The American Dream

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Cult British comedy hails from a cloistered isle where subtlety, eccentricity and surrealism can thrive. US shows may surge across the Atlantic but only a select few wriggle back against the tide; established big-hitters like The Office and Little Britain that are checked in fully-formed before being re-packaged. A Brit writer pitching a fresh idea exclusive to the US market is virtually unheard of, so how did Green Wing creator Victoria Pile get on when she landed Stateside?

“It never happened,” muses Victoria with a wry smile, when asked when she realised she was funny. The four-times-Bafta-nominated creator of Green Wing and Smack the Pony started penning broadcast-worthy sketches for the Beeb while still at Uni, so surely that switch must have flicked earlier than most? “I’m constantly surprised when my work is appreciated by other people,” she continues. “That sounds fake, doesn’t it? But comedy writers need a lot of stroking, and positive feedback – me more than most.”

It doesn’t sound fake. We’re sipping water in her spacious North London front room: it’s comfortable, but clearly a well-lived-in family home where this writer can squeeze in some precious keyboard time before the kids get back. She’s rented some space above a shop to use as an office, she tells me, but the decorators are still in so it’s a working-from-home job ‘til they’re done.

“I get fearful of expectation,” Victoria’s prepared to admit. “I prefer to do a low-profile project and see if it makes a ripple than go out all-guns-blazing. I’ve always abhorred publicity: I don’t like people seeing stuff until it has to be seen.”

So it was an intriguing career curveball, following Emmy and Bafta-winning hits and mounting public anticipation, to plunge into a notoriously competitive overseas market to produce a pilot, set in a police precinct, rather than risk dropping the bat in Britain.

“America lured me, partly because I didn’t have to recreate something else immediately here: I went to avoid the second-album syndrome,” she goes on. But far from burying her head in the sand, she’d buried her head in a goldfish bowl. “Over there you’re exposed so completely; you can’t just say, ‘Let me do it, and then you can have a look.’ Every step of the way, you’re naked.”

Dismantling the tight-knit Green Wing team in 2006 – cast and crew largely handpicked by Victoria herself – felt “like breaking up a family unit,” she admits: “A lot of the cast spent more time with us than with their own families, and that was the hard act to follow, not whether we’d do something funny again.”

Of course, ‘funny’ couldn’t be more subjective. “I struggle, because people say I have a slightly perverse view; an unusual take on things. I never understood that. I always assume I represent a large number of similarly minded people; it’s just how I see the world. You can’t choose how to approach something comedically; well I can’t, anyway,” she goes on. “Vogues change, and when I started out I was very much into the style of comedy that I’ve since developed, and other people weren’t. Now we’ve gone about-face and there’s more trend for big studio-based comedies. But I’ll always go for what I instinctively find funny.”

But protestation aside, it was for idiosyncrasy rather than conformity that Victoria’s agent and manager, who had existing positive relationships with US networks, “hoiked” her across the Atlantic. “Now, I’m not a ‘networks’ person,” she begins, settling back into her chair: “I prefer HBO and cable; they tend to be more off-centre.” It’s already clear that this will be no pleasant fiction where a saucer-eyed Brit skips through bountiful fields of cotton candy.

“I don’t want to slag America off,” she’s keen to stress. For while it’s tempting to snuggle you down with a dustbin-sized vat of popcorn and sensationalise this cautionary tale like a gravelly-voiced Hollywood trailer, the simple truth is that the studio-driven US market is an acquired taste for a British writer. Especially one whose devoted creative control at the helm of her own complex shows have attracted monikers like “visionary” and “genius” from cast-member Tamsin Grieg and fellow Green Wing writer Fay Rusling respectively.

“You have to be prepared to have a lot of top-down input,” is her delicately democratic way of putting it. The fact that American networks can pay extremely well is no secret, and Victoria draws attention to various fellow writers who have sustained a healthy trade contributing scripts to other shows. Suffice to say that getting a fresh one off the ground is somewhat different.

“There’s a certain hypocrisy in saying, ‘We want you because you do something different; we love your work; we understand your process and we want you to do it over here,’ when that’s the very thing that they cannot let happen,” she declares, frowning slightly as a shadow of that past frustration crosses her face. “They crush it, and crush it, and crush it, and crush it, and you end up with something that’s neither my choice nor their choice.”

“I was treated fantastically well, with a lot of respect, and actually given a lot of freedom according to other sources,” she reflects; perhaps proof positive that incompatible personalities and working practices were at least partly responsible. “It was a strangely enlightening experience. We did do a pilot; I’m going out there to pitch something else, and I’m trying to do co-productions at the moment. But the things you hear are absolutely jaw-dropping: until you’re immersed in it, you don’t quite believe it’s possible.”

“I spent most of the time either in hysterics with laughter, or in tears with disbelief at how they conduct themselves. Considering it’s the epicentre of the entertainment industry, I was horrified at the outmoded, archaic, creative-crushing things that went on.”

By way of example, Victoria recollects a memo that was passed her way encouraging producers to perpetuate the influx of British talent, but not to sign any deals: “It recommended reinventing the format with your homegrown crew,” she explains. “Rip the idea off, in other words. It was an article in an American publication. They’re not embarrassed about it: ‘We don’t need to buy the formats; we’ll just do it ourselves.’ It makes you slightly fearful of sending things ad-hoc as a writer. As an actor there are some brilliant people there; lovely casting directors; in fact everyone’s brilliant apart from the system.”

And what a vast system it is. The same year that she was in the midst of it all, the network commissioned eighty scripts – a quarter of which were produced as pilots. Three went to series, and all three of them were pulled. “There was not one success out of the whole season’s production,” laments Victoria. “What I didn’t realise was that there’s a rush of British actors coming out every year to do the pilot season: if you get picked up, you’re made forever.”

“I fought tooth-and-nail to get Stephen Mangan out there, but we were also forced to have two ‘named’ stars from their stable – Jason Alexander [Seinfeld], who’s fantastic but wasn’t right for the part, and Orlando Jones [one of the original cast of Mad magazine’s late-night sketch series MADtv], who again is a tremendously talented comedian, playing completely the wrong part.”

Half-an-hour in, and Victoria has already demonstrated pretty transparently how involved she expects to be when getting a comedy show off the ground, and it’s similarly clear that this approach won’t transplant well to US soil. But there isn’t a flicker of a toy-throwing tantrum in her voice: frustration, yes, but she’s not precious for the sake of it. Her talent’s rooted in a more temperate climate, where tight creative control happens to be what she’s very, very good at – and taking that away can mean letting a project sway off course.

My timely reminder that, for her seminal creation Green Wing, she’s credited as creator, producer, casting director, script editor, film editor and writer – albeit one of several in many cases – is met with a mixture of a smile and a wince. “I didn’t choose those titles,” she points out, “but as a description of the job description then yes, it’s accurate. You need somebody trying to achieve what they want, or don’t know they want. Quite often all I know is what I don’t want.”

It may take a couple of seconds to unpick the sentence, but makes sense. And for commissioners, collaborators and cast alike, it boils down to putting your trust implicitly in someone else’s creative vision.

“You have to have quite a loyal and tolerant group of people to contribute to something blindly,” she agrees. “But as a ‘tame’ writer you’re exempt from some of the difficult decisions that rack us all. You’re in a childlike state: write as freely as you like, and we’ll take the best bits. All the writers on Green Wing had careers in their own right, but as a unit we were like a different writer.”

Her confession that she once associated each member of the team with a body part – the kidney, the little finger and so-on – prompts the obvious question: which was she? “It depends who you ask,” she smiles darkly. “Probably the stick up the arse. Although the real answer, of course, is the c-word.” Whether this refers to gestating and giving birth to her precious creative baby, or something infinitely more self-deprecating, we both decide to leave hanging.

A likely byproduct of building a tried-and-trusted team of bodily organs is that you’ll want to work with them again, and shipping Green Wing stalwart Stephen Mangan across for the pilot season is a case in point. Mark Heap, too, had been penciled in from the outset, but was replaced at the studio’s behest by Jason Alexander. Does she often put pen to paper to shape a character with a favoured actor already in mind?

“Since Green Wing I’ve done that… three times,” she reports after a moment’s thought. “I put Steve and Mark in all of them, in my head. But Mark didn’t get the part, and Jason wanted to do slapstick, drop his trousers and show his bum. There was a line in the script where he opens a drawer and there’s a portable vagina inside, and he wanted the prop to be made. You don’t need to see it,” she emphasises, sounding slightly exasperated as the voice of understated British comedy: verbal humour that conjures vivid mental images, rather than literally and figuratively shoving a vagina in someone’s face.

Setting aside comic preferences however, Victoria is quick to praise the talents of the lead actor that was dropped into her production from above: “Jason has incredible comic planning, hilarious timing, and knows a lot of martial arts so there were some incredible visuals,” she points out. But as she’s already made clear, it was the system, not the individuals, which crushed the project.

“They cut all those bits out, including some gorgeous nonsense with putty,” she reveals, with palpable regret that said putty-play won’t be lighting up our screens anytime soon. “He could equal Mark in many ways; in terms of physicality he was great. There’s a scene where he’s almost grooming the new boy: he comes round behind him, puts his hands round his neck and gobs on his cheek. The executives cut it out; they said it was leery and unattractive.”

Another “cracking scene” where Steve attends a lesbian meeting, shot with a gay female stand-up, survived right up until the wire: “They ripped it out the night before,” reveals Victoria, as if they’d torn the still-beating heart from her already maimed project: “They were too ashamed to take it out earlier.”

It’s revealing that when asked how the show was compromised, she recalls very specific episodes; vignettes that made her chuckle, but failed to crack a smile on the execs further up the command chain. Of course, even the pioneering hour-long format of Green Wing – with its series-long plot arcs that seemed so far removed at first glance from the self-contained skits of Smack The Pony – was built around sketches, expertly woven together as part of a wider narrative. Individual episodes are the blocks that make Victoria Pile’s comedy work, and sliding them out one by one is like a high-stakes bout of Jenga.

“You can cover more material with sketches,” she affirms. “Your territory’s wider. If you’re out to make a really comedic experience, you want the freedom to go hither and thither, to cover as much material as we do in our real lives.” She landed on a police precinct as a setting for the untitled pilot we’re discussing for much the same reasons that a hospital became the setting for her last hit show: you can find all sorts of people under one roof. Green Wing was originally intended to weave the lives of car park attendants, canteen staff and everyone else alongside the medical and admin staff, but it never quite happened that way.

“This pilot followed four detectives’ lives and loves: it wasn’t really to do with policing, but there was some procedural stuff in there because that’s what they wanted,” Victoria explains. “This body within the department is there to check up on procedures, and they’re so litigious. We developed a potentially fantastic relationship between the slightly anal character trying to catch everyone out, and normal detectives with their everyday lives. But it was the lack of interest in those peripheral things that screwed it for me: I wanted to indulge in the little idiosyncrasies of the characters; they wanted the story.”

From the off there was a lot of “slipping and sliding” and top-down adjustments, which as Victoria readily admits, was “exactly what I do, but done by someone else.” With very different sensibilities pulling in opposite directions, the chances of the comedy kernel surviving intact were slim to minimal. Pressing on, her team wrote two new blind scripts that impressed another network, and they commissioned a fresh hour-long script. Then the writers strike happened, and it all ground to a halt once more.

“Ultimately, in America all your experiences often come down to one person, and everyone’s curtailing to them,” she explains. “Over here, you cast someone and say to the broadcaster, ‘I’ve found some great talent, here’s the tape, have a look.’ Over there, you have to make a deal for two series before you can pass them. You need at least two other options, then you go to the studio – not the network – and they all perform in front of 40-odd people on stage, up against each other like gladiators. It’s The X-Factor, basically. Then if the studio executive agrees with you, you go forward to the network and do it all again.”

An observation that’s hardly worth making to a British audience – that a talented small-screen comic actor won’t necessarily take well to a live stage – is the final, forceful reminder that things are untouchably different over there. Victoria shrugs. “I’ve learnt a lot, and have less belief that they want what works here,” she concludes philosophically. “If I make a decision to do something that works there, that’s another matter.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 10 of 4Talent magazine

Real Cinema

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“It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to put together something as accurate as possible,” is the Broomfield manifesto. Following 2006’s acclaimed Ghosts, he’s taken his experiments with ‘real cinema’ to a new level with Battle for Haditha – digging as deeply into the principles of filmmaking as he does the universal issues surrounding this symbolic episode.

“It’s great fun to play around with style,” Broomfield tells me, citing Day for Night – François Truffaut’s much-lauded film about making a film – as a creative influence. Certainly since the journalistic frustrations of 1988’s aptly-titled Driving Me Crazy, he’s carved a name for himself as a figurehead for what pigeonhole enthusiasts call les nouvelles egotistes: a growing breed of doc-makers who are themselves central to the action, together with the likes of Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

Given their deviation from this trademark approach, it’s all-too-tempting to pin up his two most recent films as the start of a new chapter in his work. Both are dramatic interpretations of controversial situations, with no bobbing boom or frantic chase in sight; unlike much of his personality-driven back-catalogue to-date, both stories pivot largely on a specific series of events and the complex repercussions for the many characters involved.

But like his intriguing Anglo-American drawl, or one of his elusive heckled interviewees of past films, Broomfield’s not that easy to box in: for him, both style and substance should remain organic. “I think about one project at a time; I never seem to have a problem finding my next film,” he insists. “I’m not one of these people with a list.”

The latest episode to pique his inquisitive instinct was the death of 24 Iraqi civilians in the small town of Haditha on 19 November 2005, in the aftermath of a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed a young marine riding in convoy. Whilst initial reports from the US military claimed that the deaths were a direct result of the blast and a subsequent gunfight with hostile insurgents, Iraqi witnesses told a very different story – five unarmed men in a taxi shot dead as they approached the scene, and 19 more killed in three nearby houses in an act of violent retribution over the following hours.

It was an amateur video clearly showing the bodies of women and children shot in their homes, passed to an Iraqi human-rights organisation and then to Time magazine, that laced the affair with doubt. It identified flaws in the marines’ statement, prompting a formal inquiry – although the initial conclusion was that it was collateral damage, things soon spiraled into a full criminal investigation, with several marines on trial for unpremeditated murder. For Broomfield, this was motivation enough to cement the blood-soaked incident as an example.

“I’ve researched lots of subjects that I haven’t followed through,” he admits. “When you’ve got to be with them for a year, a year-and-a-half, you might as well do something that is complicated enough, or has enough mystery to keep you going. I don’t like going into films knowing what the outcome will be: often it’s the discovery that’s exciting; changing your mind; meeting people with sides that you’d never imagined before. That’s what makes it worthwhile and fun.”

It’s a compelling approach: filmmaker both directing the action and being swept up in it. “It’s all to do with storytelling. Any way you can tell the story better so it’s more real, more entertaining, more contemporary, is great to play around with,” is Broomfield’s take. In the case of Battle for Haditha, this involved building a framework from what few indisputable facts were available – and letting the cast improvise the rest.

As with Ghosts – for which the painstaking research process including hiring Chinese students to pose as illegal immigrant workers, and posing as an Afrikaner worker himself to film the results with a hidden camera in his glasses – finding the right cast to carry the film was crucial. Not necessarily just for their acting skills, but for their genuine deep-rooted emotions, experiences and insider-knowledge that could steer both the general atmosphere and finer details more accurately than any stubborn director with a top-down vision.

Understandably, it feels like a documentary-maker’s approach to drama: letting the action unfold as naturalistically as possible. At first he considered going the full distance: tracking down the marines who had lived and breathed the sweat, smoke and blood of Haditha, and asking them to re-enact the events of 19th November 2005. But in the flesh, as he told The Times, they were “fucked up, much too jittery. Some couldn’t keep still when we were talking to them.”

One of the most shocking elements during this initial research period was the marines’ “distressing and vulgar” sense of humour; arguably a coping mechanism to detach them from the shocking things they’d seen and done, but something Broomfield had to fight through, alongside the jitters and the tranquilliser damage, to understand what they were really about.

Unable to work with those directly connected with Haditha – and with the trial just getting under way – the production favoured a more conventional call-out to casting agents with military connections, tapping into servicemen who had recently returned from active duty to keep that emotional resonance without jeopardising the whole project.

The highlight of their nine-month casting call was unearthing 22-year-old ex-marine and aspiring actor Elliot Ruiz, who at 17 had been the youngest solider deployed to Iraq, and had already had his personal story dramatised in a Pulitzer-nominated play. Corporal Ramirez wasn’t any easy first lead role for Ruiz: dredging up all manner of demons, it was a turbulent process that came to a head in an on-screen breakdown with an uncomfortable dose of realism. Iraqi civilians, many of whom had lost loved ones in the conflict, were also persuaded to lend their stories to the film as part of the predominantly amateur cast.

Despite responding to one symbolic episode, this fresh ammunition for the anti-war canon has an intentionally timeless quality. “Things like Haditha happen in any conflict, any war, anywhere,” reasons Broomfield. “The stuff that we filmed after the IED goes off is all based on reports: that’s all accurate, what happened in those houses. But I don’t want this to be seen as a forensic film. Haditha is a symbolic crime, but not such a rarity that it deserves to be looked at in isolation.”

While it may seem that the collective lens of the world’s media has been on Iraq since those first volleys were fired, it’s the other side’s perspective that has been conspicuously absent thus far: and this is the edge Haditha brings to the public debate.

“It’s a film about the language of war, and the common humanity that people share,” he declares. “In any conflict there are different points of view; it’s rarely good and evil. But most journalists have been stuck in the Green Zone throughout, and genuine Iraqi viewpoints are few and far between.”

Accordingly, the research also included flying to Aman to meet civilian survivors of the massacre – “who were there on the day, and knew the people who were killed” – plus spending a week with insurgents who had been directly involved with Haditha, and quizzing the journalist from Time magazine who first broke the story into public consciousness. The next step was securing government reports and witness statements to build as accurate a picture as possible, from multiple sides.

Iraqi witnesses and insiders in the marines told the same story: that the killings were indiscriminate as a knee-jerk reaction to their colleague’s death. Most shocking of all were the protocols he found through conversations with marines: “Their standard operating procedure rules are so fucking hardcore. If a house is described as ‘hostile’, then you just kill everyone in the house. It doesn’t matter if it contains two-year-olds or the elderly.”

But while he admits starting the project with some bias against the marines, meeting them in the flesh and realising that these were poverty-stricken kids with little or no education, thousands of miles from home in a conflict they didn’t understand, muddied the waters somewhat: “The deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realised it was to take a side. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers. I hope people will feel that judgment should be passed on the war itself, the architects of the war, and the future of the war. These are just poor bastards who got caught up in it.”

“Everyone has some kind of blinkered view, and it’s interesting that in some of the cinema discussions after the film, the two main camps realised just how blinkered they are. That’s what happens in war – but most traditional war films tend to be black and white, good and bad.”

Broomfield’s already made it clear that beyond the factual framework, the cast should make the piece their own, so I ask how he sees his own role in the production – particularly in still relatively unfamiliar dramatic territory.

“I enable people to deliver their performances in as relaxed a way as possible, and as real a way as possible,” he responds, after a short pause and a contemplative hmm. “It’s creating an environment that people can work in that makes them feel alright to be themselves, particularly if you’re working with non-actors. They shouldn’t be embarrassed: you want them for who they are.”

Of course, dramatic interpretation or not, Battle for Haditha has a grounding in fact – and was released while the trial was still in progress – so surely directorial control was crucial in places? “When dealing with specific milestones in the report, details from a legal document, we had to control people pretty tightly,” he confirms. “They couldn’t say whatever they wanted in those situations.”

“We worked from a pretty rigid structure of the story, but I was often steered by what they had to contribute: ‘We wouldn’t do it this way; we’d do it this way.’ I let them use their own language, being mindful that I didn’t want them acting being a marine: I wanted them being themselves. In a sense, they’re the experts – you don’t need one of those experts standing by.”

Given their deeply personal roots in the conflict, and intimate connections with its victims, surely the cast had their own agendas, even if the director endeavoured to avoid one of his own? “The film is all about agendas,” is the simple answer. “The marines, the insurgents, the people who get caught between those two forces, all have their own rationale for what they do. It’s about presenting those three agendas as accurately as possible, to an audience who probably has their own preconceptions.”

“Showing the film around, an Iraqi audience is very pro insurgents – would they even have taken money to do what they did? They see them as patriots. An American audience is always much more defensive about the marines.”

Three strands of narrative bind the film together, representing these three viewpoints: the pair of newly-recruited insurgents paid to plant the IED, the marines who seek revenge for its fatal detonation, and the civilians who are cut down indiscriminately as a result – several of whom see the bomb being planted in their quiet neighbourhood and choose to keep quiet.

While the brutality of the wider insurgency comes across, the two that plant the bomb are nervous and inexperienced, acting clumsily in the name of patriotism – but tellingly manage to flee the scene unharmed as gunfire erupts. The marines are brutal, dehumanised and reduced to killing machines by fear and rage, but ultimately emerge as pawns in a game much larger than themselves, endorsed by orders from above and crippled by remorse.

Iraqi civilian life is sketched out in various short episodes – a party to celebrate a circumcision, a boy playing with a goat, a family going to market – but this third group is finally crushed from both sides, with nowhere to turn. Crucially for Broomfield, all involved re-creating elements of their own lives, not acting several stages removed from it.

Some 15 years before Ghosts, his first venture into directing drama – 1989’s glossy Hollywood fare Diamond Skulls – he found overwhelming as a process, and readily admits to being embarrassed by the end result. Does mindless escapism and detachment from reality just not appeal?

“All forms of storytelling are interesting; I just happen to have grown up in a tradition of documentaries,” he reflects. “But I don’t like celebrity and all that goes with it: I enjoy getting to know normal people and their lives. For me, it’s about combining that with telling a structured story in an accessible way.”

Unlike that self-confessed blip on Broomfield’s CV, both Ghosts and Battle for Haditha shun the studio lights and contrived repetition of Hollywood to reveal something deeper about those involved.

“These are not pseudo actors; they’re real people who are being themselves,” he asserts. “That means you have to shoot in a different way; in real environments. You can’t shoot them on a set ’cause then they have to act, and they have no training in acting; they don’t know that the fuck they’re doing.”

Based in Jordan – Iraq was clearly too dangerous – the cast and crew lived as a community. “I had to create a barracks for the marines to live in, and the Iraqis were living in houses. If you’re shooting reverse angles, lighting the bejesus out of something and having hundreds of people standing around the set, you’ve got to have actors. It’s very, very difficult.”

By way of example, the bathroom in which Ruiz breaks down – purging himself of all those years of pent up anguish – doesn’t open up into a world of runners, tracks and dollies. It’s the actual bathroom used by the cast and crew. Maintaining the ‘real cinema’ approach are very long cuts. For the heart-rending mourning scene, the camera rolled for 40 minutes straight – no-one was going to ask the genuinely distressed women to go one more time for luck.

“I think the greatest thing that film has is the ability to describe real time,” argues Broomfield. “I don’t like lots of cuts: it’s really interesting to see a conversation, for example, or how long it takes for an argument to develop, rather than just cutting to an argument. We’re used to seeing things in real time, and cinema has the exciting ability to do that.”

“I grew up with anthropological, observational films, where the most interesting thing was seeing a long conversation between two guys in some weird language with subtitles. You get a sense of their rhythm, how they do things, what their humour’s like – no other art-form can do that.”

For Haditha he picked up countless tricks from special effects supervisor David Harris, including how to set up action shots to keep a lot of movement in the camera. “Certain things, particularly action, are also much more involving in real time than if you cut to the effect all the time,” he concludes. “It’s much more threatening if the human eye sees it as being real.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 9 of 4Talent magazine

Viral is a Verb

A man puffs into a rubber dinghy on the beach. A boy patters toward him and flings himself onto it. The man’s head explodes. Seven years ago, Head Rush – a simple 10-second clip, carefully honed to 790k to punch through Hotmail’s attachment filters – launched Ed Robinson’s company, The Viral Factory. It’s since been viewed 100 million times. “It feels incredibly crass now,” he’s prepared to admit, “but that’s how it was then.”

Of course, in the Web 2.0 world the huge advertising potential in peer-to-peer networks is clear to a growing number of brands – but agencies exploiting the system are still shaking off those past associations. Ed for one is clearly weary of justifying himself to people who still think ‘viral’ just means a bedroom-produced funny.

“Viral is a terrible buzzword,” he concedes. “It’s a mechanism; it’ll probably disappear from our company name within a year. It’s been misconstrued. A viral isn’t a short, rude 30-second TV spot you couldn’t get past the BACC – it’s a mysterious peer-to-peer network. Viral is something that happens when a piece of content wins its own audience in an exponential way, and we use the term as a verb. It’s ‘gone’ viral.”

Head Rush unquestionably went viral, and it persuaded Ed to reach beyond his job as a TV ads producer in favour of something edgier. “I didn’t want to make ads. I wanted to make films. As a punter I resent advertising – I want an honest exchange. Either give me hard facts, or engage me; give me something. I resent people just selling eyeball space.”

Ironically, the original proposal was not too far removed from that of a traditional broadcaster – selling space either side of great content. “I had this image of not having a relationship with clients. I’d just make stuff, put it out there in a locked environment and then advertisers would buy a placement; their name at the end of it. Effectively I’d be a programme maker, making small bits of communication.”

In principle, it made sense – clients would buy media space in return for the content winning viewers. It works on TV. But perhaps it was a paradigm shift too far – part of the appeal of online content, after all, is stripping off the ads. “They didn’t buy it,” Ed recalls. So, with reluctance, he began to explore winning an audience with an integral advertising message. In other words, ads that people want to watch. And share.

Evil Twin Ka came a couple of years later: a deliciously sinister decapitation episode in which a black Ford Ka tempts an unsuspecting feline into its open sunroof, and then slides it back in place with a sickening clunk. In another version, a pigeon is splatted flat in the road by a timely flick of its bonnet. “That was back in the day when email peer-to-peer – ‘have you seen this’ – was key,” adds Ed, acknowledging Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a useful reference on this kind of exponential growth.

“When people pull your content to them instead of having it pushed at them, you get a buzz,” he smiles. “But at the time it was an add-on thing. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve realised virals can be part of the bigger picture.”

And without the need to deal with media buyers, campaign budgets can be significantly lower. “The ad process can be quite stifling. You may have a million quid to make the ad, but they’ve got 10 million quid to buy the media for a couple of nights on Channel 4 – which is why everyone’s so anxious and sits around debating what colour a certain guy’s shirt should be. We have a much more fluid process – come up with an idea; make it for £50-100k; come back and hopefully they like it. We’re called a factory for a reason.”

Ed goes on to discuss their 2003 Trojan Games campaign for the UK launch of the condom brand, whose quirky notion of a sex Olympics persuaded 55 million visitors to spend an average of five minutes on the website, enjoying and recommending short videos of lycra-clad athletes engaging in acrobatic penetration. This equates to an army of excitable brand advocates roughly the size of the country’s population. Not bad, especially considering the clips contained no explicit sexual content whatsoever.

Sex, violence and slapstick humour – check, check, check. But within the viral space there remains infinite scope for creativity, depending entirely on who you’re targeting to disseminate your message, and why they’d be motivated to pass it on.

Web audiences are notoriously fickle with short attention spans, flitting from clip to clip on giant rambling sites like YouTube and MySpace, and are accordingly much more empowered than their passive TV counterparts. But with the growing interconnectivity between social networking sites, finding what you want (and dumping what you don’t) is only going to get easier. “Above all the advertising industry has to re-learn that they have to give something back,” is Ed’s take on it. “It’s an exchange.”

Perhaps their most innovative work to date was for Levi’s in 2006, ostensibly involving a gigantic jeans-wearing marionette being manoeuvred through the streets of Reykjavik by a trio of helicopters. Such a stunt would cost millions to stage for real, and it was considerably cheaper and savvier to mock the whole thing up in post-production, project it in cinematic glory onto a giant plasma screen – and film it on mobiles. The resulting clips, scattered over YouTube to give the illusion that random Icelandic passers-by had witnessed something wondrous, have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

There’s an inherent talkability about a giant airborne puppet – even if people decide it’s a hoax, they’ve spread the clip, thought about it and engaged with other users about it on comment threads. That’s what a modern viral campaign needs to be about, and Ed is regularly frustrated by clients who want ‘something on YouTube’ – a request that, as he points out, is pretty meaningless. He turns 70 percent of potential work down, partly as a reality check for clients whose campaigns simply would never go viral.

“You can stick anything on YouTube – a picture of your product with you sticking your thumbs up in front of it. It doesn’t mean people will see it, and it doesn’t make it a viral. It only becomes a viral if you’ve specifically set out to generate an audience.”

Most important of all is to be straight with them once you have them. “They’ll turn against you if you try to ram a message down their throats, and that’s a massive turn-off to some clients,” he warns. “But if you do it right, you have free media, and an audience that voluntarily spreads your message.”

Ed took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

All in the Detail

A handful of brands have dominated the upper echelons of creative, memorable advertising over the last decade. Advertising for which people sit through the dross in the hope of catching again, and seek out on YouTube months after the TV run ceased – Abbott Mead Vickers for Guinness, HHCL for Tango, Fallon for Sony Bravia. But perhaps one of the most enduring, varied and consistently innovative campaigns of the past few years has been Wieden+Kennedy’s treatment of Honda UK.

A creative behind several of the most memorable of these – not least Cog, better known as the mesmerising two-minute chain reaction made from parts of a Honda Accord – is copywriter Ben Walker. And while he tips a nod to the surreal pin-striped, blender-headed mannequin and attention-grabbing staff self-portraits that adorn the entrance to W+K, much of his inspiration comes from a razor-sharp attention to everyday detail.

The Accord was one of the first briefs on the new account, and the initial feeling was that there was space to talk about ‘warm engineering’ – a satisfying, affable, gentle type of technology to contrast the cold, teutonic efficiency marketed by Germanic counterparts Mercedes, Audi and BMW, or as Ben’s art director Matt Gooden put it at the time, “like the way all the bits in Mousetrap fit together.”

This in turn sparked a recollection of an experimental chain reaction film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and before they knew if they were dismantling a hatchback – then stringing the components back together like automotive dominos. ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work?’ was Ben’s beautifully simple tagline, and after more than 600 takes, it did – although they had to film it in two halves, simply because there wasn’t a warehouse long enough to cram it all in.

Incredible patience, precision and hours in the pursuit of that flawless take – it’s no surprise that Ben cites Michel Gondry and Stanley Kubrick as creative influences for their sharp attention to detail. But another of his ads, this time for the Honda Civic, drew inspiration from a less lofty source.

“There’s a Dorling Kindersley book in our office called The Way Things Work – which shows the actual way things work,” he grins. “They talk about something mundane like a stapler or a zip, and you think fuck me; that’s amazing. No-one ever points those things out to you.” A Civic, Ben reasons, is practical but not particularly cool – so they sprinkled this wonderment in the small unnoticed things in life onto a fast-cut editing technique inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

In the film the technique snapshots the pill-popping, tea-drinking, remote-clicking lifestyle of a desperately lonely menopausal woman on speed, and her deteriorating junkie son – unsurprisingly the ad brings a more wholesome Dorling Kindersley edge, integrating macro shots of certain life-enhancing features on a Civic with everyday items that make life easier, but tend to go forgotten. Again the tagline makes it all relevant, as a tagline should: ‘Why is it, the better something does its job, the more we take it for granted?’

Although fewer people are interested in the craft of advertising copy – and award-winning ads seem to be increasingly about effects and glamorous art direction – Ben insists that it’s still absolutely integral to brand communication. “It took me ages to write that line,” he grins.

And Grrr! – Honda’s rainbow-coloured award-magnet, which sees chugging diesel engines knocked out of the sky to the cheerful tune of ‘hate something, change something, make something better’ – is, he points out, built around a song. “There are optimistic visuals and the colour palette is good, but it’s all about the language. Copy makes it relevant to the brand. It’s still hugely important, but people don’t realise it.”

Ben took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

A Remit to Provoke

“You shouldn’t be in it unless you love ads,” declares 4Creative’s Richard Burdett. “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be part of something great. I’ve been lucky enough to see that twice.” Interestingly, his examples flank a period of disillusionment and frustration with a stagnating industry that’s only recently shaking itself into shape.

First is a seminal moment in the history of advertising. The colossal smiling, winking face, splashed across a rich human canvas in vivid red, white and blue, that helped turn British Airways around while he was at Saatchi’s in 1989. The very picture of optimism: diverse cultures connected across an ever-shrinking globe.

Seventeen years later, visages of an altogether grittier nature: coalition soldiers, contorted in panic and despair beneath ghostly clown makeup as hollow Iraqi gunfire echoes around them. A trail for Iraq: the Bloody Circus – More4’s season of programming on the controversial conflict – while at 4Creative.
 
Fortunately for a man who grew bored with mainstream advertising over a decade ago, the environment in which he now finds himself at the head of Channel 4’s in-house agency – a role for which he was headhunted at Cannes to cover maternity leave, and has commanded ever since – is an “incredibly benign” incubator for great work.

“I have as my client possibly the only advertiser in the country with the guts to provoke every single time, and a remit to provoke,” he declares, citing a recent campaign that sat the cast of Shameless around the Last Supper table as a concept the BBC would have “stabbed to death hideously” after a string of committee meetings. “We know they’ll buy challenging work, so we’re not mitigating ideas before we even present them. And we’ve produced some pretty visceral images – but never gratuitous.”

One of Richard’s personal favourites is a Shameless poster where Frank Gallagher has ripped the ‘4’ logo off the wall and carried it off, leaving screw holes in the plaster. “It tells you nothing about Shameless and everything about Shameless; nothing about Channel 4 and everything about Channel 4,” he enthuses. “What other company would agree to have a space where their logo should be, and have it tucked under the arm of a villain?”

Likewise, you won’t find a morbidly obese Jamie Oliver wobbling after a bus, or Gordon Ramsey smashing junk food into mush with a baseball bat, in their respective shows. “Not one of our ads tells you the story of the show, but every one of them captures the spirit of the show,” reflects Richard. “I think that applies to any brand; that’s what advertising’s going to become. British Airways is a precursor of those; the first ad that didn’t say ‘our seat is bigger than their seat’ or some quantifiable element. It just owned an absolute generic of flying. You get to the other end, you meet people.”

It’s benign, but not too comfortable – Channel 4 can choose whether their in-house agency is best for the job, and 4Creative must pitch for work alongside rivals such as DDB, who handled the launch of More4. “There’s no coercion to use us, and they’re not cutting costs – we have incredibly healthy budgets.”

“Getting David LaChappelle to do Lost, we spent all the money you’d expect a big agency to spend. But we’re tiny: 18 people, split thirds between account handlers, production people and creatives. Then there’s massive use of freelancers, which means 35 people sitting in the office at any one time.”

Besides greater creative freedom from clients, Richard feels that a more democratic creative process all round can help ensure genuinely groundbreaking work. “The ad industry has an incredible division of labour,” he reflects. “Only an account man can do this, only a planner can do this, only a TV producer can do that. And I didn’t realise how debilitating that was until I came to a place where creativity is the job of everybody.”

Having worked on the other side of the divide, both at media agency CIA and selling airtime as Head of Sales at Discovery, Richard has seen plenty of noisy battles for the strategic high ground – and the resulting appreciation of what all parties want and need has helped build a culture of joined-up thinking.

“Direct marketing, ad agency, media agency, communications planning – everyone wants to boss the strategy,” he laments. “It’s like herding cats. As an industry we should never have allowed media to slip out of ad agencies. When I was there, the agencies could talk to the guys booking the space for a clear idea of what could and couldn’t be done. Now knowledge is fractured and fragmented.”

And in an increasingly multiplatform environment, so is the audience. Richard flags up the fact that Bullseye used to draw an audience of 23 million as something of an absurdity in the modern era – anything pulling in that many eyeballs on terrestrial television nowadays would be nothing short of a phenomenon. But while they may be carved into a greater number of niches, the numbers are still there.

“The television advertising industry has been useless at defending television,” he argues. “You’d think that nobody watches TV anymore, and everyone spends their life on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still fantastically robust, big numbers. But the sad truth is that most clients don’t want fantastic work. They want safe, box-ticking exercises. If you find someone that does, stick to them like glue.”

Richard took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Poetry in Motion

It made a refreshing change from tinsel-clad sprites and magical reindeer. Alongside staple fare such as The Snowman, a fresh lynchpin of Channel 4’s 2006 Christmas schedule was Suzie Templeton’s deliciously dark adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. An unsettling psychological study of a baleful-eyed boy and his lupine alter-ego, it used stop-motion puppetry with a mythical intensity that felt faithful to the yarn’s Eastern European roots.

“I thought it would take about a year. It took five,” reveals Suzie of her Bafta-winning opus. “Three years to raise the money, two years to write the script, and a year to make it. It turned into a massive production. I went from working on my own in a basement to working in Poland with a team of 100 people, communicating through a translator.”

Like so many before her, Suzie started her animation career at Farnham College. It was her second degree, and she was 29 when the course began: “I always felt that being older was in my favour,” she reflects. “I had to set higher standards; be braver and naughtier.” So she threw herself into her first stop-frame film, Stanley – spending many months crafting sets, models and puppets.

It was all going beautifully until the first day on set. “I thought, ‘Shit, what do I do now?’ I don’t know how to animate.’ So I just made it up as I went along, as we all do.” Suzie recounts her first, and last, walk cycle: “The character kept getting lower and lower to the ground,” she giggles. “So I just cut out all the walk cycles. In fact, I’ve never done a walk cycle since. I got away with it.”

Stanley was more than just a stepping-stone. Once complete, Suzie was so proud of her student project that she sent it out to over 100 festivals, and they didn’t just accept it into the programme – it started winning awards. Surfing on success and optimistic for her future as an animator, she went straight from Farnham into the Royal College of Art and vowed to widen her skills-base.

“Caroline Leaf came and gave a talk, and I thought I’d try sand animation – but it was just impossible,” she says of her self-confessedly “hopeless” first dabble in a new technique. “I thought I’d try something else, but I just wasn’t good at anything else. I went back and did another stop-motion film in my second year called Dog. It’s really, really dark.”

Signaling the birth of a unique style that initially made producers wary of disturbing their audience, but would eventually win her the Peter and the Wolf commission, Dog sprang from a disturbing episode that her ex-boyfriend’s father had had with his pet: “The vet messed it up, and it was awful,” recalls Suzie. “This grew out of that.”

And the fact that the stop-motion studio at the Royal College was in a dark basement with no radio signal could only add spice to the new style. “Someone lent me a Tom Waites tape: The Black Rider,” she adds. “That’s the only tape I had. Somehow, I think, the Black Rider is in that film.”

Suzie took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

When Harry met William

Animation as an art-form covers a vast spectrum, and if you have the skills to enhance footage with effects and 3D models then there’s scope to enter a thriving commercial industry. William Bartlett represents Framestore CFC, one of Soho’s foremost post-production houses.

Split into four divisions, the company handles effects for blockbusters such as X-Men, Harry Potter and Superman; feature-length animation, with upcoming mouse-flick The Tales of Despero in production; and long-form effects for TV series, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Finally, there’s the commercial division – for which William heads up the 2D effects and compositing departments.

“Directors come to us with an idea of what they want to see at the end, and we discuss what we can shoot, where we should use models, and what could be computer-generated,” he explains. “In other words, we tell them how to get the best from their money.” Clearly from this angle animation is less a creative hobby than a service industry, with rigid budgets, targets and timeframes.

Part of his job is to think outside the box for maximum effect, such as pouring weed-killer on plants, speeding up the footage and running it backwards to replicate super-fast growth in Guinness’ acclaimed devolution ad, noitulovE. Another quick-fix trick in the same ad involved shooting rising dough on a hot-plate, treated to resemble a rock formation – freeing up the 3D animation team to focus on dinosaurs and flying squirrels.

“I wanted to be an animator really, but didn’t realise that until rather too late,” laments William who, despite an interest in art at school, found himself studying Pure Maths. Experimenting with photography as a creative outlet, he took a Super-8 camera and some blobs of Plasticine and started animating dinosaurs: “I thought I’d become the next Ray Harryhousen.” It’s tempting to wonder whether Harryhousen, creator of wobbly stop-motion monster-flicks One Million Years BC and Sinbad the Sailor, would be correspondingly impressed by Walking with Dinosaurs.

Maintaining this interest in film and photography, after graduating he got a job as a runner in a motion control studio. Gradually, he began to drift down to the post-production department – fascinated by an enigmatic new editing machine called Harry. “It was this huge computer like a load of fridges,” he reminisces. “When I saw what it was doing, that mixture of technical and artistic, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

“I could create things without having to be especially creative myself; help people solve problems,” enthuses William – and here his mathematical background was perhaps influential. “My wife did the same job as me but studied Fine Art, and she always moaned about how restrictive it was using these things. I thought it was great.”

IMPOSSIBLE FIELD

One of Framestore’s most memorable ads is Adidas’ Impossible Field, where a handful of international football legends – including Beckham, Ballack and Raúl – take on contenders along the lines of a pitch, suspended in mid-air on metal bars.

“We were filming fast action on a number of cameras at once, cutting from one angle to another,” explains William. “That’s a problem for two reasons – you’re suspended in the air, which is complicated, and footballers didn’t have much time. There were also lots of problems with insurance, so we couldn’t do anything too dangerous.”

All of the actions were predetermined in a number of self-contained sequences – Beckham receives ball, flicks it over one contender, who falls off; kicks it into the chest of someone else, who also falls off; then jumps in the air and passes it.

These sequences were roughly animated first to determine the camera angles required. “The editor took these renders and edited a final sequence together, which was hugely helpful for planning the live-action blue-screen shoot. Time spent with real footballers was minimal.”

Back at Framestore, the overall geography of the match was pieced together – 3D pitch, ball and all.

ESUVEE

Essentially a public safety campaign, Esuvee was funded by the Ford Motor Company in the wake of a successful law suit against them by a woman who’d been seriously injured in an SUV accident. “Their advert said she could drive it like a sports car, she did, and it turned over,” is William’s summation. Ford’s advertising was deemed negligent, and part of their penance was to spend thousands of dollars encouraging safer driving.

The ads depict SUVs as powerful and dangerous creatures – part-car, part-beast – at a rodeo. “The idea was that if you’re good enough you can handle the power. It was an odd job,” he smiles. “Our clients were lawyers with very specific things to communicate.”

The first challenge at Framestore’s end was building the creature; a cross between a prehistoric mammoth and a modern day car, with headlight eyes and brake-lights in its ankles. The second was getting a rider to sit convincingly on top. “We did lots of tests with different strides – walking, running, trotting – and sat the person on a horse, a bull and a buffalo. We used a mechanical bull in the end; it was easier to control.”

William took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007 

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Different and Relevant

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Swimming upstream may get you noticed, but it doesn’t get much more extreme than reversing evolution. Fresh from scooping just about every accolade going, Ian Heartfield and Matt Doman argue that it’s not enough to do the best ad on television. You should aim to do the best thing on television.

A successful advert, proposes Ian, must be both different and relevant. Clearly, to stand out from the endless formulaic dross splashed across screens, spreads and billboards – and to stop us switching off, flipping over or walking by – there has to be that spark to jolt us out of our blissful numbness.

But peacocking and shock-and-awe tactics alone won’t sell products, and eventually we’ll become ever more desensitised – hence the need for relevance. Simple when you put it in black and white, but doing it well is a different story. And with portfolio highlights already including The Economist and The Samaritans, it was a brief for a certain black and white brand that really pushed this creative pair up to the next level.

Understandably, they’re a bit tired of talking about it. “A creative brain needs to do new stuff,” as Matt puts it: “Once it’s done it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.” So I’ll tip it a cursory mention and move on. But ignore it I can’t: settling into a glittering legacy that includes the spot widely acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time – Surfer – their work for Guinness picked up more awards than any of its predecessors. And despite being a UK campaign, it spread virally and got the international community pretty excited.

Matt and Ian are a rare example of a traditional Art Director and Copywriter team that have stayed together since college, the product of a matter-of-fact ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy. “If we weren’t doing anything good, we’d be mad and foolish to carry on with it,” reasons Matt. “If it runs out of energy, we’ll do something else. A lot of people work on their own now – there are no rules anymore.”

Straight after the highlight of their career, it’s fair to say it wasn’t broke. But when the praises for noitulovE had finished raining in, they decided to refresh things and left Abbott Mead Vickers for Fallon – the people behind the year’s other award-magnet, the stunning coloured balls idea for Sony Bravia directed by Nicolai Fuglsig.

Such is the nature of the industry; an ongoing cycle of talent to avoid stagnation. McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy have all enjoyed their creative input – AMV the biggest by a stretch, with three times as many teams as Fallon. “The time was right for us to leave,” reflects Ian. “The industry average is three years. Clients do stuff on a yearly basis; by the third year you’re ready to move on.”

At its best, British advertising leads the world. You’d be hard pushed to find such subtle humour, surrealism and cinematic vision elsewhere. But then, we would say that – it’s aimed at us. “I’m going to prefer British advertising because it talks to me in a way that wouldn’t be relevant in America,” reasons Matt. “Likewise, their stuff is less relevant to me.”

Still, we must be doing something right. In an international judging panel’s pick of the best advertising last year, the top five were from London. “We started doing advertising before a lot of countries,” is his theory. “We have to be more advanced because we’re more ad-literate. People expect more.”

Boundaries can help: without a box it’s hard to think outside of it, and the BACC keeps them on their toes. “When there’s something in your way you have to get around it, which leads to more creative thinking,” Ian suggests. “Maybe it is easy to chuck a granny out of a car, but if you can’t do that you have to think of more sophisticated ways to make people laugh.”

Let’s not forget what the industry’s all about, though – as a creative it’s all too easy to applaud an ad that ticks the same boxes that an experimental short or cult comedy might. Top up their production budget with a spot of blatant product placement and, for a discerning British audience at least, both of those would sacrifice kudos. But no amount of sweeping camera shots, razor-sharp wit and glittering post-production will appease the client if their ad doesn’t also build the brand and shift the merchandise.

“We are glorified door-to-door salesmen, and our job is to flog stuff,” is Matt’s simple summation. “If an ad is good and well-liked, and sells a lot of things, then industry awards should follow that. Not the other way around. Someone’s not going to afford you a reasonably healthy budget and put faith in you if you’re not giving them results.”

“The only reason we can make the films we love is because some client somewhere is putting a lot of money down in order to sell a product. That’s the whole reason we exist,” agrees Ian. Of course, some ads serve another purpose – and one that stands out from his childhood planted a picture of a ‘natural-born smoker’ with tiny nostrils and shrunken fingers into his subconscious. “I was absolutely terrified and never smoked,” he reveals. “I’d like to think that stopped some thirteen-year-old lad from picking up a cigarette.”

Years later, as it happened, he was to work on an anti-smoking brief of his own. “It was in a child’s handwriting: ‘If you smoke, I smoke,’” describes Matt. “And hearing people recite that in the supermarket, and knowing that it may have made someone stop and think twice, is a really good thing.”

While many aspiring directors or scriptwriters slip into advertising to make a few bucks before moving on, both stress that this is the medium that inspires them – a sense of belief and belonging that could explain why these creative pioneers, both still in their early thirties, have already enjoyed so much success. Whilst studying Graphic Design and Advertising at Buckinghamshire College, one particular tutor advised all his students not to go into an industry where 250 applicants fight for each place. But as Matt puts it, that was like telling a kid not to stick his finger in a plug socket.

“We just really like doing ads,” he shrugs. “That’s the reason we give over most of our lives to things that interrupt good programmes on telly, or good articles in magazines. You’ve got a TV or cinema screen, a website, a magazine or a building – a means of communicating with what could be millions of people – and you’re given this opportunity to tell them something. You’re competing with the best of everything, and you’re trying to steer people away from the story. You’ve got to stop them making the tea.”

That’s exactly what Surfer did to Ian – little did he know he’d be tasked with carrying on its legacy a few years down the line. “I was walking from the lounge to the kitchen, and the soundtrack started,” he recalls. “I stopped and stared.” Music is enormously important: try listening to the delicate beauty of Heartbeats by José González without avalanches of colour filling your mind, or Sammy Davis Jr’s Rhythm of Life without the world devolving before your eyes.

Back to those two key principles. If you’re shuffling towards the kettle, both songs are vibrant, exciting and poles apart from what usually fills the ad break. Turn round and the stunning visuals hit you – for the former an extravagant and ambitious one-take gamble, for the latter an extraordinary amount of post-production by anyone’s standards. It’s fair to say you have the viewers’ attention, and all it takes are the now legendary taglines to bring relevance – ‘Colour. Like no other’ and ‘Good things come to those who wait.’

Part of the unique appeal of the medium is the challenge of doing all that in an extremely tight timeframe. “I’m a big fan of the climate of discipline,” says Ian. “Telling a story in thirty seconds is an artform in itself.” And depending on the brief, you could be talking to anyone from a disgruntled teen to a discerning trendsetter – and you need to know your audience. “Most of my inspiration comes from sitting outside a coffee shop and listening to people’s conversations,” he confesses: “Just being a nosy bastard, really.”

Whether or not an ad literally tells a story, it needs to have a kernel that remains effective when all else is stripped away – which more often than not becomes its tagline. It has to pitch convincingly in a sentence: post-production and technology can add sheen, but at its core a great advert needs a great idea.

“Have an idea, then make it ten, twenty, thirty times better before you make it happen,” is Ian’s advice. “Don’t just see a technique and try to shoe-horn it into a product. You can get seduced into things looking really good, but not using them for the right reason.”

Similarly with new technology: to be effective, a medium should channel an idea; a means to an end, not the end itself. “The danger is that colleges tell students that people aren’t interested in big Press or TV ads. They want virals; web stuff; stunts; ambient things – if that’s what they get as feedback, then everyone does that by default. We’ve had students showing us stuff where there isn’t really an idea to start with. You can’t miss the idea out because the other stuff is easy.”

In fact, for new entrants scratching at the door of the industry, live by the principles of a successful advert: be different, so long as you can make it relevant. “A team a year above us at college spotted that no-one wanted to do radio advertising,” recalls Ian by way of example. “It was seen as a poor relation; no-one in London was working in radio.”

“They had no intention of doing it long-term but they did loads and loads of scripts, and sure enough got a job in a top London agency as the radio team. They got hired, half the other students didn’t, and when they were there they could move into other areas. They’ve done very well.” Surprisingly few creative people, he observes, apply the same lateral thought process to their career as they do to their work.

One of a shrinking number of creative teams still split into Art Director and Copywriter, they’re taking their own advice and swimming upstream – and with most colleges advising students to call themselves ‘concept teams’ they urge anyone coming up from underneath to maintain a point of difference wherever possible. “Think about selling yourself,” is Ian’s advice. “Obviously you need the work to back it up, but you can’t do anything in advertising unless you’ve got a job.”

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

The Art of Kids’ TV

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“If anybody thinks that children’s television is just an easy way in, forget it. It’s harder,” declares Anne Wood. She’s somewhat of an authority on the subject, and not only because she’s worked with children in various capacities for 40-odd years.

As founder and Creative Director of Warwickshire-based Ragdoll, Anne has launched a bewildering array of timeless classics, from Pob in the early days through to Rosie & Jim, Brum and Tots TV, not to mention that colourful quartet of aerial-headed custard lovers who have hugged, skipped and said ‘eh-oh’ in 120 countries.

Teletubbies was the result of thirty years’ experience and experimentation: a lot of people have tried to imitate it, but they’ve fallen flat,” she observes. Her voice is soft and motherly: she’s not being arrogant, she’s stating a fact.

Coursing through the veins of any potential Ragdoll employee should be passion about children’s TV as an art-form on a par with children’s literature – not to be sidelined.

“This is the most challenging of all forms of television, and you have to be really, really interested in your audience,” Anne insists. “Making a programme for a two-year-old is very different from making one for a twelve-year-old.”

Anne’s obvious fondness for the region she now calls home gives her programmes added warmth: all of them have been filmed in the Midlands, from the chugging canal boats of Rosie & Jim and the ‘big city’ of Brum to the lush, bunny-strewn mounds of Teletubbyland.

“Personnel here – editors, camerapeople – are as good as anywhere,” she asserts. “We’ll go for the best people wherever they come from, but lots of them are local. This is a buoyant, enterprising place; I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

From valiant little motorcars to loveable toys, Ragdoll’s iconic characters over the last two decades have all been eminently touchable. And while she’s keen to embrace the potential of CGI, Anne maintains that successful programmes should always be character-led. To command global influence from the rural Midlands, quirky originality makes all the difference.

Some of the creative gauntlets that Ragdoll have run – the ‘again… again…’ repeat gimmick in Teletubbies she dubs an “outrageous” risk – couldn’t have been justified to shareholders, but then as a proudly-declared “family business” this isn’t one of their concerns.

“We’re a small company in a big world; we may seem influential in the Midlands but look at Warner Studios and Disney – these are our competitors. Still, people will always come and see what we’re doing because we’re unpredictable. It’s quite a thing to sustain, and all our profits have been put back into research and development.”

When Ragdoll discover talent they make sure it’s put to good use. Take writer, producer and performer Robin Stevens: involved with the company since its conception in 1984, he’s voiced Pob, Jim, Tom from Tots TV and Grandpappa in Boobah, and is soon set to appear in front of the lens as well.

“I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we’re a closed shop, but if we get someone who’s multi-talented we’ll keep working with them,” reasons Anne.

“We don’t teach: we’re all about learning, but in terms of exploring life imaginatively. If you make a child laugh, it means they’ve understood something,” is her philosophy. “It’s the interest in what we’re doing that drives us. It’s not saved us much money, but we’re still having a very good time.”

© Nick Carson 2005. First published as part of an industry focus on TV in the Midlands, in Issue 1 of TEN4 magazine