Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.

Slavoj Žižek is a tonic

In late 2018 the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Slovenian philosopher, Professor Slavoj Žižek. On this blog I have been known to quote Tom Lehrer’s definition of a philosopher, namely –

someone who goes around giving helpful advice to those who are happier than he is.

Let us see.

Within seconds of his starting I doff my rhetor hat to him. 

I have very often been asked by trainees to help them rid themselves of mannerisms that they have been told are a distraction. My standard answer is that they should be their natural selves, that their mannerisms are personal and natural to them, and if they try to eliminate them they will probably fail but if they succeed they will find them replaced by ‘anti-mannerisms’ which, being unnatural to them, will be a greater distraction. Therefore they should battle not the mannerism but the distraction. Be more interesting and your audience will not be distracted.

Žižek has tics. He has a shedload of tics. What is the collective noun for tics? Whatever it is Žižek has a big one; yet he appears to pay them no heed. His focus is entirely on his message and how to convey it, leaving no room for wasting any energy on irrelevances like tics. Bravo to him for that!

At his opening there are a few seconds of tic-enhanced searching through his papers while he marshals his thoughts. Thereafter he makes me wonder why he even bothered to bring the papers as he never again consults them. Another reason to doff my hat to him.

Does Tom Lehrer’s definition hold water? – are we happier than he? He repeatedly professes himself pessimistic, so we probably are. In particular I was happy I saw this speech.

I didn’t always understand the concepts he promoted, and when I understood I didn’t always agree; but being who I am and doing what I do, I am a sucker for when a speaker shows this level of commitment to his message.

I enjoyed it immensely. 

Princess Mabel naturally.

In November 2017 the Oxford Union hosted a talk by Princess Mabel van Oranje. She chairs an organisation called Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

Her speech lasted a tad more than thirty minutes, and the rest of the time consisted of questions.

She’s a natural speaker, and that’s wonderful! We watch the real person, with no speaker’s mask, expressing transparently genuine, unselfconscious passion.

She’s a natural speaker, and that’s a problem. We are bombarded by a relentless flow of words, most of which fail to stick.

Natural speakers are probably the most difficult to coach. I watch this, knowing that if this speech were properly structured it could say at least as much, with considerably more productive impact, with much better memorability, in two thirds of the time. I also dread the possibility of anyone trying to structure the speaker. That glorious naturalness should never be allowed to be compromised.

Thierry Baudet: nearly fantastische

Late in 2017 The Oxford Union hosted a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Decline and Fall of the European Union is Upon us. One of the speakers proposing the motion was Thierry Baudet.

Baudet is Dutch, which of course means that – like many Northern Europeans – he speaks English better than most English people. I have almost rid myself of resentment of this, my late wife and mother of my sons having been Danish; but how well does one of these linguistic geniuses deliver a speech? Let’s find out.

Immediately I delight that other than that little piece of paper, visible in the still shot and presumably bearing bullet-point signposts, he is shooting from the hip. I think he looks at it only once. Because none of my trainees needs even that little paper I am tempted to put this tiny failing down to whatever crumb remains of language barrier. I’d be wrong. When researching him my eye was caught by another speech described as “Fantastische”, and though I could understand not a word and though that audience audibly enjoyed it, I can tell you that it was read from a script. Could it be that for him public speaking is actually easier in English?

I am thrilled to be able smugly to point out an error. Where the noun is ‘instability’, the adjective is ‘unstable’. Yes of course it’s an anomaly, but what’s new? – this is English. He repeatedly describes the EU as ‘instable’. He’s absolutely right in his diagnosis, just wrong in his idiom.

I thought that Oxford Union debate speeches were allowed eight minutes, but he has bells rung at him when he has barely cleared six minutes. This seems to unsettle him a little. It’s a pity because he is both articulate and coherent, and he certainly has the measure of the EU – and not just its instability. He kicks its dogma.

Among other things you will find that he effortlessly demolishes the fallacy that past European conflicts in general and WW2 in particular were built on nationalism. The reverse was the truth.

He’s good. He’s very good. He’s nearly fantastische.

Ian McKellen delivers a speech

This posting is something of a pairing with its predecessor, and what a pairing! Mind you: the illustrious Sirs, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, are good friends and it’s by no means the first time they have been paired.

Before I devote my almost undivided attention to Sir Ian allow me to continue briefly with the pairing theme by making some observations comparing style. While Sir Patrick strode immaculately into the Oxford Union straight to a lectern placed downstage centre on the platform, there to stand in his own pool of light and command the hall, Sir Ian shambled in, exuding buckets of bonhomie, looking like an unmade bed, turned the wrong way when reaching the aisle, greeting members of the audience like old friends before turning to the platform to embrace the Union President with a bear hug. Then instead of occupying the platform he strode up and down the aisle releasing a stream of consciousness which rather gave the impression of being random, but was actually carefully structured.

There’s theatre for you! When it comes to treatment, there’s no such thing as right or wrong. All that matters is whether you can make it work. And of course they can: these guys know what they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean they can make a speech. Frighteningly few actors can do that well.

There’s one thing that I hammer into the heads of all my trainees. The most engaging, compelling, persuasive person you can be is you. Not a persona, but the real you. It sounds easy, but, as Oscar Wilde observed –

To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

The difficulty is that we all have different masks that we don under different circumstances; and knowing which of them is a genuine part of the real you is quite tricky. Is this man we are watching the Ian McKellen that opens his eyes first thing in the morning? Very unlikely, but still I reckon it’s real. That’s why we want to listen.

Another lovely voice used flawlessly, and there’s also something to be learned from it. Unlike the audience, we can wind back and listen again to sections, ignoring what he says but analysing how he says it. How surprised are you to hear how, unlike those who make themselves sound phoney by over-enunciating as if every word came individually wrapped, he seems to slither around in an apparently slovenly fashion – and yet everything is heard with crystal clarity? That’s what proper voice coaching does for you.

In passing, I wonder whether he (and Sir Patrick) might have had the same voice coach as I. I’m just a handful of years younger than they and as a National Theatre Player in the mid sixties my voice was bashed into shape by a legend, a merciless darling called Kate Fleming.

Sir Ian kicks off by reading from a tablet a series of things that he claims have been written about him on the internet. I neither know nor care whether they are genuine: they are very funny. At one point he loses his place and there’s quite a long pause while he scrolls around, hunting the next thing he wants to read. It couldn’t matter less: he can hold this audience till Godot arrives.

That section over, he loses the tablet, and just talks. For a time he discusses some of his recent work, pointing out that the beard is for King Lear whose run might not yet be over, and then moves on into his principal non-theatre preoccupation. He tells us of his work visiting schools to discuss sexual orientation. That could get very ‘worthy’ but it doesn’t. It’s a bit like the deceptive skill that underpins his diction. By putting everything across like a favourite, absent-minded uncle, seeming to meander hither and yon but actually staying acutely focussed, he makes you want to listen. And much of it is very funny.

That’s a bloody good speech.

Patrick Stewart gives a reading

The Oxford Union does not just host important debates. Sometimes, to its credit, it invites people of fame to speak about themselves. This is very difficult for them, for reasons I discussed briefly when I covered Stephen Fry’s such gig.  With my line of work, therefore, I find them interesting.

Patrick Stewart was the guest recently.

He’s reading!

It’s a pity, because when speakers do this I immediately stop thinking of it as a speech; however I shall stick with it, because there are good and bad readings and I want to see to which category this belongs. A Reading is a perfectly respectable piece of entertainment: I do poetry and prose readings, though unlike Sir Patrick I have never dared to read anything I have written myself. Anyway, let’s face it, I want to hear what he has to relate. It’s bound to be autobiographical and, though half a century ago we mixed in similar circles, we have never worked together.

He lays out his stall at the beginning, giving us a Contents Page – good! Then we are off. It’s beautifully written, very well structured for a reading, thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully delivered.  He has a terrific voice and by golly he knows how to use it.

This is going to come across like the nostalgic rantings of an old fart, but I remember one nervous occasion some years ago, dining with a legendary, now dead, TV director. I tentatively bewailed the passing of the provincial rep system – in which he and I (and Sir Patrick of course) had worked our apprenticeship. He was almost explosive in his agreement with me. Decades of actors now have been mostly deprived of that benefit, and I’m afraid it shows. It’s nothing to do with talent: it’s a subtle mastery of stage presence which is becoming extinct, but Sir Patrick of course has it in abundance.

There were moments here when I felt he needed a director. For some years on BBC radio I broadcast theatre reviews; and with one-handed productions I reckoned that in the first few minutes I could spot whether or not the actor had spent a few quid – or dinner at The Ivy – to get a director to give it the once-over. It doesn’t matter who you are, you cannot see yourself from the audience. I’m being ultra-picky here, but there were a few little moments…

I’ll give you an example. There’s a good story that begins at about 8:00. At 9:02, having just harvested a good, well-deserved laugh with the punchline, he needlessly adds a single sentence that lamely explains the joke. That, of course, doesn’t get a laugh. A director would have cut that sentence.

Likewise I was uncertain about a section involving stories of actors who got serious fear-freeze and bailed out. In my experience there are very few theatre stories that don’t come under the heading, “you need to have been there”. The difficulty is in conveying the precise prevailing atmosphere that caused the crisis. It’s like ‘corpsing’ stories, of occasions when a stageful of actors is reduced to battling uncontrollable giggling. Those stories should be very funny, but I long ago gave up trying to narrate them – even to other actors.

For all that, this is a highly enjoyable 36 minutes, and Sir Patrick is to be congratulated.

But to me it isn’t a speech. To convey what I mean, I invite you to join me in my next posting which involves another famous actor: same vintage, same venue. He also worked his apprenticeship. I would hate to try to judge which of their performances is the more enjoyable or interesting, but I do say this –

The next one is a speech!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roger Scruton: not at all bad

When I saw that the Oxford Union had just posted online a video of Professor Sir Roger Scruton delivering to them a talk followed by Q&A, I was eager to watch it.

For some reason his writings have thus far passed me by, but I heard him in a lengthy interview on a friend’s podcast recently and I was in equal measure impressed with him and disappointed with myself for having not properly encountered him ages ago. He’s a couple of years older than I, we share roughly the same amount of hair, of roughly the same shade, and of comparable disorder. He can’t be all bad.

He’s a writer.

All too often on this blog I have raged against those who read their speeches, but I shall not with him because he has bridged much of the huge gap between the written and the spoken word. He has evidently worked at being able to restrict himself to mere occasional glances at his paper, so our losing his eyes from time to time does not drastically impede the quality of his delivery. Likewise he has prepared this almost entirely in spoken, rather than written, English.

Nevertheless there remains the intensity of detail. This is structured as a piece of writing. If you were reading it you could stop and ponder a section before moving on to the next. You could also re-read passages. We here can pause the video, or rewind to review, but the audience in the hall can’t. Any lapse of concentration and what they miss they miss for ever.

It needs broader brush-strokes. It needs the flow of data to be slowed down from time to time. It needs to be blocked out in a fashion that anyone could follow. I know the audience consists of not anyone, but very accomplished students, but I also know from experience that academic prowess doesn’t make you immune to data overload. I’m afraid he does periodically lose some of his audience: we can hear it in the coughing. They’re missing some brilliant stuff!

I felt myself itching to rebuild the speech from the ground up, restructuring in a way that enabled him to dispense entirely with paper and the audience not to miss a syllable.

That said, he inserts some lovely touches of humour from time to time and the audience welcomes the opportunity to relax and regroup: the coughing recedes. During the Q&A, he obviously has no choice but to shoot from the hip and of course this is when we see the power of his delivery at its best. At its best it is extremely good.

Even at its worst it is not at all bad.