The Knack

How to Deliver the Perfect Insult by MARTIN WIMBUSH
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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE HOLDING a cigarette and just carelessly and elegantly tipping the ash off the end - that's the way to play an insult. Think Noel Coward saying "I'm determined to travel through life first class" and do it with a sense of style (but be careful that you're not looking down your nose at people, as that then becomes sarcasm, which is to be avoided). Your manner, your tone of voice, the whole delivery must say "self-confidence" and "authority".

Be like a swan on a lake - paddling away like fury underneath, but completely calm on the surface. Getting angry ruins the effect absolutely. The great thing about the English is that we are ultra-polite, and the more angry we become, the more polite we are. We wrap our insults up in a coded version of manners and put people down surreptitiously, which is highly amusing.

Never be over-earnest or serious; there must always be an aspect of humour to the put-down.

For example, you get the feeling that when Dorothy Parker (above) said of Katharine Hepburn's performance in a Broadway show that "she ran the gamut of emotions from A to B", Hepburn, when she heard of it, would probably have smiled despite herself, because it's a clever and amusing line. Unfortunately, we're more abrupt and somewhat ruder these days, which is a mistake.

Man may be "the cruellest of all animals" as George Bernard Shaw once said, but insulting someone by ridiculing their physical features or something like that, is too brutal. When you're rude you're embarrassing, not only to the person the put-down is aimed at, but also to yourself and people around you - it's very clumsy, and won't make you popular. Remember, the English cannot stand loudness or bringing attention to yourself, and an insult that is not wrapped up in wit is just offensiveness.

Interview by

Fiona McClymont

Martin Wimbush will be delivering the insults of Saki (HH Munro) in `The Beastly Chronicles of Saki', at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London W1 from 17 to August to 18 September (0171-287 2875)