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.

 

 

 

Denis Prager: Israel and Hamas

When President Trump this month stepped up and declared that the USA would move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem, he honoured a campaign promise that was likewise made by Presidents Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Obama (though in all their cases they dishonoured it). Logic therefore has it that he should have been praised. Instead there was histrionic clutching of pearls not so much by that trinity but by too many of the world’s current senior politicians and mainstream media, all of whom should be ashamed of themselves. The BBC, with characteristic disingenuousness, said that Trump had overturned “decades of official US policy“, carefully overlooking that US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 and has had it on the books with bipartisan support ever since.

I was immediately put in mind of this speech from Mordechai Kedar in which he explained how though Jerusalem was historically Israel’s capital it has never been the capital of any muslim potentate. I also recalled seeing a speech which was made in a debate in 2015 at the Oxford Union by Denis Prager. I nearly covered it then, but for some reason didn’t. Perhaps this timing is better.

The debate’s motion was This House Believes that Hamas is a Greater Obstacle to Peace Than Israel. In passing, I think this Learned Institution actually meant “…greater obstacle than Israel to peace” though their wording is unintentionally just as true.

Regular readers will know that I love it when speakers speak their minds, whether or not I agree with them. There is no mealy-mouthed fannying-about here: Prager goes straight for the jugular.

This speech is so important for what he says that, rather than criticise how he says it, I shall merely point out a few things. For instance…

Prager describes how President Reagan was greeted by howls of anguish and condemnation when he called the Soviet Union an evil empire. In retrospect no one can respectably deny that Reagan was right, of course. The body count alone is witness.

He discusses how that highlights the extraordinary way that academics, for whom unfashionable opinions are worse than wrong ones, still pay lip service to the bizarre notion that no culture may be deemed superior to any other even though the societies they create are manifestly so. (Bureaucrats, prelates, and other classes of self-regarding citizenry tend to be just as bad.)

We get a little comic relief in the shape of some female on the opposing side who is desperate to interject and displays body language like a spoilt primary school pupil. Eventually he allows her to liberate her ‘killer point’ and proceeds ruthlessly to crush it.

One reason this speech is so relevant today two years after being delivered is that President Trump’s declaration caused Hamas to claim that he had “opened the gates of hell”. If that meant they would lob missiles into Israel, then what’s new? Trump evidently doesn’t give a rat’s corbyn what Hamas says, and already the carefully choreographed flag burnings, lovingly broadcast on TV, have largely fizzled out. Claims that this would impede the peace process are risible: it hasn’t been going anywhere for years. There are plausible reasons to suppose it will accelerate it.  Back to Prager …

He opened with cries of incredulity that this motion was even up for debate. It’s difficult to disagree, though for those of us passionately devoted to freedom of speech it’s encouraging to watch as a preposterous notion is destroyed, not by diktat but by reasoned argument.

Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.

Smh.

Anne-Marie Waters: undisciplined passion.

In September, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will elect a new leader. One of the names currently being bandied about as a front-running candidate is Anne-Marie Waters. The mainstream media characterise her as ‘far-right’, which is an interesting description for one who has repeatedly tried to stand for Parliament as a candidate for the Labour Party, and ‘bigot’, which is modern parlance for holding views at variance with whoever is misusing the word.

On 28 February she took part in a debate at the Oxford Union. The motion was This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Waters was one of the speakers in opposition.

She opens a little untidily, with an unprepared section referring to speakers and apparent comments that have preceded her. We have to guess at the precise nature of those comments. I have no particular quarrel with this as a technique for opening as it indicates, for one thing, that she has been listening. A beautifully parsed series of opening sentences will never quite convey the same sincerity, or determination to get to grips with the truth.

Sadly the untidiness, in the form of a malapropism, spills over into the beginning of what appears to have been prepared. She says “theocracy” when she means “theology”. It’s a small thing, but when you use big words it pays to check them. Particularly when you are speaking to university students, some of whom may even spot the mistake.

Almost immediately afterwards she really gets into her stride, with a catalogue of the factors and occurrences that cause people to be uneasy about Islam. It’s quite a list, carrying a very powerful message, and one of her opponents tries unsuccessfully to interrupt it. She moves on to discuss Saudi Arabia, which she calls “the birthplace of Islam”.

(Later in this debate, one of her opponents tries witheringly to point out that when Islam was born Saudi Arabia didn’t exist. That’s the equivalent of denying that Stonehenge was built in Wiltshire: technically correct but indicative of the feebleness of the rest of your case.)

Waters is a copy-book example of both the power and the weakness of impassioned, undisciplined speaking. As she nears the end of her speech she’s all over the place. I habitually point out to my trainees, as I would certainly point out to her, that you can see at Political Party Conferences how the grass-roots firebrands and the hyper-polished parliamentarians can learn much from each other. Passion is worth buckets of technique; but it’s still worth while for the impassioned to acquire technique, the better to express the passion.

Particularly if wanting to lead a political party.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!