How To Spend It

Performing Arts | Wry Society

The best man

Hoping to derail a serious fear of public speaking, a stage-shy best man looks to an Oscar winner for inspiration.

July 04 2011
Adam Edwards

Julian Weaver and Freddie Thornton were like brothers. They had met at Oxford University, then came down to London together and arranged similar City internships. Ten years later, the two men still worked in the City, lived in west London within a few miles of each other and fraternised in the same social circle. And so when Julian decided to marry Fiona Hunter, a pretty London PR who hailed from Hampshire, no one was surprised that he asked Freddie to be his best man. Freddie, Julian knew, would not let him down in front of his new in-laws, who were wealthy, church-going pillars of the shires.

Freddie was the perfect choice in every respect – except that he didn’t “do” public speaking. And Julian, never having witnessed Freddie give a formal speech, didn’t appreciate the extent of his phobia. As long as he was sitting down, Freddie could hold an amusing dinner-party conversation with anyone, whether it was Julian’s crusty future father-in-law or Paris Hilton (not that he had ever met her), but when he was required to stand up to speak his brain froze and his mouth dried. Freddie knew he would be brilliant at remembering the ring, ordering the buttonholes and getting Julian to wear new shoes – “The only time anyone ever notices the soles of your shoes is when you get married in church,” he told the groom. He would arrange a discreet stag party – a “knees-under” dinner at his St James’s club before adjourning to Madame Jojo’s kitsch cabaret in Soho – ladle on the charm with the various wedding guests and make sure the day ran like clockwork – but he wouldn’t or, rather, couldn’t speak in public.

The solution was twofold, said his and Julian’s good friend and chief usher to be, Simon Guthrie. First, Freddie should try and pick up a few tips from Hugh Grant’s slick best man’s speech in Four Weddings and a Funeral, making a note, of course, to avoid the joke about the groom sleeping with the bride’s mother. And second, and more importantly, he should watch The King’s Speech.

Freddie followed Simon’s instructions and bought the Four Weddings DVD. Then, on iTunes, he purchased Colin Firth’s performance as the stuttering King George VI, which he watched on his iPad as often as he could. He played it while eating sandwiches at his desk, listened to it on headphones on his commute and mentally reran snatches of the late monarch’s vocal struggle before going to sleep. And he found that, like the erstwhile king, swearing also helped him overcome his oratory nerves. “B****y b*****r to you,” he would parrot from the film as he walked through the Royal Exchange. “F**k, f**k and f**k. B****r, b****r and b****r.”

The final piece of advice Simon gave Freddie was that a nervous best man should read his planned speech aloud from the top of the stairs at his home and then practise it from the pulpit of an empty church. Surprisingly, Freddie had no problems speaking at home and was confident enough to bunk off practising his pulpit speech, or, rather, he was until the day of the wedding when the nerves suddenly gripped him like a bad oyster.

“I can’t do it,” he told Simon. “Julian will have to get somebody else to say something. You’ll have to do it!”

In desperation, Simon suggested that Freddie run through his speech in the empty church immediately after the wedding ceremony when only the ushers would be around.

“Remember The King’s Speech,” Simon said to Freddie before he and the other ushers settled down to listen to the address. But now that Freddie had an audience, even if it was only a few close friends, he faltered. “F**k, f**k and f**k,’’ he said quietly to himself in an attempt to get the speech back on an even keel. “B****r, b****r and b*****y,” he whispered (or so he thought) under his breath.

Unfortunately, the four-letter words were clearly picked up by the still switched-on and surprisingly sensitive PA system, and they echoed not only through the church but also spilled out from the external speaker in the porch. Which was, naturally, where the bride, the groom and Julian’s new in-laws were having their formal photographs taken.