A sideline in comedy gold

4th January 2008 at 00:00
One of Scotland's top after-dinner speakers is a working teacher. He explained to Henry Hepburn why his pupils provide a rich mine of material - and look smarter on the sports pitch as a result.

Every teacher has a few classic anecdotes about pupils' antics, but few can have put them to such good use as Willie Allan.

He is one of the biggest draws on Scotland's after-dinner circuit, but he is also principal teacher of PE at Fife's Buckhaven High, from where he sources the bulk of his material.

There are two reasons why it makes sense to draw on school life: just about everybody can relate to his tales and, more importantly, his pupils' "brutal honesty" makes for comedy gold.

Mr Allan, 46, has good contacts in the independent sector and organises games between rugby teams at his school, where the pupils are drawn largely from the former mining communities of Buckhaven, Kennoway, Leven and Methil - and boarding schools such as Edinburgh's Merchiston Castle and Fettes College.

"It's a big deal for them to go to these places," he says. "One of the first questions the boys ask is, 'Whaur d'ye bide aboot?'"

One of his favourite stories recalls a Buckhaven pupil who could not get his head round a Fettes boy's reply that he lived in school.

"That's what I call a detention," the boy said to him.

Mr Allan, who has been at Buckhaven High since 1993, is not afraid to make the surrounding community the butt of the joke.

"I say that if you ever come to Methil, take your digital camera because you'll never see it again - just like your digital camera. You poke fun at the area but in a gentle way, and I always come back and say how good the kids are."

He balances things by putting Buckhaven's boarding school friends at the sharp end of his quips: their idea of social deprivation is turning the electric blanket down to medium, and they have fundraising dinners to send the roulette team to Monte Carlo.

School can also provide lessons for business on leadership, people management and motivation in the workplace.

Mr Allan tells corporate events how he made rugby - largely dismissed as a "posh" game in East Fife - more appealing to image-conscious teens by buying gum shields with conspicuous zig-zags, giving rise to school teams reinvented as the Buckhaven Sharks.

He always stresses that Buckhaven High's pupils are far more than endearing scallywags, revealing in them an impressive depth of character.

He explains that they were nonplussed when a fundraising dinner brought in pound;31,000 for extra-curricular activities at the school.

"They were saying, 'We're not very happy - we've done nothing for this,'" he recalls.

The pupils raised an extra pound;4,000 themselves before they were content to get the money, and he confesses that their pride and determination made him go "a bit teary".

He makes sure that the pupils get something back for providing him with much of his material. If diners have enjoyed his routine, he encourages them to plough some money into the school.

That has led to some conspicuously high-profile sponsors for Buckhaven High's sports teams, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Lloyds TSB, as well as support from local businesses. He also puts some of his own earnings from after-dinner work back into the school's sports teams.

Although there are a few former teachers doing after-dinner work, it is almost unheard of for a working member of the profession to be on the circuit. Mr Allan has been at it since 1992, however.

While his speaking gigs owe a hefty debt to his day job, over the years he has also learnt to apply after-dinner techniques in school - notably the humour that he has seen go down so well with corporate crowds.

"If you add a bit of humour, ideas stick," he says. "That's also a message that's quite useful for pupils to take into their everyday lives."

Mr Allan earns classroom kudos by namedropping some of the famous faces his after-dinner work has brought him into contact with, including Sean Connery and Billy Connolly.

The figure he has been most impressed by was Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.

Mr Allan's family ran the Bruce Tavern pub in Dunfermline for 50 years, a favourite haunt of the young Ferguson when he played for Dunfermline Athletic's famous team of the 1960s.

When Mr Allan introduced himself, Ferguson straightaway asked if he was any relation of Peg Allan - Mr Allan's grandmother - who ran the pub before his mother took over.

Mr Allan was also at the same function as the former Aberdeen manager five years later.

"He walked straight up to me and said: 'How's your mum? Has she still got the Bruce in Dunfermline?' I thought that was absolutely fantastic to make me feel a bit special."

Should the appeal of extra school revenue and celebrity mingling tempt other teachers into after-dinner speaking, Mr Allan has a memorably succinct piece of advice: ABCXYZ.

Or in full: "Always be concise and examine your zip."


It's all in the way they tell them

Alan Jones

Away from the Elysian Groves of Eastbank Academy in Shettleston, Glasgow, acting head Alan Jones is an occasional after-dinner speaker who specialises in one-liners to entertain the troops (and usually humiliate the guest speaker) at the annual conference of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

He has a preference for quick gags as opposed to extended stories - for two reasons: first, he says, the attention span of the HAS audience is limited; and second, in the delivery of the one-liner, timing is of the essence. It is a skill he has honed over 30 years in his alter-ego role as director of amateur musical companies in the leading Scottish theatres.

Ever eager to strike a sectarian balance, he quotes "two quickies which can fit many a catchment area":

l shoplifting is so rife in X that the local priest has opened up a special confessional for nine items or less;

l the healthy eating agenda seems to have bypassed Y; the nearest these kids get to vitamin C is when they watch the Orange Walk.

"Don't forget: it's all in the delivery."

Fraser Sanderson

The recently retired director of education in Dumfries and Galloway believes that after-dinner speaking "goes with the territory". He "fell" into it rather than made a positive decision to launch himself as an after-dinner speaker.

"I really started with Burns Suppers in the Sanquhar area in the early 1980s and found that, once you have done a few, you are considered to be on the circuit.

"The difficulty thereafter is to try to limit yourself to a certain number of Burns Suppers each year - five in my case - otherwise you run the serious risk of boring yourself, never mind everyone else," he says.

He also does five or six other functions, rugby clubs, local associations and charity events, most of them based in his local area.

He has always seen after-dinner speaking as a complement to his day job, a sort of PR function for the council and in particular for the education service, because "it allows you to meet up with communities in a different context, with no confrontation, and to let them see that the council has a human face.

"I don't use notes because I want to give the impression of spontaneity and freshness but of course you have to be well-prepared to appear spontaneous," he says.

"I usually have a 2:1 split, whereby the first two-thirds will be knockabout and the last section will be relatively serious and tailored to the particular group.

"You also have to accept that there is no such thing as a new joke and somebody out there will have heard it before. I work on the principle that jokes or stories should be kept short and that you should avoid getting tied into labyrinthine yarns. I like something along the lines of:

l man returning home from work and wife says to him: "You look real gloomy the night, Jim."

"They're laying off four fitters at the yard at the end of the week."

"You'll be OK," she says, "you're five feet six."

Robert Slater, the maths teacher at the local school, has R.SLATER on his classroom door. The kids call him Heid First."

"I'm sure they sound better in the spoken word," he says.

Sandy Strang

The former deputy rector of Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow is now a journalist and regular after-dinner speaker.

The theme of Paisley runs strongly through his after-dinner speeches, a connection which dates back to his teacher training at Paisley Grammar, a 14-year-stint as wicketkeeper at Ferguslie Cricket Club, and many years playing amateur football in the Paisley and District League.

He sees strong similarities between teaching English and after-dinner speaking.

"It's all about communicating with an audience. As with quality teaching, you either empathise with the audience or you don't," he says.

A successful best man's speech set him on this particular road.

"There's a buzz, like a drug, in making people laugh and controlling an audience.

"The downside is if you are dying, which happens to everyone from time to time, sometimes unexpectedly."

All speakers have their own particular niche, he says. He tries to keep his material fresh and topical, so in a nod to the festive period he proffers the following:

l "As we walked home along Causeyside Street, the wee fellow shouted out: 'Aw, look - there's a robin redbreast.' 'Naw, son,' I said, 'that's a pigeon wae a chest wound.'" And: l "We passed the Salvation Army hostel which was sporting a window poster: 'A dog is for life, not just for Xmas. So do be careful at the office party.'"


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