Take that! (But Gary Barlow needs a new scriptwriter for his put-downs)

In a spirit of constructive criticism, John Walsh gives the 'X Factor' judge a crash course in how to really deliver an insult

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The Independent Culture

The acid wit of Gary Barlow, the X Factor judge, may not be all his own work.

According to a tabloid newspaper, his off-the-cuff comments and bitchy put-downs may be pre-scripted, and written for him by his friend Ben Winston, who writes jokes for James Corden.

The verbal sallies of the 40-year-old songwriter are, it must be said, hardly Wildean. "Nu Vibe?" he asked, sarcastically, of the boy band Nu Vibe, "Sounds more like No Vibe to me." Priceless. "Things mature nicely like a good wine or cheese," he opined to an auditioning singer called George. "You've matured like a good curry." And he employs someone to write this stuff?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that television personalities ask for help with their extempore remarks. The ability to produce a killer riposte or a scythe-your-legs-from-under-you insult is priced above rubies. The stand-up comedian who destroys a heckler with a single blow ("Save you breath, mate. You'll need it later to inflate your girlfriend") or the politician who spits out the perfectly-judged calumny ("The House has noticed the Prime Minister's transformation in recent weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean") becomes an instant hero.

In the past, professional word-wranglers like writers and politicians had a monopoly on the put-down. "Winston, you're drunk, horribly drunk," Bessie Braddock said to Churchill in the Commons one evening. "Madam you're ugly, horribly ugly," he retorted, "but I shall be sober in the morning." Wal-lop!

"To look at you," the fat G K Chesterton once said to the stick-thin George Bernard Shaw, "anyone would think a famine had struck England." "To look at you," said Shaw, "anyone would think you'd caused it." Ding-dong! Two ageing literary queens, Harold Nicholson and Sir Osbert Sitwell, were on a cross-Channel ferry when they were given embarkation forms to fill in. "What age are you going to put, Osbert?" asked Harold. "What sex are you going to put, Harold?" asked Osbert. Ooh!

Female put-downers are just as plentiful as male ones. Margot Asquith, wife of the British Prime Minister, Herbert, looked down her nose at blonde actress Jean Harlow when they met in 1934. She certainly didn't like the way the actress kept calling her Marr-gott. "The T is silent," she informed her, "as in Harlow."

Those were the golden years. In 2011, the modern television put-down is a straight-to-person insult, as exemplified by the plonkingly prosaic Simon Cowell ("Oh gosh, where do I start? I mean, I'm not being rude but you look like the Incredible Hulk's wife") or the pre-digested puns of Alan Sugar on The Apprentice (in the dog-food production challenge: "With your track record, I don't suppose Winalot was on the agenda?") or a television ad catchphrase recycled as witty banter (David Cameron saying "Calm down, dear".)

All have fed into the most visible medium for the acid one-liner, which is Twitter. There isn't a single passing event on the news agenda that can't be turned into a would-be-caustic tweet of under 140 characters.

As we become more and more egocentric, our search for a good scriptwriter will join our search for a stylist or a personal trainer. Because if someone can give Gary Barlow a reputation for quicksilver wit, then anyone can acquire one.

Battle of the wits

Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both - Samuel Johnson

He has one of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, is never remembered - Oscar Wilde

'Nu Vibe? sounds more like no vibe to me' - Gary Barlow

That girl speaks 18 languages and can't say No in any of them - Dorothy Parker

She's the original good time that was had by all - Bette Davis

You have the brain of a four-year-old child, and I bet they were glad to get rid of it - Groucho Marx