Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Fred Metcalf.

Fred was a gag-writer and for many years the speechwriter for David Frost. The service took place at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. Afterwards there was an ‘open-mic’ and guests were invited to say a few words about him. Because the tributes were all from family and friends, (and Fred’s public life had been dealt with in the service), I decided not to deliver the speech. But I wanted to post it here:

I first came across Fred in a book.

It was Bob Monkhouse’s Complete Speaker’s Handbook.

Bob describes a Variety Club Luncheon for Terry Wogan where David Frost gave a brilliant speech.

He goes on to mention that ‘a fair share of his applause belonged to his masterly speechwriter, Fred Metcalf’

Fred’s put years of prime patter on Frosty’s nimble tongue, he wrote.

This was remarkable to me, I didn’t realise there were such people.

When I started advertising in Private Eye as a speechwriter, I picked up The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations and Fred’s collection of jokes.

I managed to crowbar them in all over the place.

Most of the people he thanked in the introductions to those books are here today.

When I started organising conferences for speechwriters in 2009, here was a man who I needed to track down.

But was was he still alive?

He didn’t have a website, and there weren’t many mentions of him on the internet.

Tim Heald and Edward Mortimer kept talking about him.

Then I found him on Facebook.

I sent him a message in 2011.

He sent me his telephone number and I negotiated his appearance at the third conference of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild for the price of a return air fare from France.

He was an instant hit.

He came back twice afterwards.

I remember when one year we had a rather sensitive and controversial speech on Hitler’s rhetoric.

Fred introduced it like this:

Now there are five words which I hardly ever use in the same sentence: Hitler & really looking forward to it

In 2013, we were in Brussels,  and I remember Fred was a bit under the weather, and he reeled off these gags which mystified the many Dutch, Danish and European Commission speechwriters in the audience, but Barry over here was roaring with laughter in the front row.

I learnt a few things from Fred.

Like give yourself a pen name – in his case Sally Poplin.

And then you can put yourself into your own anthology of quotations.

Not sure if Nigel Rees has tried that one.

Fred says in his Biteback book of Humorous Book of Sporting Quotations:

The sort of people who compile ‘humorous’ books of quotations are a self-selected clerisy of wannabe do-gooders with one simple agenda: to bestow upon the world at large the precious gift of laughter.

Fred was very generous with that gift, and we were the beneficiaries.

Leave a reply