Mail on Saturday
The last tiny titbit of gossip reaches Graham Davies five minutes before the start of the accountants' dinner. In the high-ceilinged banqueting suite, the empty tables glisten with cutlery and neat linen; from the bar you can hear the 160 guests relaxing over their pre-dinner drink. Alone in the quiet room, Graham sits scribbling notes, when someone scurries in with this scrap of news - their boss Matthew has decreed they can only have one drink each before the meal; something to do with tight budgets.
Graham's eyes sparkle as he scribbles again. Ninety minutes later, when the napkins are crumpled among the half-empty wine bottles, you see why. He's only five minutes into his speech when he says: "Dear old Matthew and his budgets" to a murmur of amusement from the tables "What's the difference between Matthew and a coconut? Well, at least you can get a drink out of a coconut". It's not his best joke by far, but for this audience tonight, it's spot on: they roar with laughter.
Graham Davies may well be the funniest man in Britain - and the chances are you have never heard of him. He can earn i??4,000 for a 40 minute speech ... and he can do that three times a week. There are household name TV comedians who would gladly trade incomes with him; jokes too come to that.
The only reason his name is not familiar is that he restricts himself to the after-dinner and conference and corporate circuit. Sure, he has guested on chat shows, presented radio phone-ins and he's considering hosting a television magazine programme at the moment. What he won't do on television is his speech.
If he did, he'd probably be an overnight star. But quite simply, why would he want to blow this finely tuned 40 minutes in one night when, with suitable modifications and endless adaptations, he can take it all over Europe and America? "TV people just couldn't pay me enough" he says, " I wouldn't even consider it".
Tonight it's a large group of accountants, after a conference in a Windsor hotel, who wish to be amused. What they need is merriment, which is, fortunately, what Graham Davies supplies. As he rises to his feet, he looks around at the expectant faces and begins: "I've been to some really tremendous black-tie events in the last few months, but looking around here, I can safely say that this is by far ... the most recent".
The laughter comes a little slowly at first, but within a few minutes he has them rocking with jokes and anecdotes that come if fast flurries, plus the targeted gags: "Matthew Fiske ... unusual name that, so I looked it up before I came, Fiske apparently, is a Scandinavian name meaning handsome, generous, witty and intelligent. Matthew is Anglo-Saxon for Not Very".
It sounds so casual that you might almost think it was impromptu. Far from it: every word is meticulously planned, every second times. His research - and he needs to listen to a lot of gossip to fine two or three potential jokes - makes it sound almost bespoke; sometimes he does write new material in those last few minutes before the dinner, but mostly he is adapting the 5,000 jokes, anecdotes and put downs he keeps in a filing cabinet at home. For tonight, as usual, he has selected the appropriate material, sketched it out on cards and arranged it into times sequences which he then bolts together.
Beforehand, he moves his seat to a point where he can take in all the room: he checks the mike and even gives the words to the man who is introducing him - "Graham Davies, who combines the comic genius of Ian Paisley with the intellectual depth of the Sunday Sport". And he makes sure that Matthew and the others won't mind being the butt of his jokes.
A couple of days later, we are sitting in a coffee bar in west London. Good-looking in his Versace jeans and with a manner that is a shrewd mix of confidence and modesty, his is something of a cool dude. A flat in Kensington, Christmas is Barbados, eating out every night. At 35, he carries his success lightly.
He's a barrister, at least he was until the speaking took over. Only once can he recall using humour in court, when he was defending a man who was irredeemably stupid. Graham opened his defence by saying "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, intelligent, sophisticated, eloquent - these are just three of the words my client cant even spell". He got off.
Each client who approaches him receives a package of information and a promotional video. "Just being funny isn't enough", he says "you have to be corporately sensitive too. They have to feel comfortable with you". Being funny for Graham is a solemn, thoughtful business. But funny he certainly is. One reference, from Mars Confectionery, reads "Not only was it the funniest talk I have ever heard, but the hours you spent with us meat it was tailored to the conference theme ... an unforgettable performance".
Where did it begin? Probably at his minor public school on the Isle of Man ("next door we had a convent, or, as we called it, the Virgin Megastore") where he recalls winning a speaking prize. At Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of Tony Slattery, he failed to make Floodlights by did become President of the Union. It was then he began speaking to Rotary Clubs and Round Tables - for the fee of a free lunch. In the early days, he can remember speaking at an hotel in Hythe, Hampshire, where he says, you could eat all the mushrooms you liked off the back of the bathroom door and there were no mice because the rats had eaten them all. It's slightly different these days: he has spoken at every hotel in Park Lane, almost every country in Europe and increasingly in America, where they have yet to hear his one-liner: "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it - as Teddy Kennedy says".
In puritanical America, he says he would be tarred and feathered for a joke like that. "The Europeans are less sensitive. At one conference, where there were different nationalities on each table, I told them about a dinner where everyone let off their party poppers at the same time, except the French: they asked of they could test theirs at the New Zealand table. The French laughed the loudest". And, although he writes most of his own material, he's so busy that he employs scriptwriters. "Good joke writers are rarer than diamonds. It's so hard it hurts my brain".
Between engagements, he now coaches others in the skills of speaking. "It isn't a natural activity", he explains. "It's like golf - no one can play well first time. It is a learned skill and I can pass that knowledge on to others". Which, for i??3,500 a day for two people, he does. The fortune is certainly there - the only things he lacks is fame, which worries him not in the least. "No one's heard of me and that suits me very well when I walk in front of an audience. With Bob Monkhouse they have high expectations, but with me, I'm just some boring barrister. If I'm not, it's a nice surprise".
And so it was with the accountants at Windsor. From a standing start, the man who no one knows has won them over. Hands which are usually employed tapping calculators turn scarlet with wild applause. "And remember", he says, as he sits down, "if you liked me, I'm Graham Davies. If you didn't, I'm Peter Mandelson". As always, he's Graham Davies.