Friday, 25 February 2011

Son of Sooty

This was first published in Campaign magazine on 18th February 2011 a week after my dad passed away. Writing it was quite a moving, but cathartic experience.

When people discover I’m my father’s son the first question they ask is whether he encouraged me to go into the same business as him. I always answer no. Because he didn’t.

However, whilst it is true that at no point did he ever sit me down and say: “You know son, you’d like this advertising malarkey. It’s great fun. You should try it”, looking back on it I’m not really sure I had much of a choice as to what profession to enter at all. As far as the nature/nurture debate goes I reckon I got right-royally nurtured.

My first contact with the business was a frustrating one. At the age of three I’d try and draw with these massive stubby yellow pencils we had lying around the house. After wearing the big black tips away I gave up and moved on to crayons. I say crayons. They were actually Chinagraphs. It was either that or the enormous box of Magic Markers. Ahh, the scent of petrol still reminds me of home.

As soon as I was old enough I was dragged along to TV shoots with him. Inexpensive child-care. I remember being rather nonplussed by these on the whole. I’d have rather been gluing an Airfix model.

The first one I visited, I realised years later, was momentous. It was for Texaco. Together on the same sound stage were Morcambe and Wise, the biggest comedians of the day, James Hunt, the current Formula 1 World Champion, and Alan Parker, the creator of Bugsy Malone, every child’s favourite film at the time.

I saw other ads being made through childhood. Like the one for ITT televisions, starring Spike Milligan, who had to, rather excitingly, crash through a massive sheet of sugar glass. Repeatedly.

And the one for Rawlings Tonic Water with Arthur Lowe (Captain Manwaring in Dad’s Army!) that featured one of my favourite endlines of all time. Rawlings was invented before Schweppes, hence the line: ‘We knew how before you know who.’

Holidays had him lying by the pool, scribbling on sheets and sheets of paper. And on weekends, when Chelsea wasn’t playing at home, he’d hide away in the front room re-writing that week’s scripts.

He regularly used us, his family, as a sounding board. He’d read out scripts and if we laughed he took it as a good sign. My mother was a hard taskmaster. My brother, sister and I were pushovers. We found everything he said funny.

I remember him spending months writing scripts for Cinzano. He wanted a cool James Bond style character together with a glamorous ‘Joan Collins type’ woman. The clearance body of the time kept turning his suggestions for the male lead, Sean Connery etc, down, sighting them as being ‘heroes of the young’. He changed tack, deciding to try the anti-hero approach. He started writing for someone slimy and deliberately un-cool someone like Woody Allen, who I thought was hilarious. One Sunday he read us his latest idea, for the guy to look at his watch and spill the drink on the gorgeous girl as if to accentuate his idiocy. Mum chuckled. (He always loved Marx Brothers style sight gags and she’d heard him use that joke (probably too many times) at parties.) That was good enough for him and thus began one of the most famous campaigns in history.

He loved radio and once read us out a radio script that had me wetting myself with laughter. It was for Bergasol fast acting sun lotion and had a white presenter applying the stuff and while doing so his voice changing gradually to African. He was a great mimic and could have done the voices himself but had it recorded by the Idi Amin impressionist John Bird. It ran. Sold tons of bottles. And had loads of complaints. All from white people.

Throughout my childhood I’d have relatives squeeze my cheek and ask: “So, young man, you going to follow in you father’s footsteps then? Go into the family business?” This left me determined not to.

However, the clincher came one Easter holiday when, as an annoying 13 year old, he took me into work with him to get me out from under my mother’s feet. We drove into Soho, to the fledgling Wight Collins Rutherford Scott offices in Great Pulteney Street. There were only about 25 people working there at the time, all, as Campaign described them, ‘superstars’. I worked as a runner collecting prints from gypsy Joe’s Basement and mechanicals from Studio 10 as well as taking stuff round the creative department to get signed off. The buzz at the place was electric. After two days my mind was made up. This was the business I wanted to spend my life in.

After the holidays I told my parents I was leaving school and going into advertising. My mum rolled her eyes. My dad simply suggested I chat to someone he knew who also worked in advertising. I spent an hour on the phone to a bloke called Dave Trott, who talked cold, logical sense. He persuaded me not to leave school there and then, but to go to college and get a decent job at the end of it.

My parents divorced when I was 16, leaving me resentful and more determined than ever not to ‘follow in my father’s footsteps’. So I decided to rebel. To be my own man. No, not as far as to go into medicine. I decided to become a writer, as opposed to an art director like him. As if that would make all the difference.

Realisation of the extent of my father’s reputation came on my first day on the Hounslow copywriting course. A lecturer told us what we could expect from the cut-throat and uncaring industry we were entering. In hushed tones he relayed the story of a horrific adman who brutally critted a student’s book with a Sooty puppet. I didn’t tell my classmates that the Sooty puppet was mine for fear of being ritually kicked to shit on behalf of students everywhere.

Every now and then Ron would call up and ask what I was up to. One time I made the mistake of actually telling him. I had just finished an entry for the D&AD student awards. I’d photographed it, done the type, got it all looking beautiful. He gently suggested a tweak that might make the headline better. I said I liked it the way it was. After all I’d bloody finished it off! It was about to get sent off. So I didn’t change it. I came nowhere in that competition. He was right. That experience taught me a lesson: never worry about how late you are in the process or how finished up stuff is. There’s always a chance to improve on something.

When my partner Mary Wear and I were looking for our first job out of college I again was determined to keep my lineage a secret. I was paranoid about accusations of nepotism and didn’t want the run the risk of people giving me special treatment because they might be friends of Ron’s. Hah! I needn’t have worried.

The week after we were offered a job at FCB Campaign ran an article headlined: Another Collins joins Dynasty. I was rumbled. We suddenly had a steady stream of visitors to our office, each with their own unique description of him. “I worked with your dad once. He was a complete f*****g b*****d. A total c**t.” Then, as I was reaching for my coat, they would finish by saying “But by Christ did I learn a lot from him.”.

After that I was more relaxed when people asked me about him. I’d proved that I could do it by myself. And there was no denying that whilst Ron was undoubtedly an utter git to many people, he was also, undoubtedly a huge talent. And I was proud of him whatever people’s opinion.

He left advertising a year after I joined it, which I always felt was a shame. However there was an upside. I never had to experience the ignominy of the two of us being nominated for the same award and watching him walk to collect it. Small mercies.

I’m sure if becoming an estate agent would have made me happy, my father would have been too. Whilst I ended up in the same racket as my old man, his lasting advice to me is applicable to any profession: “Just do your best. No one can ever ask for anything more.” To this day that’s all I’ve ever asked of myself. Or anyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Well done D. So sorry to hear about your Dad.
    Big hugs
    Tess xx