Heard the one about the after-dinner speaker?

Wit and wisdom over port has a high price, reports Graham Ball
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Singing for your supper has never been so profitable. The after- dinner speaking circuit has become a lucrative business for those who can be relied on to deliver wit and wisdom along with the cognac. Popular speakers can now command up to pounds 15,000 for a mixture of anecdote, humour and homily - although even this huge fee is dwarfed by the paymentsBaroness Thatcher commands. She stands head and shoulders above all other public speakers with a price-tag of pounds 30,000 a speech.

Dozens of agencies now exist to supply celebrity speakers for every sort of occasion, from cricket club suppers to grand banquets. While Thatcher never fails to deliver a hectoring, political sermon, what usually makes an after-dinner speaker popular is the ability to be a relaxed raconteur. The rich tones of Sir Peter Ustinov or Sir John Harvey-Jones are what help the armagnac slip down.

Being able to crack a few jokes is not enough. This year's After Dinner Speaker of the Year is the Liverpudlian comedian and quiz show host, Jimmy Tarbuck, who is well-known for his corny gags. But according to Ivor Spencer, the toastmaster who runs The Guild of Professional After Dinner Speakers, Tarbuck is an accomplished serious speaker as well as funny man.

Tarbuck says there are certain rules every would-be raconteur should obey. "You must know your subject, then you must tailor your material to the audience," he says. "If, for example, the dinner follows a conference where humanitarian topics have been discussed, I am more than happy to talk about inequality or how the British like to support the under- dog."

He says it has taken him years to hone his speaking skills. "I've served my apprenticeship, first as a stand-up in the clubs, and later on live television. To me after-dinner speaking is another branch of the same trade."

His introduction to making a speech was a baptism of fire. "In 1964 I collected an award for being the most promising newcomer of the year. I was just 23. The first speakers at the showbusiness lunch were Morecambe and Wise, followed by Sir Laurence Olivier. I was petrified and said something daft like 'What Sir Laurence said goes for me', then told a gag and got off as soon as I could."

Ivor Spencer, who has had 40 years' experience of standing behind orators at the top table, says entertainers do not always make the bestspeakers. "Some of the very best have not come from showbusiness. Lord Redcliffe Maude was very good, so was Catherine Bramwell Booth, granddaughter of the founder of the Salvation Army. Lord Tonypandy, the former speaker of the Commons, could hold an audience as well as anyone I have ever seen, and Neil Kinnock can spell-bind his audience."

According to Tarbuck, there is one absolute in public speaking. "The golden rule is to know when to get off," he says.