There are two diametrically opposed schools of thought when it comes to writing an after-dinner speech. There is the Clement Freud school of thought and the non-Clement Freud school of thought. I learnt this when as a young man I foolishly accepted an invitation to take part in a Cambridge Union debate.
There were good things in my speech but I didn't get it really right, and Clement Freud, a fellow-speaker, leant over to me afterwards and said: "If you'll take my advice, Miles, you won't bother to make up a speech every time. Just have one very good speech and always use that.
"But make sure you alter the opening and closing paragraph, to make it seem topical. If the start and close are geared to the occasion, then they will assume that the rest of the speech is the same, even though you delivered the same stuff the week before."
I was disposed to believe what Clement Freud said at the time, because I had just seen him in action at dinner. The Cambridge Union had taken us to eat at one of Cambridge's better hotels, and Clement Freud, during the soup course, had sent the toast back to the kitchens.
"That's not what I would call melba," he said with silky danger in his voice. "Take it back and complete the process."
By so doing he had upstaged all his hosts (who were obviously exercising insufficient toast quality control) and his fellow guests, who were busy chomping away at insufficiently melba-ised toast. A man who could do that must be right about speeches, mustn't he?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. In my limited experience, sometimes material that has done well before does well again, and sometimes it horrendously doesn't. More often, alas, a speech specially prepared for an occasion, and which can never be used again, is the only speech possible on that occasion. I have twice foolishly accepted invitations to address the Oxford Union, and on the second occasion my fellow speaker was the gangling actor Bernard Bresslaw, from the Carry On films.
"Done this sort of thing before?" I asked him.
"Once," he told me. "I came to speak at the Oxford Union once before, and it was a disaster. You see, nobody had told me I would be making a speech. I had assumed it was one of those celebrity do's where the audience asked you questions. So when it came to my turn to speak, I stood up and waited for the first question, and it never came, and I had nothing to say and it was a nightmare. But I'm ready this time."
When the time came he gave a speech of such comic intensity, so full of Shakespearean overtones, that everyone assumed it was brilliant even though nobody (myself included) had the faintest idea what it was about. He had a standing ovation.
Whether Bresslaw ever published his speech, I don't know. You can only do this, of course, if you are not a product of the Freud school of thought.
Assuming that Clement Freud actually does what he told me to do, he is in the position of an old music-hall artist who could constantly reuse his best material as long as he didn't go on TV. Of course, speech-making doesn't go on TV. But it does get recycled as articles. You sometimes read, at the end of pieces by famous people far too busy to write actual articles, the line: "This article is based on the text of a speech delivered to the New York Society of Orthodontists on 23 November last year", and you think: "Well, fair enough – I would rather read it than have to be an orthodontist in a bow-tie at a dinner last November".
But I do know of a time when Kingsley Amis did the opposite – he got a speech into print before he made it. I once shared a literary lunch with him at Reading, and all we had to do was talk for a dozen minutes about our new books, but when he rose he told the astonished lunchers: "Look, I didn't have time to prepare anything interesting, but I have proofs of an article I've written for next week's Times literary supplement which might interest you," which he proceeded to read at high speed before sitting down at high speed and ordering another drink.
I think it is safe to assume he had never attended the Clement Freud school of speech-writing.
This column is drawn from the text of a talk delivered to the Mururoa Atoll Rotary ClubReuse content