Oxford Union recently hosted actor Warwick Davis. He spoke about himself and his career for half an hour, and then there were questions.
A regular reader might by this time be a little alarmed, because very recently – when we examined Stephen Fry being asked to do a similar thing – I declared what a difficult and mine-infested task this usually is. I was slightly less frightened here than I was for Fry, because Davis has an obvious theme – his diminutive stature. The biggest difficulty for most celebrities is in finding such a theme, because without it they are left with merely boring everyone with what a warm and wonderful person they are. Nevertheless, obvious theme or no, this is still not an easy thing to do. Let us see how Warwick Davis managed.
He calms me immediately by throwing away a couple of one-liners on the subject of how small he is. No one will doubt that he’s used these before, but who cares? It’s all good audience-relaxing stuff, and the most effective way to relax yourself as a speaker is to relax your audience.
Davis goes on to show that he is a master at throwaway humour. He never begs laughs, which is why he consistently gets them. After a very short opening he launches into the story of his life, beginning at the beginning with his birth. Predictably – and who would quarrel with it? – his shortness continues to provide a very funny theme.
There is never a shred of self-pity, nor does he ever imply the cliché that he is the laughing clown hiding a broken heart. Any shortcomings [I spotted the pun too late, but enjoyed it enough to leave it] about his size are thrown away as effectively as his humour; in fact he enjoys telling us that he had a very happy childhood. With his schooldays he is hilarious about how abysmal he was at all sports, and there is a wonderful episode about his efforts at woodwork.
When he was eleven his grandmother heard on the radio how the producers of the Star Wars movies were looking to cast short people; and that was how little Warwick became an Ewok. His life changed pretty fundamentally from then on.
Chronology – particularly when it’s your own life-story – makes for a very easy structure, and of course Davis uses no paper. He shoots the whole thing from the hip, his eyes constantly on his audience, constantly engaging them. When the camera gives us a chance to look at the audience, we see in the nature of some of the smiles and the sparkling of eyes that he is not just funny: he is a sex god. Actually, early on, he trots out a minuscule, macho one-liner that you will have to be nimble to catch because he throws it away with lightning speed.
We have learnt that he has been around movie actors since childhood. Actors make for a tricky audience if you ever try to be funny socially, so he has had plenty of time to hone his raconteur skills. Also he now presents on TV, including a quiz show, which sharpens up the repartee. His timing is stunning.
The speech is a little bit of a sandwich. The narrative thread is very strong up to and including his joining the Star Wars cast. In the middle the thread weakens slightly with a stream of stories of his time in movies, even though some of them are still very funny. It’s quite difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise, as these episodes are inevitably disjointed. But he’s enough of a pro to know the value of a strong ending.
He checks that he has enough time, and then moves into a closing about how Political Correctness, and the current offence industry, makes it more difficult for strangers to relate to him honestly. Though this has a serious undercurrent, his treatment of it is still funny, and it brings him to a very good finish.
I’ve never met an actor who didn’t think he was brilliant at public speaking, and I’ve met precious few who actually were. I still say it’s wildly difficult to make a speech about yourself, but Warwick Davis managed it wonderfully. I take my Rhetaur hat off to him because, having examined and admired the speech, I’m now – if you’ll excuse me – going to listen to the questions and his answers.