Speech writers, learn from Charles’ mistake and leave out the balderdash

ONE of the most interesting aspects of my day job is getting to hear wedding speeches before they are delivered.

The speechmakers are driven to seek help for a variety of reasons.

The father of the bride, for example, may be the most retiring human being in his entire county, yet feels an overwhelming need to deliver a stunning speech on the day of his only daughter’s wedding.

Or the father of the bride is told by the bride’s many sisters that he must get his act together before her big day so that he doesn’t shame the entire family by delivering a rotten speech.

More often, the person seeking a bit of a polish is the best man. Best men usually come under their own steam, rather than on the pointy end of someone else’s instructions.

They may be the quiet pal of the groom, thrust, for once, into the spotlight usually occupied by charismatic him. Or they’re the younger brother, determined to deliver on the hero-worship of years or make a parent proud.

Every now and then, when it’s a groomsman who turns up, it emerges that he is the most popular guy in the gang of his peers, and he usually arrives because he’s already done a best man speech and none of the gang, however much they like him, want a repeat performance.

Asked what went wrong the other time, he will tend to a squirrelly evasiveness, admitting that the earlier speech might have been a little on the long side. Or perhaps a shade too close to the bone.

Either judgment is presented as the punctilious parsing of others: the best man himself clearly thinks his speech was a cracker, altogether, and that anybody who cribbed about it was being way too politically correct.

A little probing will reveal that “close to the bone” included references to the (allegedly) vivid romantic past of the bridesmaid or even the bride. Or it may have majored on detailed accounts of what the groom did when he got well tore on the stag night in Prague.

The object of a little rehearsal is to ensure the best man delivers the kind of speech Prince Harry is believed to have uttered on Friday night: funny, affectionate, confident and leaving the audience wanting more. Given that particular young man’s track record, it’s fair to assume that neither the bride nor the groom wanted more, no matter how much of a “dude” he proved himself on the big day. You have to figure the two of them were weak with relief that he had confined his self-expressive urges the way he did.

All must have been ease and comfort until the father put his size eighteens straight into it. Not the father of the bride, that commoner. Nope. It was the father of the groom, that Prince named Charles, who got witty about his son’s bald patch. Well, he mentioned it.

The “wit” is assumed to reside in the fact that he linked it to his own tonsure (you really need an irrelevant relative to intrude themselves and their bald patch into your wedding day) and suggested the lack of central hair might be hereditary. Accurate? Yes. Obvious? Indubitably. Witty? Doubtful. Funny? Never.

Oh, how they laughed, nonetheless. The reports are that Prince William and his new Duchess were overcome by mirth. Neither had a choice and neither would have been surprised, any more than the Queen would have been surprised. She’s had roughly 60 years’ experience of glossing over her husband’s “wit”.

Just as baldness runs in the male side of the Windsor clan, so does self-regarding smartarsery at the expense of those who, by virtue of the circumstances, can’t respond by saying “You know something? You are a rude old sod who should be let out in public only with your Order of the Garter facially applied. As a gag.”

Just as women never joke about male impotence, they never joke about male baldness. Men do it under the cover of male bonding: sure we’re all lads together and Baldy finds it just as funny as the rest of us do.

No, he doesn’t. He never has. From prehistoric times, hair loss, for a man, has been regarded as a personal disaster and a symbol of failure. Samson, for example, had enough strength to destroy a lion with his bare hands and kill a thousand enemies using only the jawbone of an ass, until he was seduced by Delilah into telling her that his supernatural strength resided in his hair, at which point she had him shorn while sleeping, which reduced him to a wimp who could be blinded and enslaved.

Julius Caesar forced the Gauls to shave off their hair once he had beaten them into submission.

This move may have partly been motivated by the need to identify potential subversives on sight, but it played into a pre-existing view of those without hair as belonging in the slave class. Wigs found in the great Egyptian tombs led to the suggestion by Dr Margaret Murray that the pharaohs, if they lost their hair, could not afford to be seen by their subjects to be bald. They would be perceived as less than godlike if they had a comb-over.

The Roman satirist Martial was relentless in his contempt for men who tried to conceal baldness by amateur paint jobs.

“You fob us off with fictitious hair,” he wrote. “Your dirty bald scalp is covered with locks represented in paint. You have no occasion for a barber for your head; you may shave yourself much better, Phoebus, with a sponge.”

Prince Charles might believe that Phoebus fell around with laughter when Martial’s epigram was yelled at him in the streets of Imperial Rome, but — while the poor man may have been forced, like Prince William on Friday, to smile through gritted teeth — he was sufficiently bothered by his hairlessness to try another option, applying goatskin to his head, only to fall foul of Martial’s cruelty again.

“As you cover with a kid’s skin your temples and the crown of your bald pate,” the poet observed, “he made a happy remark to you, Phoebus, who told you that your head was well shod.”

When wigs became commonplace in court circles, some kings worked hard to prevent anybody seeing their underlying baldness. Louis XIV, for example, when retiring at night, “handed out his wig to a page through drawn bed curtains; and in the morning, when the wig had to be returned to him, it was again passed through drawn curtains”.

When the toupee became an option, in the middle of the last century, a burglar in Basingstoke was caught because his very partial wig fell off at the scene of the crime and was identified by its serial number. The unfortunate block wept in court, his bald head bowed.

Even if the royal bridegroom develops merciful amnesia about his father’s merry jibe, it will be stored in the cyberclouds for all eternity. Waiting to remind him. Or, perhaps, to teach him a painful lesson he may not have needed: don’t tell bald jokes. Ever. And particularly not at a wedding.

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

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