“I’ve often been compared to Woody Allen,” says Graham Davies. “People come up to me and say ‘compared to Woody Allen, you’re crap’”. By day, Graham Davies, 29, is a barrister. By night, his is one of Britain’s most popular after-dinner speakers. Popular not because of his celebrity – “Graham Davies of whom it has often been said, ‘Who?’” is how he bills himself – but because of his skill. “And because I’m cheap”, he adds. “Well, cheaper than Bob Monkhouse”. He speaks after more than 200 dinners a year, from conventions in Delhi to the Grand National celebrations in Liverpool. A typical engagement took him, one evening recently, to a hotel on the ring road around slough. He was speaking to a conference of sales people form CDP, a BT subsidiary that makes switchboards for City dealing rooms. According to Peter Worrell, who organised the conference, Graham Davies’s speech was to be ” a well earned relaxation after a hard day’s work”. According to Graham Davies, what these people most wanted, after a good supper and plenty of German white wine, was to be insulted.
“I’ve been to a lot of sales dinners”, he began. “Yours has been, by a long chalk, the most recent. And I must say I am as happy as a Christian Scientist with appendicitis, to be here tonight”. For Davies, an insult is not good enough if it is general. He likes it to be specific and the more specific it is, the bigger the laugh.
“That was Trevor Pitts everyone, he said referring to the man who introduced him. “Trevor is a man with a joke for every occasion. And we all enjoyed hearing it again tonight”. During the next few minutes his rapid-fire delivery targeted at least 20 people, each one the butt of an apparently tailored gag. The audience loved it, delighted someone was taking such a personal interest. When Davies said that a certain Les Roberts had pictures of himself plastered all over one wall of his office and sober over another wall, Mr Roberts stood up and took a bow.
“I’ve only been attacked once”, said Davies later in the bar. “It was by a bloke who was so drunk that they had to carry him into the dinner. I made a gag about it and he went for me. Fortunately he fell over long before he reached me”. Graham Davies first learnt he could make a living out of his public speaking ability when he was a student at Cambridge. Nicholas Parsons, whom he had met at a Union debate, asked him to stand in for him at a Lord’s Taverners event. Nobody had a clue who he was, or why he was there, but they loved his speech. He realised there was a market for someone non-famous who could be funny.
“There’s an awful lot of corporate entertaining “, he says. “And there just aren’t enough celebrities to go round. Many of the non-celebrity speakers on the circuit have an angle. The weather man who tells weather stories or the ex-air traffic controller who spins yarns about air traffic control. Me, I just have to give them what they want”. Before the speech, he gets a briefing about the company’s characters. Then he fits names to his thousands of stock jokes. He has small-person gags (“X used to be a hod carrier for Lego”), chatterbox gags (“Y never learnt to swim, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut long enough”) and finance director gags (“Z, your finance director told me that there are three types of finance director, those who can count and those who can’t count”). Out of context, these jokes may not seem the most original. Slap a name in front, repeat them in a room full of people who have had a few drinks and they are as funny as a Carry On film. “Oh God, that’s a bloody old one”, said one CDP employee during the speech, helpless with laughter. “Brilliant”. Davies never knows precisely what he is going to say before he stands up, which lends certain spontaneity. Dozens of battered postcards, each with one-word joke prompts lie on the table in front of him. “I lay the bait of a dirty joke or a sports joke”, he says. “And if that goes down well, I take that path, if it doesn’t I try some other tack. It rarely becomes absolute filth. Though I have done it. In fact it was at a ladies’ charity evening. I was embarrassing myself.
“My worst experience was at a conference in Birmingham. My agent forgot to tell me they were retired travel agents. I think I’d been billed as a QC telling anecdotes about the court of Appeal. Instead they got this smart alec telling sarky one-liners. It was 25 minutes of silence, I sweated three gallons”. As Davies left the hotel a salesman accosted him, shook him by the hand and said it was the funniest speech he had ever heard. “Oh, thanks”, said Davies. “And remember, I’m the cheapest in my price range”.