The two people from whom I learnt most about how to tell a funny story were people I met working at Punch magazine - Basil Boothroyd because he told stories so well and William Davis, the editor, because he told stories so badly.
Basil Boothroyd used to tell a story about how he went one afternoon to do a talk at a Women’s Institute somewhere in the depths of Sussex, and while he was on stage entrancing the good ladies of Sussex, he was taken aback to see a door at the side of the hall open and a man in a white coat come out and point at a woman in the audience. She pointed at herself and mouthed: ‘Me?’ and he mouthed back, ‘Yes, you’ and she followed him fearfully out of the room. Five minutes later she came back and the white-coated man pointed at another lady in the audience.
And this went on throughout his talk, until nearly half the audience had gone for their unspeakable rendezvous with the mad scientist.
Afterwards Basil said to his host, nervously, ‘The man in the white coat... who was ...?’
‘Ah! ‘ said the host. ‘We should have told you about that. You see, we only have these meetings once a month, so we like to combine the guest speaker with the visit of the chiropodist from Brighton.’
A good story, which I once heard told on the radio. Not by Basil, though. It was told by Robert Robinson on Stop the Week, with absolutely no acknowledgement to Boothroyd. But then I once heard Anne Leslie on Stop the Week taking part in a conversation about overheard remarks, and she used a remark which I had overheard, not her. She said she had once heard a woman in London saying to a friend, ‘They turn green after Harrow, you know’, meaning the buses going to Watford, and the next time I saw Anne Leslie, I said, did you really hear that woman say that? And she said, no, you idiot, you told me about it and I never overhear remarks, so I decided to pretend I had heard yours instead.
Well, Anne, if you are listening, I have got another one for you, because the last time I was in New York I eavesdropped on a girl in Washington Square talking to her friend about her boyfriend trouble, and her friend said: ‘Look, why don't you just throw him out?’ and the first one said: ‘I don't think I know him well enough for that yet...’
Bill Davis seldom told stories like that, stories about things he had seen or people he had met - I remember him being much more prone to telling circulating stories, the kind that usually start ‘Do you know the one about?’ - and Bill made the mistake of thinking that the more detail you give to a story, the funnier it seems. So he wouldn't start a story, ‘There was this guy walking down the street one day, and he looked up, and there in the sky was the most enormous...’
He'd want to tell you what town it was, and what the weather was like and what kind of a man it was... in fact, he tended to commit the ultimate sin of saying everything three times. You know the technique? It goes like this...
‘There was this guy, just an ordinary bloke, nobody special, and he was walking down the street, just strolling along, going somewhere, and it was a very nice day, bright sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, and he happened to look up, raise his eyes, just glance up casually...’
About this point with these people you want to shout: ‘Just get on with it, for God's sake!’ If someone like this had written the Bible, the book would be three times longer than it is...
‘In the beginning, right at the start, right before anything had really got going, God, Jehovah, the big boss, made the heavens, yes he made the sky, space, call it what you will..........’
William Davis is not the only one. Alistair Cooke does it too. Not only is Alastair Cooke speaking slower and slower, almost as slowly as Clement Freud on Just a Minute, and you can't get slower than that, Cooke is also beginning to say ‘In a matter of days, maybe weeks, maybe months...’
But the best bit of advice I ever heard about the construction and telling of funny stories came from Basil Boothroyd.
After he left Punch he did a lot of after dinner speaking and even wrote a book about his experiences on the circuit. There is a story in the book about a nightmare rail journey to Wigan, when he went to the buffet bar for a drink after Stafford and found when he tried to return to his coach that it had been taken off at Crewe, together with his notes for the speech, dinner jacket, overnight stuff and everything. He hastily rewrote the speech, got to Wigan and did the speech at a dinner given in an L-shaped room in which he was speaking in the small bit of the L and couldn't see round the corner to the large bit of the L, where most of the people seemed unaware he was even speaking... then, when he was good and ready for bed, he found they had arranged for him to spend the night with people who seemed to have no idea he was staying with them...
The next time I saw him, I said, ‘Basil, that story in the book about going to Wigan, did that really happen?’
He said: ‘Miles, as a professional writer , you should know never to ask questions like that. But as it's you, I'll tell you. Yes, it all happened. But not in that precise order, not all on the same day, and not a lot of it to me.’