ON Tuesday night Jim Bowen stood up to deliver a speech in the chamber of the Oxford Union. Inside the building where prime ministers are nurtured, where Benazir Bhutto learnt how to win an election, where Edwina Currie cut her political fangs, the biggest crowd for four years - 1,200 - was sardined into every available space. The moment the Union president announced Mr Bowen's name there was uproar. From the balcony a floor-stamping chant began. 'Jim, Jim, Jim,' it went on, for what seemed like minutes.

When the shouting subsided Mr Bowen began: 'Mr President, distinguished audience, thank you for that. But may I say I do feel you're taking the piss a bit.'

This morning Ronald Reagan addresses the Union. But nobody expects the former US President to receive the kind of reception afforded to the 54-year-old comedian who presents a Sunday afternoon television darts show called Bullseye. Jim Bowen is a student hero. In common rooms across the country, they hunker down to watch his show, to laugh at the questions ('who came second in the last war?'), to see if Jim will engage his guests in the small talk beloved of his Spitting Image puppet: 'Just look at what you could have won] Lovely, smashing, super.'

Such is Bowen's status in Oxford that at the last Union election several voting papers were spoilt by members adding his name to the list of candidates. On Tuesday, students were in line across the Union quad three hours before he was due to appear, desperate to secure their place in the chamber.

'We love him,' said one queuer, wearing a Santa hat. 'He's smashing, lovely, super.'

TUESDAY'S was Jim Bowen's third appearance at the Union.

'To be honest, I find the reception they give me a little unnerving,' he explained after the debate. 'I know they're taking the rise, but I think it's done affectionately. The first time I spoke at the Union, I was immediately aware of the excellence of the place. I don't think it's a room for a man who can only tell gags. It's not Salford Working Men's Club, you have to listen, to react, if you want to survive.'

And only the best survive. As Jim sat on a green leather bench politely waiting his turn, a string of students sank trying to address the motion - 'This house believes that love may be the answer but sex poses some pretty interesting questions' - by telling in-jokes.

Rodney Clayton, the Union's current star, 'a very funny man', according to Mr Bowen, was the exception. With a froth of curly black hair and Kirk Douglas's chin - a ringer for Scott from Thunderbirds - Clayton was jaw- droppingly confident for a 20- year-old. He strode around the chamber, doing impressions of Union hacks, attacking his fellow speakers. Arrogant, full of panache, barbed, Clayton is clearly destined for a safe Tory seat.

He had learnt that the first rule of survival in the chamber was attack. When a young American rose from the floor to quote from Woody Allen with, admittedly, the timing of a British Rail commuter train, Clayton stood up and sneered into his face.

'It was funny when Woody Allen said it.'

He sat down with a satisfied smirk, while the American, lobster-pink, returned to his place in the crowd an empty husk, chin down, his shoulders racing each other for the safety of the floor. Survive here and the House of Commons will be a doddle.

Later on, the cocky Clayton was to swagger through the Union bar, accepting the plaudits.

'Good speech,' someone was to say.

'Well, you know,' he would shrug. 'Yes.'

'Pompous arsehole,' the flatterer muttered under his breath.

SOME of the guest speakers, too, had their problems. Chris Donald, co-editor of Viz, may have been a delight and had them roaring in the balcony ('As I speak Paul McCartney is sitting by his fireside knitting a woolly sweater for his wife, with whom he shares a mutual interest in veggie burgers, while Mick Jagger is lying on some beach in Mustique giving Jerry Hall, or any other top model who happens to be passing, a bloody good seeing to. In whose shoes would you prefer to be?'). But James Whale, the self-styled 'Rudest Man on Radio', floundered.

Dressed in a pin-striped dinner jacket, with a coloured handkerchief taking an exaggerated bow from his breast pocket, Whale was beached from the start. His vicious put-downs of phone-in contributors may have made him a fortune, but the Union was a different matter: his researched in- jokes about the female officers' sexual activities left them stony- faced on the balcony.

'He's a prat,' murmured someone in the audience. 'How did he get invited?'

There was no doubt, however, why Jim Bowen had secured his third invitation to the Union. He spoke, after Whale, for no more than 12 minutes, but they loved every one of them. He had no notes.

'Remember,' he said later, 'that 350 nights of the year, I do cabaret. All I do is work that stuff a bit harder. If you're driving the same car every night, the chances are you can do it well.'

His material may have been 40 years old ('The size of a man's feet,' he said at one point, 'is a fair indication of the size of his tackle. My feet, incidentally, are a bit cramped in these shoes tonight.') but the delivery was sharper than the cut of his dinner jacket. In any case, by the way the fresh faces in the audience beamed, at the Oxford Union they haven't heard anything before.

'Say super, smashing, great, Jim,' a heckler shouted out.

'Super, smashing, great,' Jim countered. 'Does that make you feel better? Yer dick head.'

He then sat down to applause that threatened the ancient building's superstructure.

'I get the same response at every university I speak at,' he said later. 'They just seem to love Bullseye. I think they know it's real life, an honest programme. Yeah, and if they choose to watch it to have bets on how many contestants are wearing white socks, at least we're entertaining them.'

Mr Bowen's evening, however, was not over with the applause. Tradition has it that the president of the Union always winds up an end-of-term debate. Unfortunately, for his swansong, Christopher Hall, dressed in a clown suit, was clearly drunk and incapable. His oratorial skills dulled by alcohol, he stumbled around pathetically as members left in droves.

Embarrassed by the humiliation in front of him, Mr Bowen whispered kindly advice: 'Go on, son, relax. Use the microphone. Keep it short, lad, keep it short.'

Sadly, the president did not hear him. He rambled on, less and less coherently, insulting his guests, producing at one point, for reasons that must have amused him but merely succeeded in accelerating the charge for the exits, a child's potty. Suddenly Rodney Clayton, with the assistance of another black-tied member, decided to conduct a mercy killing by carrying Hall out of the chamber. The threesome tumbled to the floor, limbs flying.

As the cream of Britain's youth wrestled at her feet, Marcelle d'Argy Smith, editor of Cosmopolitan, who had spent a sum she refused to disclose for the privilege of sponsoring the evening, got up and walked out.

'My God, and they have the nerve to call my magazine puerile,' she fumed afterwards. 'I'm not saying they're rude, but I tell you there's cavalier, there's bloody cavalier and then there's what happens if you sponsor an Oxford debate.'

Jim Bowen was more philosophical. 'Aye, the lad was drunk. But you've got to understand it was a big night for him.'

Outside the chamber, Bowen was submerged by students, asking him to autograph their order papers and saying 'smashing Jim, lovely, super' when he did.

'Have a smashing Christmas,' he said to them. 'Don't spend all your grant money at once.'

Tonight, Jim Bowen is addressing the debating society at Durham University, as a late stand-in for Will Carling. The reaction will be much the same.

'Funnily enough, my daughter's doing a PhD there,' he said. 'She'll be in the hall, at the back. She's begged me not to point her out, nobody knows the connection. Children get embarrassed by their parents at her age.'

(Photograph omitted)