Archive for the ‘people’ Category
Visitors to the National Gallery of Australia have been asked to take off all their clothes before they can view James Turrell: A Retrospective, an exhibition which celebrates Turrell’s work with light and colours. About 50 people at a time duly stripped to attend the show which ran after hours on April 1st and 2nd and was emphatically not, the Gallery insisted, an April Fool’s joke.
Viewing art naked as a way to remove the last material barrier between artist and audience was a favourite idea of Turrell’s, who first introduced it in Japan, where an unclad audience viewed one of his “Perceptual Cells”. When Turrell, now 70, suggested to the National Gallery in Melbourne that they give the notion a try, they asked well-known absurdist artist Stuart Ringholt, who is based in the city, to guide the unclothed tours.
Ringholt was enthusiastic. ‘Intellectually’, he says, ‘it’s an interesting idea, nudity. …Turrell’s work is minimal — he doesn’t work with materials like clay, paint and other traditional materials: he just works with light.’ He quotes Turrell, ‘Light is very difficult to shape. You end up shaping everything around it.’ Precisely why, says Ringholt, these immersive light installations are best experienced without clothes.
Indeed, looking at images of clothed people bathed in the colours of Turrell’s Ganzfield Room, their clothes seem banal, almost ridiculous. It is easy to imagine how subtle and enchanting would be the play of light on bare bodies.
Clothing, Ringholt told a reporter from Australia’s NewsCorp, is a kind of second skin, a barrier which itself carries colour and thus doubly overwhelms the direct relationship of light and body. ‘The nude viewer is reduced to just themselves, because there is no second skin… the body can [directly] feel the vibration to colour.’
Looking at pictures of the nude audience inside the exhibit, it is hard to dispute that they are beautiful and this beauty has little to do with body shape or size. Rather it is a sort of serenity that comes from having overcome embarrassment and fear of the body.
Only when you stop trying to be beautiful do you discover that you already are.
That’s what I take out of it, anyway, even though I am far too repressed to give it a try myself.
But look, in this gathering of people made innocent and vulnerable by having shed their protective layers it is only the fully-clothed gallery attendant who seems ill-at-ease.
Stuart Ringholt (born 1971, Perth) has had solo exhibitions at institutions such as Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; and Club Laundromat, New York. His major group exhibitions include Melbourne Now, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2014); The Last Laugh, apexart, New York (2013); and dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany (2013). He is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Ringholt has led many nude art tours, partly because ‘It is against the law to be nude in public in Australia, and by being nude you are breaking the law: but because we closed the museum to a certain few, it becomes private space and also a space of protest.’
Having the courage to disrobe in public, he says, is also a stance against sexism and a culture of sexualisation: ‘We’re actually less sexualised with our clothes off — when you’re clothed, it engages the imagination: there is something very sexy about a beautiful ankle in a beautiful shoe, or clothing that frames the body beautifully. Whereas when it’s all out, people start focusing on the face — it’s no longer about the butt, the hairy bits and the nipples.’
However, as he explained to the Newscorp reporter, ‘There are always more younger women than younger men, because younger men are very fearful of getting shrinkage.’
Ringholt’s video Helen Lane (2009), filmed in a lane outside his North Melbourne studio, was featured for four years on Blip.tv before the site decided that it didn’t meet its terms of service. The excellent article on Ringholt at Frieze magazine, describes the video thus: “a thin man precariously grasps at the handle of a ‘Wacka-Packa’, (a powerful motorized device typically used for compacting earth on construction sites), that thuds across the lane releasing shards of cobblestone and sending the tree attached to its top into orgasmic quivers. The… video is, quite simply, absurd.”
James Turrell (born May 6, 1943) is an American artist primarily concerned with light and space. Turrell was a MacArthur Fellow in 1984. Turrell is best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater, a natural cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona that he is turning into a massive naked-eye observatory. (Source, with no trace of irony: Wikipedia)
It was fifty-one years ago today, give or take a few days. In the week of 4 April 1964, The Beatles were solidly encamped at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100. They occupied slots #1 – #5 with a further seven songs scattered lower down the chart. Can’t Buy Me Love was their third consecutive US No. 1, a feat which remains unique in the history of the chart. The following week, two more Beatles singles entered the list.
On April 5th Billboard ran a story “Chart crawls with Beatles”. Written by Jack Maher and Tom Noonan (who had launched the Hot 100 six years earlier) its opening words were “Just about everyone. is tired of the Beatles.”
“Disk jockeys are tired of playing the hit group. The writers of trade and consumer publication articles are tired of writing about them and the manufacturers of product other than the Beatles are tired of hearing about them. Everyone’s tired of the Beatles – except the listening and buying public.”
I remember that time very well. Like many another Beatle-inspired teenager I’d been given a guitar for my fourteenth birthday and was learning to play it. It was an old acoustic finished in shiny red lacquer. Its metal strings cut my fingertips to pieces, but the pain was nothing compared to the pleasure of being able, after laborious practice, to shape chords, change from one to another without long pauses in between and hold each in turn down long enough to strum a semblance of a Beatles song.
Here are the songs that so delighted us half a century ago. Click the labels to hear them.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
“Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.”
“Books must be treated with respect, we feel that in our bones, because words have power. Bring enough words together they can bend space and time.”
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”
“People aren’t just people, they are people surrounded by circumstances.”
“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”
“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?”
Death thought about it.
CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE.”
“Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly, in purple. In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.”
“It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing.”
“He’d been wrong, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”
“Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.”
“It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.”
“The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.”
“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
“Nanny Ogg knew how to start spelling ‘banana’, but didn’t know how you stopped.”
“You’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs any more,” said Yo-less. “It’s speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.”
“Mind you, the Elizabethans had so many words for the female genitals that it is quite hard to speak a sentence of modern English without inadvertently mentioning at least three of them.”
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”
“I don’t hold with paddlin’ with the occult,” said Granny firmly. “Once you start paddlin’ with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you’re believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble.”
“But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.
“That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.”
“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”
“His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools — the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans — and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, ‘You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”
“It’s going to look pretty good, then, isn’t it,” said War testily, “the One Horseman and Three Pedestrians of the Apocalypse.”
“You can’t map a sense of humour. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs. ”
“The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish.”
“The trouble is you can shut your eyes but you can’t shut your mind.”
“The entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.”
“The purpose of this lectchoor is to let you know where we are. We are in the deep cack. It couldn’t be worse if it was raining arseholes. Any questions?”
“Using a metaphor in front of a man as unimaginative as Ridcully was like a red flag to a bu… was like putting something very annoying in front of someone who was annoyed by it.”
“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos were lightning, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting ‘All Gods are bastards.”
“Everywhere I look, I see something holy.”
“The gods of the Disc have never bothered much about judging the souls of the dead, and so people only go to hell if that’s where they believe, in their deepest heart, that they deserve to go. Which they won’t do if they don’t know about it. This explains why it is so important to shoot missionaries on sight.”
“Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off.”
“Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that’d happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn’t a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time…”
“Few religions are definite about the size of Heaven, but on the planet Earth the Book of Revelation (ch. XXI, v.16) gives it as a cube 12,000 furlongs on a side. This is somewhat less than 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic feet. Even allowing that the Heavenly Host and other essential services take up at least two thirds of this space, this leaves about one million cubic feet of space for each human occupant- assuming that every creature that could be called ‘human’ is allowed in, and the the human race eventually totals a thousand times the numbers of humans alive up until now. This is such a generous amount of space that it suggests that room has also been provided for some alien races or – a happy thought – that pets are allowed.”
“This is very similar to the suggestion put forward by the Quirmian philosopher Ventre, who said, “Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?” When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said, “We’re going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts…”
“I’m not the world’s greatest expert, but I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, … broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?’ – when J.K. Rowling insisted she wasn’t writing fantasy.”
“It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It’s called living.”
“This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay. If it is my death, then I choose to die. Where this takes me, there I choose to go. I choose. This I choose to do.”
“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
“I commend my soul to any god that can find it.”
“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”
“It is at this point that normal language gives up, and goes and has a drink.”
These quotations from Terry Pratchett are chosen from the enormous collection contributed by grateful readers at Goodreads.com.
In my piece about Paper Sun, Traffic’s debut single from May 1967, I noted that the song might have climbed higher than #5 had it not been for Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which hogged the top spot for several weeks and could not be budged.
As part of my Paper Sun research I looked for Procol Harum’s original performance on Top of the Pops.
Watching this old black and white footage, a faint and disturbing memory stirred: another group of the era, late sixties or early seventies (despite Sergeant Pepper, this was before groups started being called ‘bands’). Probably, like Procol Harum, they had been pushed into the limelight by an unexpected success, because I only remember seeing them on TOTP once or twice.
I couldn’t name the group, nor the song. What I remembered about them was not their standard shaggy haircuts and pop star flamboyance, but their keyboard player: a gaunt man with a strange little toothbrush moustache and slicked back hair. He wore trousers hitched well above the waist, a white shirt and tie, and apart for his hands on the keys never moved at all. He stared straight ahead, oblivious to the beat and the capering of his band mates. Whenever the cameras found him he would give the TV audience a creepy leer.
Who was he and what was the group? I asked my wife if she remembered anything like that. It rang a bell, she said: someone who looked as if he had stepped out of a Monty Python sketch. Why didn’t I look on the internet. Yes, but where to begin?
This note takes its title from the search terms I typed into Google – 60s pop group squinty man with toothbrush moustache.
This brought up a great many references to Hitler, Charlie Chaplin and moustaches. I tried an image search. Bingo!
My man was in five of the first fifteen images! His name is Ron Mael. He and his brother Russell founded the band Sparks. The song was This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, written by Ron and sung by Russell. It was #2 on the UK singles chart on 5th May 1974. Here they are as I remember them off the telly.
Coming soon: THE STRANGE GENIUS OF RON MAEL
It is two hundred years since the Battle of Waterloo. In commemoration, H.M. The Queen has opened Windsor Castle’s famous Waterloo Chamber to the public for a special exhibition of Waterloo-related artefacts from the Royal Collection. The exhibition opened on 31st January 2015 and will run for a year. Throughout 2015, visitors will be able to walk into and around the chamber for the first time.
The pieces on display, many of them acquired by George, Prince Regent (the future George IV), include contemporary prints, drawings, maps and ‘souvenirs’ from the battle.
Among these are Napoleon’s red cloak, made of felt and embroidered in silk with elaborate scrolls and arabesques around the hood and breast, was removed from the Emperor’s baggage train in the aftermath of the allied victory and presented to the Prince Regent by Field Marshal Blücher, who fought alongside the Duke of Wellington. Lined with yellow brocade, it is appliquéd with Napoleon’s Imperial Eagle.
Napoleon’s silver-gilt porringer, a small bowl used for food, was also taken from the Emperor’s train.
The Waterloo Chair, made from the elm tree that marked the Duke of Wellington’s command post on the Waterloo battlefield, was presented to George IV in 1821. Commissioned by John Children from Thomas Chippendale the Younger, it is carved with a lion trampling the vanquished French standard in the village of Waterloo. A drawing of the elm tree by Children’s daughter Anna, made during a visit to the battlefield with her father in 1818, will go on display for the first time.
The Table des Grands Capitaines (Table of the Great Commanders), commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his victories, is decorated with the profile of Alexander the Great and other great generals and philosophers. Considered one the finest works of Sèvres porcelain ever produced, it never left the factory but was presented to George IV by the restored French king, Louis XVIII, in gratitude for the allied victory. The table appears in all of George IV’s state portraits, including the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence which hangs in the Waterloo Chamber.
Source for full article
A lost art: D&AD’s most awarded art director and copywriter Neil Godfrey and Tony Brignull discuss today’s industry
They are one of the most respected duos to have ever worked in the advertising business and The Drum managed to catch up with Neil Godfrey and Tony Brignull – D&AD’s most awarded art director and copywriter respectively – to hear their views on how the industry has changed since their peak days.
The pair were prolific in the heyday of Collet Dickenson Pearce (CDP) during the 1970s and 1980s and produced some of the country’s best quality and most effective work. They produced iconic print ads for brands such as Parker Pens and Benson & Hedges, including the B&H pyramid ads.
The duo also created the ‘Has the Sunday roast had its day?’ ad for Birdseye in 1974 and ads for Albany Life, including 1981’s ‘Answer these ten questions and work out the date of your own death’ print. The British Army, Fiat, Dunn & Co, 100 Pipers and Clarks are among other brands in the vast portfolio of D&AD’s most awarded copywriter and art director, who, according to former CDP managing director Sir Frank Lowe, were an “extraordinary” match.
“It’s hard to think of Tony without Neil, they were a most extraordinary duo along with John Salmon, the best of the writers I worked with,” he told D&AD.
“When they used to bring me a campaign I would always say can you leave the copy behind, and I’d read it quietly and it was nearly always one of the best moments of my day because it was just lovely. I think Tony did so many campaigns that were just outstanding.”
AMV BBDO founder David Abbott believes Brignull helped changed the landscape of advertising and put CDP on the map. “I think he was one of a group of about six or seven people who made CDP famous throughout the world for the quality of their work,” he added.
“He’s an original thinker, he’s intuitive, he makes connections that most people don’t make. He’s honourable, charming and quietly flamboyant; I think that shows up in his work. We all felt we were on a mission to change creativity, to change advertising, and the really good people, like Tony, accepted that challenge and gloried in it.”
CDP was behind some of the most exciting ideas in advertising during the 1970s and 80s and among the creatives it helped produce were Lord Puttnam, Sir Alan Parker, Sir John Hegarty and Charles Saatchi. Even Sir Ridley Scott produced ads for the agency. According to former CDP creative director John Salmon, Godfrey is “unsurpassed” in the quality of his work.
“He was brilliantly creative and intelligent and those qualities are as rare as they ever were,” he told D&AD. “He set a fantastic example for the other art directors and the creative people in general. Virtually everything that he did he gave an original page look to it and he worked very hard to get that. In my view he was unsurpassed in producing outstanding print advertising. That’s why I think he’s the best, he’s the governor.”
CDP’s fortunes eventually dwindled and it was acquired by the Dentsu group after calling time in 2000. Brignull and Godfrey don’t feel the connection with modern day, digitally dominated advertising and much of it doesn’t impress them.
The pair still dabble in the trade – Godfrey worked recently with Indra Sinha for Channel 4 and Brignull works with JKR – but they have both pursued other interests. But D&AD’s most awarded copywriter and art director hail from a different era of advertising, and they have plenty of wisdom to impart about the craft.
When I started out, advertising was something that happened in America as far as I was concerned, and London was just a timid kind of reflection of what was happening there. There were people doing work – a little agency called CDP had just started – but most of the other agencies were large in format and doing the kind of advertising that had been done for the last 20 or 30 years.
When I left the Royal College of Art my first job in advertising was at a place called Dorland, which had a great creative director, but we were finding it very difficult to create and show good ads because the people weren’t around to do them. I moved on to spend a year at CDP and then DDB came along and said they were looking for an art director.
I applied and got the job and I was immediately sent over to New York for a year in 1964/65. I spent almost a decade at DDB before Tony and I met up. Tony appears to be a very gentle, benevolent character, a sort of professor old vicar, but underneath there is this edge. One of the things I liked about him was that there were these two aspects to him and I think it kind of shows in the ads at times.
What I liked about Tony’s writing was the fact that the headlines weren’t written as headlines. They were almost more like pieces of body copy and I think that came out of an essential ability to kind of breathe in the character of the client.
For example, the line for Dunn & Co, which was an old fashioned menswear place – ‘The life of a designer at Dunn & Co is one of continuous self-restraint’ – was a great headline because it encompassed the whole personality of it. Also, ‘A pen that merely writes is no pen at all’, I just loved the lyrical aspect of those lines.
People were, at the time, trying to do very clever, sharp, quick headlines. Those would work in some respects but were far from the personality of the actual company and product itself. The trade has changed since we worked together.
When I first started, photo typesetting came in, which was a huge breakthrough. The fact you could photograph it and you didn’t have to cut it up anymore, it could be done on a machine. But even that was crude by comparison with doing it now on a computer.
I don’t take much to do with the industry anymore. It’s not quite what it used to be. It’s all about the mechanics now. It’s digital and computerised and all about the amazing things that can be done, cars that can fly, things like that. Everything seems to be geared towards that and you can’t see the joins.
I remember when I did the pyramids poster for Benson & Hedges – I always hate to talk about cigarette advertising because I was also against it – the photographer and I shot five or six different elements and then came back to put them together. They were put together by cutting the transparencies and sticking them together, then trying to find a way of retouching the edges out of it. It took several weeks to do it.
It would probably be done in an afternoon now on the computer, easily. It used to be that there was a physical effort involved which there doesn’t seem to be now.
When I was in the creative department at J Walter Thompson, Sam Rothenstein, who I still think is probably the cleverest, most intelligent woman who ever worked in advertising in England, came to me with one of the first CDP ads, it was for Whitbread, and when I looked at it I thought it was stunningly clear, beautiful and simple. I wanted to work with CDP thereafter, but it took me a long while to get there.
I worked with Mather & Crowther first, then Benton & Bowles, and then I applied to CDP and John Salmon took me on. But it wasn’t until I was married and had been working at Vernons as creative director for about 18 months that Neil asked me to join him at Wells Rich Greene.
ART DIRECTOR: NEIL GODFREY, WRITER: TONY BRIGNULL
I think we played to each other’s strengths. I often knew how Neil would work on something so I wrote to his strengths. That was the same for both of us. When Neil did the little drawing on the child’s foot for Clarks for example, I had virtually nothing to do with that, but he knew I could write to that concept, that it would be something that had content to it and all I had to do was write some lines and work through it.
So essentially I loved Neil’s clarity and the beauty of his art direction, and I knew even if I wrote something fairly dim it would look good. I remember a copywriter coming in one day and saying: ‘I saw this piece of copy in the tray and I thought how dull it was but it’s turned out to be a great ad.’ Those were the days of great graphic beauty in press and posters. They were very stimulating, very exciting times.
It wasn’t before the moving image, of course, but it was certainly before the times of computer graphics. For example, Neil would often have to get the photosetting in on the headlines and the body type and it would all be cut out with a scalpel to make it optically correct.
The discipline of working like that often made us look at every piece of work with great scrutiny. But those were the days when you would look through a magazine for the ads to see how beautiful they were. You might get Volkswagen, 100 Pipers, lots of terrific themes. And Avis, when you saw a new Avis ad you read it like a poem.
Within our work we pioneered some of the first full page ads, but all of that began to quickly disappear when you got independent media brokers and the media department was taken out of the agency. The client would then say: ‘I’ve got this amount of money to spend, what mathematically is the best way I can do it?’ instead of thinking about the most appropriate way for the campaign.
As for copywriting, I think we’ve totally lost the craft. Occasionally you will find a very good line in a commercial or a fairly good line as a headline, but very rarely these days. It’s just a lost art. Certainly since David Abbot has stopped you don’t see an ad nowadays, even for clients you used to write for. Volvo, for example, totally gone; RSPCA, in no way engaging.
As Dave Trott used to say, it must reach out and grab you by the lapels and pull you in and I haven’t seen one like that. That is a great shame I think. I don’t think we are doing clients justice if we can’t write for them.
TONY BRIGNULL IN THE DRUM AUGUST 6, 2014
The day after David Abbott died last May, a writer of obituaries asked me for anecdotes about him. I refused, perhaps a little too roughly. The man was only doing his job, he pointed out. But I couldn’t reduce David to sound-bites. I didn’t want to hand him over to what Sylvia Plath called ‘the peanut crunching crowd’. So I’m grateful to The Drum for giving me this opportunity to express fully my appreciation of the man I consider, as so many others do, the best of us.
There are people alive today who have better right to call him friend than I do, those who partnered him and worked with him side by side: Eve, his wife of 50 years, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers. These people loved him, but it so happens that I knew him longer than almost everyone else.
We first met in 1964 at Mather and Crowther, his first agency and my second (I’d been a trainee at JWT). What a creative department that was: as well as David, there was Leonard Weinreich, Paul Arden, John Webster, Bob Marchant, Tim Smail, Chris McCartney-Filgate. While Fay Weldon, who had yet to write a novel, floated effortlessly above the storms like a clipper embarking on a longer journey, tossing off great lines like bunting.
Even then, David was seen to be cleverer and wittier than the rest of us. I assumed – wrongly – he’d already spent time in America because his writing seemed a generation ahead of ours. At a time when British advertising was fumbling around with jingles and slogans, David had already found a new voice for his clients, clear, conversational, friendly.
The creative revolution, still seminal in us, was in flower in him. His commercials for the Triumph Herald were simple, single-minded and charming: one demonstrated the car’s independent suspension by showing a driver following a girl down the steps outside the Albert Hall. ‘It lets you follow your inclinations,’ he wrote. In press ads he had the Herald turning inside a tennis court, and another out-turning (in-turning?) a London taxi.
FEATURING DAVID’S FIRST TV COMMERCIAL, THE TRIUMPH HERALD AD MENTIONED BY TONY
Never laddish, never truly a lad at all, he enjoyed privacy and quietness. A part of him would have liked to have been one of the boys, I think. He valued friendship highly and needed it badly, but found it difficult to be pubby and matey. In the later years of his life he organised long lunches for his dearest group of friends at the Hellenic in Thayer Street, which he always paid for in a paterfamilias way, saying he had a fund for this as part of his going away package. I don’t know whether this was true or a fabricated excuse to be generous without being patronising.
He loved banter and witty word play. Frank Muir and John Cleese accepted him as an equal. One dinner party game involved using adverbs in a new but surprisingly inventive way. The winner, his I assumed, was ‘I love camping, he said intently’ though I never learned the question.
He was always lithe, helped by being tall, but I don’t think he ever went to a gym or did sports. He once turned out as a goalkeeper for the DDB soccer team but frankly he didn’t look the part, and was injured in the warm-up so didn’t play. It was the kit, I think. David never looked quite right in anything not hand-made, suit, shoes, sports jacket. In everything he did or wore he was elegant. It had to be the very best or he wouldn’t buy it. He had natural good taste, though where this originated I can’t guess because like me he came from a working class London family a million miles from Savile Row.
There were some things you simply couldn’t imagine David doing. Popping into M&S, grabbing something off the rail and saying ‘this’ll do’, buying a paper-back if a hardback version were available, turning right when he boarded an aircraft, checking into a two star hotel, renting a Mondeo, to name just five things I’ve done this year.
I never saw him drunk or silly or be anything less than dignified. To take drugs would have been unthinkable – and unnecessary. He was always alert and bright. He moved into a natural high by putting himself under pressure. When the agency was pitching for a new account he purposely refrained from starting his creative work until just a few days before the presentation. The deadline forced him into overdrive and he never failed to come up with something original and apt.
I observed him working in a similar fashion on the first BT (Bob Hoskins) scripts. He went at it day and night entirely focussed, each morning coming in with a new bundle.
He was particularly sensitive to human vulnerability – the little ways we express our insecurities, half showing, half hiding our love for one another.
‘FLYFISHING’ BY J.R.HARTLEY TAKES ITS PLACE BESIDE THE COMPLEAT ANGLER
His genius was to find incidents which introduced the product into our emotional lives originally and plausibly. The several ways a son expresses his thanks to his dad when giving him Chivas Regal, for example. The mum who goes on holiday ‘just for a couple of days’, for Yellow Pages. The man who always hands a phone call from a son straight onto the mum.
(Mums and dads feature frequently in David’s work. In a book of my poems I sent him the one he chose as his favourite was where Polonius, the interfering father in Hamlet, kisses his son goodbye, knowing he may not see him again.)
The empathy he shows in his advertising would have made him a fine novelist I believe. His first and, sadly, only book, The Upright Piano Player, tells how a retired businessman finds familiar territory suddenly hostile, a theme worthy of Saul Bellow. I’m sure his subsequent novels would have revealed similar insights into the fragility of life in new and profound ways. But they remain unwritten and we must accept that his great contribution to our culture was the application of his creative mind to advertising.
This was not for David a lesser achievement. ‘There is nothing immoral in selling beans,’ he once said. He was very proud of his work and kept several of his favourite ads framed in his office which was always, like his clothes, immaculate.
It’s generally held that he and I were better at print than TV. I think this is true. But he was so accomplished a copywriter, so supreme, that he mastered the medium at an early age and dominated it throughout his career. When in the 60s he worked at DDB New York for a year with such greats as Bob Levenson and Helmut Krone, it was not so much an education as a confirmation class.
I was once asked if I had anything David lacked. All I could answer was, “Yes, Neil Godfrey.” My partner Neil was the outstanding art director of his generation but David found in Ron Brown someone in the same league, and together they produced work so telling, so finely crafted it will never be surpassed.
He was easy in the medium, fluent, at home as a fish in water. He pushed press advertising into new areas, bursting out of the accepted boundaries. His campaign for Sainsbury’s is the perfect example. 12 double page spreads a year, each one demonstrating a Sainsbury’s speciality. The client invited David to go into the store and choose the products he wanted to write about. Think of that. The trust, the freedom, the responsibility.
But look at the result. 40 or more great ads over four or five years. Note the style, the cohesion; how each one has ‘Sainsbury’s’ in the headline, how each new ad is a continuation of the last so that the campaign gained an onward transitive momentum. These ads became part of the magazines, part of our lives. It raised the freshness of the brand to a level equal to and possibly beyond Waitrose. I recall seeing the ad he wrote for their hot cross buns with some five hundred words of copy and marvelled at its bravura.
Were the TV commercials which accompanied the print campaign as good? Not quite. They were original in their own way. Dishes using Sainsbury’s ingredients were cooked in delicious close-up. They were intelligent, useful to customers and enhanced the brand. But were they in a sense moving press ads? Perhaps they were, but where’s the harm in that?
For David the product had to be central. He was always uncomfortable when a commercial flew off into film land. I remember in the early days at DDB we won the Lyons individual fruit pies account. Now these pies, though popular with the public, were not the peak of culinary excellence. The pastry left a clinging suety film in the mouth while the fruit filling was more like sugary jam.
David Brown, one of the very few copywriters to be equally good at press and TV, wrote a script with young American GI’s at training camp singing ‘Ma I miss your apple pie’ but David Abbott turned it down. I took it back into him and said, David I think you’re making a mistake, this can be great.’
He replied, ‘I may be wrong but I have to back my judgement. If I’m right seven times out of ten that’s a good average.’ He then wrote a commercial which anticipated his Sainsbury’s films: it showed the pastry being rolled, apples peeled, filling being spooned in, pastry pricked and sugar sprinkled. Whether it was better than the homesick American soldiers we’ll never know, it doesn’t matter. What it shows is how close David always wanted to keep the product central to the action.
Later in his career he also learnt to find that moment when the product intersects with the customer’s emotional life. His J. R. Hartley film is justly famous for its humanity. I also think his Bob Hoskins films for BT celebrate not only the telephone but communication as an essential part of being human.
A critic once called David’s advertising middle-class. No dropped ‘aitches, no missing ‘t’s’, no ladettes on hen parties, no lads in bars. Personally, I think David was right to avoid these cheap insinuations into contemporary life. We British have always been aspirational, and for many the middle-class is where we aspire to be, whether we admit it or not. But let’s not allow this debate to hijack my tribute. The point is, he never patronised the consumer, never used a cliché, never wrote a dull line.
He couldn’t bear vulgarity. He hated the word ‘gobsmacked’ and the brand name FCUK. He spoke publicly against the latter earning himself some brickbats. This incident possibly inspired the hero of his novel, Henry Cage, who as I’ve said, suddenly finds his world become unfamiliar and menacing.
His genius could be infuriating. Once, going on holiday, he asked me to look after The Economist. I got each creative team writing more of those wonderful posters. By the time David returned I had a bundle of 45, but none of them were up to scratch. Within a few days David came up with two new brilliant ones. Had he done them before he went on holiday, during or after? I’ll never know.
He couldn’t resist working privately on the briefs he gave others. Martyn Walsh and I were trying to do a concept where one man gives a bottle of Chivas to his friend and gets an ordinary bottle of scotch in return. For weeks we tried dozens of layouts but each one fell short. Then David came in and said. ‘Hey, how about this?’ He held an ad with a bottle of Chivas in gift paper with the headline, ‘Funny how people forget to remove the price tag’. At such times all you can do is applaud, then go into darkened room and bang your head quietly on your desk.
Nothing I can write here can capture the achievement of his career or the brilliance of his copywriting. You will have to flick through the D&AD annuals to see the evidence. Goodness knows there’s enough there to fill a book. It will remain forever a testimony to his unique talent. My aim in writing this is to give you a flavour of the man.
He was good and kind and generous and courteous and very funny. His principles were not something he kept for a rainy day but tools which informed his behaviour every day. You’ll have heard how during the financial crisis he refused to make a single person redundant, how he declined to advertise cigarettes.
At its worst our business can be gimcrack. David proved it can be decent, have integrity, be of real help to commerce. He showed that a state of friendliness is best between seller and buyer, and that with infinite care it can grow into a state of mutual affection. He always told the truth but made it interesting and vibrant and witty.
When a friend of mine died his widow wanted to buy a car. ‘Get a Volkswagen,’ I said, ‘I’ve seen them made.’ Instead she bought a Volvo (then at AMV) because she said, ‘I’ve read the advertisements.’
At the 50th anniversary of D&AD I was given a white pencil for being the most awarded copywriter and David said some very kind words about me, even though we both knew the voting system did not truly reflect our relative abilities. I wrote to David saying that he was one of three men who stood above everyone else (the other two being John Salmon and John Webster) and that I was happy simply to have my name mentioned in the same breath.
I also wrote some years ago that there are a number of us who consider ourselves the sons of Bill Bernbach, the founder of DDB and leading light in the creative revolution, but that in my opinion only David would pass a paternity test.
In losing David Abbott we’ve lost our standard bearer. He made us feel proud to work in the business, and me proud to know him.
Tony Brignull is a former CDP and DDB creative director and D&AD’s most awarded copywriter of all time.