Saturday, 27 October 2007

Telly Selly Time #1: Castle's On the Air

If you're anything like me, any mention by rolled-up suits of the 'art' of advertising is enough to drive you nuts. Not necessarily due to sound political ideals (in fact, more of a general low-level nonspecific irritation than anything else), a firm belief was ingrained on our generation that nothing made to flog cold cocoa and wing nuts can even pretend to aspire to the levels of pure-spun art, like Picasso's Guernica or the Captain Zep theme. But sometimes an ad comes along that makes you wonder. Take a look at this commercial break from 1980, in particular the second ad in:

Nothing too remarkable about the elements here - a Geoff Love-ish backing over some reliably grainy 'living catalogue' vignettes with a spot of 'here are our hard-working girls' Real People Showcasing for good populist measure. Obviously the involvement of Roy Castle, never knowingly giving less than 110% percent of his considerable self, is a hint that things might get a little bit special, as is Woolies' track record with big Christmas extravaganza ads. (This isn't Christmas-specific of course, but it still overreaches your standard commercial by some way.) But this is somewhat mightier than even this promising pedigree would suggest. Let's start from the top.

"Sis finds Cover Plus the right paint and saves money on the white paint,
Larry carries ladders round with ease."

How the hell do you approach an opening line like that? We don't know how long Roy had to prepare his little bit of dialogue situation, but the nameless writer's doing him no favours here. Straight off the bat with what amounts to a tongue twister that's bad enough to speak, let alone sing along to a tune it doesn't even fit properly. But Castle, who may well only have seen this song hours or even minutes before the recording session, breezes through it with aplomb, refusing to make a meal of that hideous 'right paint/white paint' conjuncture and skating as nimbly as is possible over that mis-stressed 'and'. In fact, getting through the line intact, without fumbling a syllable or sounding like you're about to burst with scary madness, is no mean feat. All water of a Castle's back, you suppose, but the way he sinks down into the next line ('...with eeeeeeaaaase!') with such relish signifies that maybe Roy is as glad to see the back of it as we are.

Oh, and 'sis'? What's going on here? Either this woman is Roy's sister (which she isn't), or called 'Sissy' (which seems unlikely) or she's sibling to Larry, aka Jacko's mate off of Brush Strokes. But - spoiler alert! - at the end of the ad we see them cutely painting each other's noses in what can only be taken to be A PLAYFUL PRELUDE TO GETTING IT ON. Where this leaves Cover Plus is unclear. Anyway, time enough to pick that shit apart on Thursday's Kaleidoscope, as we're straight into the next vignette:

"He gets all the help he needs from his long extension lead,
And Fiona's
Flymo mower's sure to please."

Things are looking up in the lyrical department. Not only is this couplet something Roy can actually sing along to the tune he's been given, but the first line even has a bit of rhythmic bounce to it. Granted, this is all but done in by that wrong-footing 'Flymo mowers' howler, but you can't have everything. Roy sensibly eases back and takes it easy here, as he knows what's coming next, and it ain't pretty.

"This growing board
Even Jill can carry,
Just ad water - wow! - and Harry
Finds going straight for Woolies value really pays."

What in God's name is going on here? No sooner have we been introduced to the delectable Fiona and her mower in a change of scenery, then the camera's whipped away from her (bet she fumed to her agent when she saw the final cut) and plonked in a greenhouse, with Castle's breathless 'THIS GROWING BOARD!!!' scaring the shit out of everyone. It takes something special to make Roy Castle sound terrifying, but shouting 'THIS GROWING BOARD!!!' far too loud and far too fast because the idiot songwriter can't fit all the products into three verses just about manages it. It'd work for anyone. Imagine walking down a dark alley when Richard Briers leaps out from the shadows, bellowing 'THIS GROWING BOARD!!!' at the top of his honeyed voice. You'd run, wouldn't you?

It gets worse yet. You can see what they've tried to do with the next bit, splitting it up 'cleverly' over the stanza from 'carry' to 'Harry', but such winsome precociousness just hasn't the clout to register, what with 'THIS GROWING BOARD!!!' still ringing in our ears, and the whole thing just sounds like what it is, a muddled mess. Still, good on Roy for managing, in the middle of an unstoppable upward crescendo, to give that 'wow!' a seperate emphasis without derailing the rhythm, or giving himself a hernia.

"Everybody needs a Woolworth's store these days."

And relax! This is Larry's Easy Ladder times ten, as Roy, clearly feeling the burn in that wretched greenhouse, slips into the vocal equivalent of a velour lounge suit with undisguised gratitude. Also, note Jacko's mate winding up his extension lead to the left of the greenhouse. Are all these people supposed to be living together? What a strange extended family this is proving to be.

"This super switch-off kettle is what switches on Samantha."

At last, a quality lyric! Neither too clever nor too gallumphing, the easy alliteration enables Roy to bounce along after he's got his breath back from that regrettable episode of moments earlier. He's genuinely enthused - note how his native accent pushes its way past the transatlantic crooner stylings for the word 'kettle'. It's as if Roy's as excited about the kettle as Samantha clearly is. And why not?

"Brian's Binatone is great for his cassettes."

Another lyrical blinder seals this ad's greatness. Note the change in Roy's voice from desperation to admiration. He's sweated and strained over this song's many irritating quirks, and now his reward is some of the finest rhythmic poetry these Isles have yet produced. A newfound respect grows between composer and singer. This is MUSIC, people!

The rest of the commercial is relatively routine, tidying up the incestuous relations of the Woolies' DIY family (hopefully Social Services were alerted to Jill's predicament before it was too late), panning across some Chevron cassettes, a bloke with a dubbed on bass voice, which was considered inherently hilarious throughout the '70s and well into the '80s (Obie Benson of the Four Tops was well pissed off). Oh, and some strangely manic laughter over a cup of tea from a couple who are either so helplessly in love with each other every workaday act is filled with deranged mutual glee, or are dangerously unhinged and are about to borrow Larry's power tools to slaughter each other, and maybe Fiona as well if she's foolish enough to stick her pleasing Flymo nose round the door. Woolies would go on to grander things, peaking in the popular consciousness with Joe Brown's gargantuan concept meisterwerk, It's The Latest Greatest Ever More Spectacular Woolworth's Christmas Show, or Sales from Topographic Oceans as it's known in the trade. But those prog behemoths never matched the simple, freewheeling showbiz glamour of Roy Castle and the Homemakers, effortlessly evocative of the time a trip to Woolies was a real event, every store an Alladin's cave with pick-'n'-mix by the door, records at the back and, if you were lucky, Mark Hyland's sister who worked as Saturday girl on the third floor would let you and your mates sit on the swing seats when the manager was out. A lost era. Do they still sell growing boards, even?


LF Barfe said...

Have you ever seen James Bolam's slightly sinister power tools ad for Asda? Patting his back pockets and looking like he's going to use that drill to commit a murder...

LF Barfe said...

Is that Daniel Kitson in the greenhouse?

Phil Norman said...

I've never seen the Bolam ads, they sound sweet.

Am I the only one who's always vaguely equated Bolam with Mark E Smith in some nebulous, second-uncle-twice-removed way? I bet if you got them both to do an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? they'd find themselves meeting up in the same Public Records Office, a camera crew each in tow, within the first quuarter hour.

A Kitten in a Brandy Glass said...

And then a discreetly permed local historian would tell they both that they are the secret love children of Truman Capote.

Clair said...

Oh my God. I think I've just come. That were great....