Back in the 70s a beer war was raging within the British brewing industry. Traditional beers were being surpassed by lagers coming over from the continent. The advertising agency I was with was commissioned to market and promote the virtues of traditional bitter beer through a nationwide television campaign. Research showed that the image of bitter beer was traditional, working man, honest and local to the area it was brewed in. We interviewed many candidates for the main character in the commercials but none seemed to fit. Then it hit me about Fred who although a personal friend and at that time unknown on television he exactly fitted the character we were looking for.
The next day I went round to see him in Bolton and popped the question. Being typically Fred he asked: "Do I get free beer?" He then put his hand to his chin and mused for a bit, as Fred does. "How much do I get?" I gave him a ballpark figure. "Bloody helI," he said, "Yeh, yeh, yeh, go on, l'll do it.” He then chuckled: "Fancy being paid for what amounts to a piss-up in a brewery."
We drew up a storyboard using the music background of "Right Said Fred". The commercial was to show him with his pit props burning down a chimney, then in the pub enjoying a pint, with Fred's voice-over at the end saying: "After a hard day's work there's nothing better than a pint of Local Bitter." We then fine-tuned the storyboard and produced layouts for supporting press and poster ads, plus point- of-sale etc, and presented to the client - who liked it. We finally researched the proposed commercial with target consumer groups and they identified with Fred and the campaign message. So it was all systems go - make the commercial.
Fred found a big chimney that could demolised for the filming and we selected one of the brewery's best traditional pubs in the localty and dressed it up. Then with one of the best jingle writers in London the Right Said Fred jingle was created. If I can remember all those years back accurately, I think we used Anthony Newley's voice, but I'm not absolutely sure.
Then a big setback. The ITCA, the Government watchdog at the time for television commercials, insisted that Fred would have to wear a hard hat when knocking down the chimney. Definitely not his cap. Fred was adamant: “l'm not bloody prancing round on television with a poncey hard hat on," he remonstrated. So that was it. Everything was on hold.
We did a bit of research and came to the conclusion that Fred would still add a lot of value to the campaign even in a hard hat. After a lot of persuading sitting in his parlour at night with bottles of Guinness and with the wisdom of his first wife, Alison, Fred finally agreed to wear the hard hat. We were paying him a lot of money at the time and I think he genuinely needed it.
The big day came for the shoot. Fred had prepared the chimney the night before, with all the props and tyres for burning in place. We had done some pre-scene close- ups of Fred and Donald jack-hammering the bricks out. Luckily the shoot went without a hitch. Halfway through the burning bit, which was creating a massive pall of black smoke belching out of the top of the stricken chimney and floating right over Warrington, the fire brigade turned up thinking there was a major fire. The chimney came down right on cue with an end shot of Fred standing on top of a pile of smoking bricks like Napoleon who had just won a battle and was surveying the scene. Unfortunately, he just didn't look right in that hard hat. We were over running on time, so it was decided to shoot the pub interior shots on the next day, which was a Saturday.
The next morning Fred turned up with a new clean cap and all smartened up, complete with his waistcoat and watch chain. He said that he liked to have his pint in pubs looking smart: it was the done thing at weekends and, anyway, his wife had already washed the clothes he wore yesterday. We explained that it was vital to have continuity. The pub scene was supposed to happen only minutes after he'd felled the chimney! He had to look as if he had just felled it with the same dirty clothes on. It wasn't Fred's fault. The continuity people had not explained properly the sequence of the shooting.
The original plan was to shoot the chimney and pub sequences on the same day but things were delayed and time got short. We were also shooting back-to-back, making a second commercial at the same time involving his steam roller and workshop, with another selected pub in the country where he would be more smartly dressed, complete with waistcoat and chain, which was very important to him. It was confusing as some scenes had to be shot out of sequence.
Everything had to be put on hold while we whisked Fred back to Bolton to grab some suitable working clothes. They were not exactly the same as the ones he wore the day earlier but we could get away with it shooting close showing just head and shoulders at the bar with a pint of the hallowed product. We got it all in the can and after managing to extract Fred from the pub, which is always a bit of a strategic exercise as everybody wants to chat to him and he becomes everyone's friend, it was off to a sound studio to record Fred's voice-over. This is where the real problem started. For some reason Fred could not get his mouth round the script. All he had to say was 'after a hard day's work, there is nothing better than a pint of Greenall's Local Bitter. He could say the first bit but couldn't get the ending right. I finally had to sit in the cubicle and try to prompt him. He kept on asking for another bottle of Guinness, saying it would loosen him up a bit.
By this time he had done about 20 takes, possibly more, I can't remember exactly. What I do remember was ending up legless as he was giving me a bottle of Guinness every time he had one. Finally he announced; "I'm no good at reading from bits of bloody paper. Let me say it my own way. I'Il have to stand up and do it." So we let him do his own thing. By this time he was well away with the Guinness and went straight into a monologue and rambled on and wouIdn't stop - and, to make things worse, he kept on describing how good Guinness was.
By the end of the session, which I think was about midnight, everybody in the studio was Iegless. They reckoned that they could piece some good bits together and possibly make a coherent sentence out of it. When you watch Fred presenting on television today, it is difficult to believe that he had so much trouble delivering such a short sentence all those years ago, but I think we found the reason only weeks after the campaign had run. The television campaign started two weeks later and it turned out to be very popular. Watching on the box at home I couldn't believe what a great commercial it turned out to be, considering all the problems. Even Fred's gravelly voice-over sounded spontaneous and sincere. The overall campaign itself was a resounding success ........ but it was short-lived!
At about the same time the BBC had started a series about Fred. The first one was based on his trip with the roller and living van to the Chelford steam rally. Every time they stopped outside a pub and Fred went for a pint, it was in a Tetley's house and he drank and appeared to be relishing Tetley's beer. Now Tetley's were the main competitor to the brewery whose bitter we were advertising. Nothing was said at first. I had a suspicion that the BBC, not wishing to be associated with any commercial advertising Fred was involved with, steered him clear of our client's pubs. Unfortunately it kept on happening and questions were beginning to be asked, especially from our clients. It was extremely embarrassing from the advertising agency's point of view, so I went and collared Fred and asked him what was going on. "WeII, I can't stand the bloody stuff its like gnat's piss" he said. "But you made a television commercial and took the money for it," I reasoned.
"Yeh, but you didn't say that I would have to like and drink the bloody stuff for the rest of my Iife," - which, of course, was absolutely true. Fred insisted that he told me at the time that he preferred other beers. Which, of course, he did, but I didn't worry over much as I knew his favourite tipple was Guinness anyway. To be fair to the brewery, we did conduct some blind beer tasting tests in various venues within their trading area. In each case three bitter beers were tasted without the tasters knowing which beers they were trying. The beers were GreenalI's Local Bitter, Tetley's Bitter, and I am not sure who produced the third one. The result of the tests, which were quite extensive, showed that few tasters could identify specific brands. The conclusion was that it was perception and image rather than actual taste that popularised a particular brand. Fred's reasoning was that he didn't realise at the time he had to be committed to liking the beer to be in a commercial. Knowing him, I had to admit that, from his point of view, he was right.
There was a simple honesty about Fred, and this was why he had great difficulty with the voice-over and we had to do so many takes. So that was dear Fred and the end of his association with that particular brewery and very nearly all the agencies.
Roger's Reminiscences - The beer commercial
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray