more). Next: £1,500-£2,000. Two speakers. “My name is Dame Angela Rumbold,” says the first. “I have been a politician for over 20 years… ” The second says, “Hello, this is Michael Maclay here. If you’re looking for a speaker on international affairs or on Europe, or on government affairs and the media, you might be interested in my experience… ” As he describes it, this includes stints as a diplomat and journalist, and working as adviser to Douglas Hurd at the Foreign Office “until last summer”, which gives you some idea how long ago the recording was made.
Listening to these elevated figures selling themselves is both entertaining and excruciating. The worst moment, causing me to put the phone down in distress, comes when Michael Maclay, having established his credentials in international affairs, abruptly repackages himself with a breezy, “I can also speak in a lively or lighthearted way… ”
Calling again, I select speakers with a background in sport. For less than £500, there’s somebody called George Saunders (“From corporate entertaining to Masonics, I’ve done the lot… ”); Richard Pitman (“I’m a beaten-up old jockey… ”) and Paul Stevens (“The Singing Caddie”). For the top price, I’m offered Derek Bell, from the world of motorsport: “I have won Le Mans and Daytona,” he boasts.
Hmm. How about some link-person or anchor from television? Michael Barrett, for instance: “I’m the face and voice of Nationwide… remember skateboarding ducks?” Or, for roughly twice as much money, Pamela Armstrong: “I have a couple of humorous after-dinner speeches tucked up my sleeve… ” Or, for £3,500, John Simpson, world affairs editor at the BBC.
They’re all at it: anybody who has ever done anything remarkable – and quite a few who haven’t – can earn a tidy sum talking about it, with a free meal into the bargain. The range of expertise is astounding. “There are people who speak on a particular period in history, or about art, or biology,” says a booker at one agency. “People who are expert assume that everybody will be interested [in their subject]. We’ve got one feller, a really sweet guy, who used to be in a big band – but no one’s interested.”
So why would the South Essex Society of Chartered Accountants pay £850 (including VAT) for a retired bank manager? (Or the Insurance Institute of Middlesbrough, whose annual dinner was attended by our photographer?) To find out, I follow Kendall into Downing College’s oppressively dark hall, lit only by candlesticks on the tables, and find a seat at the back.
Most of the men – there are few women – wear unfashionable suits and hair combed tidily into a parting. Nevertheless, the room begins to buzz with animated discussion: the group to my right, for instance, spends much of the first course comparing notes about the difficulties involved in getting a particular type of PAYE document. Afterwards, one of them breaks off to tell me that – wouldn’t you know it – he does a bit of after-dinner speaking himself. Following an irritating display of false-modesty, he says he does about a dozen events each year, mostly in the autumn. He takes no fee, of course, the money goes to charity. Nor does he advertise. Jobs come through word of mouth, and he’s fighting them off. Stroking his moustache, he provides countless insights into this sideline; stopping only after dessert when the chairman, on the top table, rises to propose the toast (“The Queen!”).
“Can you hear me?” the chairman continues (inevitably, some wag shouts “No!”). Then prizes are handed out for yesterday’s golf tournament – the winners step forward, to loud applause and whooping noises – and when the room has settled down the chairman says it’s his great pleasure to introduce David Kendall. At that point, Kendall rises from his seat, without ceasing to probe inside his ear with his index finger.
A friend of Kendall, formerly warm-up man for a TV presenter, once gave him tips for speaking down south. First, retain the Yorkshire accent. Second, stick to northern gags. “Don’t be witty and sophisticated,” Kendall explains. “They don’t want you to be Clive Anderson or Stephen Fry.”
“Ah tek fer me text Lord Byron,” Kendall begins, in the lugubrious tone favoured by the late Les Dawson; adding something about wine, women and song. And then he’s off: steadily cramming his hoard of gags and stories into a period of not less than 40 minutes. He does talk about banks – a gag about a dead bank manager goes down particularly well – but mostly he talks about Yorkshiremen (“like Scotsmen devoid of their generosity”) and about related issues such as crossing into Lancashire on the M62, or the disappointing experience of drinking beer made in London.
His delivery is brilliant, but the material, it’s fair to say, is old hat. My friend with the moustache, sitting with the thoughtful air of a connoisseur, shakes his head regretfully every so often – and does his best to undermine Kendall by muttering punchlines before they fall due. While Kendall riffs about amateur dramatics, for instance, the moustache rearranges his knife and fork and says, “Enter Ophelia from the rear… ” which does indeed turn out to be the retired bank manager’s lewd payoff.
But even this professional sceptic laughs at jokes he has not heard before, including a fossilised item about Salman Rushdie’s diary (“Monday: stayed in. Tuesday: stayed in… ”). Others laugh with relish; even uncontrollably. Kendall’s gags may not be particularly challenging, but the punters seem unlikely to ask for their money back. After about 30 minutes, a woman on the top table is lost to hysterics but I notice the man beside me pressing a button to light up his digital watch. Having presumably concluded that Kendall has not tired him out – yet – he puts his glasses back on and carries on laughing.
In the general high spirits, I find I’m laughing a fair bit too. Unlike the rest of tonight’s audience, I’ve not sat through two days of tax seminars, but I have my own reason for honking desperately at Kendall’s so-so material. Throughout the meal – cardboard pasta and balsa wood chops – I’ve been urged by my neighbours to “write a story about how accountants are not as boring as John Cleese made us out to be”. If that means reporting that a group in their early 40s, after a few drinks, removed my place setting and cheekily refused to budge when confronted on my behalf by the anxious-looking course administrator, well, so be it.
But I shan’t hurry to spend another Friday evening alone among chartered accountants, and not because I found them scarily madcap. Nor is it that I have anything against chartered accountants as such. No, the problem is simply that I don’t fit in. I’m not one of them, and I shouldn’t be here.
Thankfully, I don’t have to go through this ever again. But Kendall attends events of this kind several times a week. When you add up his mileage, over 11 years, the tasteless food he’s eaten, the small-talk he’s endured, and the energy he’s expended on bringing to life jokes that were long ago pronounced dead, you’ve got to ask yourself: was working for Barclays really so bad?
Where do people go after they’ve stopped being important and famous? They join the after-dinner circuit. It’s unkind to say it, but this is a consequence of the work itself: after-dinner speakers need to possess an interesting past, and also nothing better to do, in the present, than to talk about it.
After losing the American election, Al Gore undertook a European tour, in which each event earned him a six-figure fee. After the Gulf War, similarly, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf routinely earned $150,000. For major corporations, says Tom Kenyon of the London Speakers Bureau, the money is well spent, because “it secures the attendance of key clients”.
Prices drop dramatically with speakers whose profile is domestic rather than international. Trading Faces, which has supplied speakers to Agfa, British Aerospace, Unipart, Schroders, the RAC, Sun Alliance and Birds Eye Walls, gets about 120 hits on its website, www.tradingfaces.co.uk, each month. Faces popping up on the homepage include the boxers Frank Bruno and Barry McGuigan, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, TV chefs Antony Worrall Thompson and Gary Rhodes, the businessman-turned-Tory politician Archie Norman, a couple of actors from The Bill, a woman from Bucks Fizz, and, er, Jeffrey Archer.
Across the industry, agents broadly agree about the fees payable to these figures. Bruno can earn as much as £5,000 a night (he used to get twice as much). McGuigan takes home £3,000. Fiennes, after many years on the circuit, earns about £5,000; which is much the same as Worrall Thompson, but only half as much as Rhodes. Norman, highly selective about the events he attends, might take £6,000. Archer, before he went to prison, asked for between £5,000 and £10,000 (the money went to charity, or so he said).
If they’ve appeared on TV, the price goes up; if they’re currently on air, it’s higher still. Denise van Outen, in a single year of intensive TV appearances, pushed her after-dinner fee up from £5,000 to £15,000.