There is – as Northern Irish comic Frank Carson was wont to ruminate – something in the way jokes are told that makes them funny, or is that makes them funnier, or indeed less so, depending (of course) upon the skill and timing of the teller.
For my part, I don’t regard myself as a naturally amusing speaker and I’m pretty sure those who know me don’t either. Nothing wrong with that. We cannot all be a Billy Connolly, Ricky Gervais or Robin Williams. Or indeed a Tommy Cooper, who was without doubt the naturally funny human being that I ever met – and he didn’t even need to speak to have people falling about with laughter.
I guess I’d class myself as an average public speaker. I’ve know people who positively love being in the spotlight and/or have appeared able, even at the shortest possible (or no) notice, to get to their hind legs and give a two-minute speech that is in turn deferential, courteous, appropriate and fitting – and even leavened by the odd anecdote or joke that is instructive and/or amusing – apparently without any discernible effort.
A story my father used to tell was of attending some black tie dinner where the invited guest speaker did an excellent job. In conversation afterwards, my father asked him his secret. The speaker responded that it was all in the preparation. My father then asked how much preparation he had undertaken for the speech he had just delivered.
“About twenty years’ worth …” came the laconic reply.
Which brings me to an episode that occurred yesterday on the south coast where I am currently staying.
Late morning I returned from a shopping expedition to find that in my absence one of my father’s neighbours, a relaxed and amusing fellow, had popped in, as he always puts it, “Just to see if the great man is still alive …”
Although the sun was still some way short of ‘going over the yard-arm’ (our family’s qualification for being able to serve the first alcoholic drink of the day), gin and tonics were soon handed out and the conversation flowed.
At one point our visitor was holding forth about his early life – his family had made its significant fortune via something to do with energy supply – I dare not say more than that for fear of giving away his identity – and told of how he had appeared at some high society function in the 1960s.
He replied that he worked in the energy industry and was currently based at its factory in Birmingham.
“Do people actually live in Birmingham?” came the grande dame’s abrupt rejoinder.
To those of us here yesterday this seemed worth of a Julian Fellowes’ line gifted to Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley in the ITV series Downton Abbey.
[But then again, as I mentioned above, maybe it’s all in the ways you tells ‘em].