Category Archives: Politics

Politics by telegram

I didn’t last long as a copywriter. About six months, in fact.

The old man who was head of the team of wordsmiths at the Downton Pulford Compton ad. agency thought my headlines and body copy were a bit long-winded. “Think telegrams”, he advised. That’s all he said. A bit short and sweet. But I kind of got what he meant: keep it simple.

Donald Trump
seems to appreciate the power of keeping it simple. His modern day telegrams – Make America Great Again, Fake News – and the others, communicate simple, telegrammatic, posterised messages that slip easily into the memory bank without raising the slightest alarm or prompting too many questions among his followers.

Who wouldn’t vote against the simple injunction to “Make America Great Again”? Or, in the case of Brexit, to “Take Back Control”? The K.I.S.S. principle is tried and tested.

Back then telegrams were still quite popular, though the UK’s main telegram service ended in 2003 (interestingly, it’s still possible to send one, via telegramsonline).

Telegrammatic communications have been a bit out of fashion for quite a while, perhaps with the exception of that most powerful of advertising media, posters. Posters have a unique ability not to divert attention away from the basic message with snazzy video and dialogue that makes you think “What the hell was that all about?” They distil, focus and cut through. Just like the telegram did. When each word cost money, people were short and sweet to save cash. But the message was concise – and therefore clear. Stop.

Never was a telegram shorter and sweeter, perhaps, than in the case of Oscar Wilde‘s legendary exchange with his publisher, enquiring about the success of his most recent book. He sent “?”, to which the publisher replied “!”

Downtons handled a large proportion of the UK advertising for cinemas – not the ads. that appear on the screen, but the ads. in the local paper that give details of what’s on at the pictures. In addition they publicised film launches – and other stuff, like sales of confectionery and ice cream.

For quite a long time I was given menial tasks – just writing body copy for leaflets. It was the era when cinemas were converting to multi-screen – so quite a significant period in the history of the UK industry. Lots of factual leaflets were needed for door-to-door distribution. No-one in the department wanted to be involved with rubbish like that. The other creatives all guarded their bits of the business like mother elephants.

I thought I’d made a breakthrough when I was given an assignment to write an ad. encouraging people to spend more money at ‘front-of-house’ (FOH, as it’s known); ie in the foyer. I believe it’s still the case that cinemas make a large proportion of their profit from FOH sales. It’s almost as though the movies themselves are the bait to lure unsuspecting customers into the foyer to shop for way-overpriced burgers, sweets, ice lollies and chocolate.

Anyway, in this instance, my task was to write an ad. for Wall’s Ice Cream. Which I did.

(Not sure why, but in the back of my mind as I write this, I hear Trump bellowing “We’re gonna build the wall!”).

Anyway, it turned out that my headline, which to this day I think was quite snappy, went down like a lead balloon. I think the old man though it was a bit too clever.

PUT YOUR LOLLY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS

Pun on the word “lolly”? Didn’t go for it. It soon became clear that my career in Creative was going nowhere; I switched to the Media department.

It was all very political …

 

 

Image credit: By dumbfoundling a flickr user [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tony Blair, bread pudding and me

I must admit, I didn’t expect an interrogation by world-renowned TV interviewer John Humphrys to come between me and my daily ‘fix’ of bread pudding – but that’s what happened.

breadpudding

Ah, I tell you, the lure of bread pudding is irresistible to those who become addicted to it. Habitual ‘users’ can easily become trapped in a downward spiral, perhaps beginning with a chance purchase in a moment of weakness, then progressing to more frequent consumption as the product takes a hold on the user’s appetite and finally ending up with an intense craving, which can only be satisfied by more and more frequent ingestion.

And so it was, on that fateful, overcast lunchtime, as I made my way, accompanied by two similarly-addicted schoolfriends, down the (ironically?) steep hill from Caerphilly Grammar Technical School For Boys to our ‘fixer’, the lady who served behind the counter at a cafe opposite Woolworths in the town centre.

However … when we were about half way there, our attention was diverted by a small group of people who’d gathered to watch a film crew setting up a camera. It looked as though they’d just arrived. Torn between our need to satisfy an intense desire for the moist texture and sugary, sultana-strewn delight of our daily portion of bread pudding, and our natural nosiness, we opted to join the group. A young man mikein a smart suit stood in the middle, wielding a large, intimidating microphone.

“Now, which of you is prepared to be interviewed?”, he asked. “Not me!” was my immediate thought, just as one of my friends pushed me so hard from behind that I fell right in front of the dapper reporter. “Ah, a volunteer!”, he said as I stood up and brushed myself off and he thrust the mike right in front of my face.

This was John Humphrys, who (as it happens) was just embarking on a career trajectory that would see him build a glittering reputation as an award-winning broadcaster, filing historic news reports and becoming a nationally-recognised newsreader, quiz show host and anchor man on the BBC‘s flagship national radio programme, Today, a position which he still holds ‘today’. He reported on the dramatic resignation of Richard Nixon, on the execution of Gary Gilmore and he really made his name (as I recall) with his interview with Ian Smith, at the time of the ill-fated Rhodesian UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in Rhodesia. He’s conducted very many memorable interviews, including this one with Tony Blair.

Humphrys’ interviewing style has sometimes attracted criticism, as certain politicians have found his line of questioning too abrasive. They’ve even queried his impartiality and by inference that of the BBC itself.

Anyway, here I was, with the mike strategically positioned, as Humphrys looked me straight in the eye and said: “So what’s your opinion about the proposed change of the spelling of the name of Caerphilly to the Welsh spelling?”

As this was the first I’d heard of said proposed spelling change, I was a bit taken aback. If he’d asked me about the tactics currently employed by the Cardiff City manager, what I thought of the new Beatles single or whether long hair (like mine) should be banned at school, my opinion would have already been formed.

But herein lies the problem with all these interviewers: they may not be partial, but they do set the agenda. And in that sense any such interview will always be driven by the bees in the particular interviewer’s bonnet. There is always a tug-of-war in such encounters, the interviewee wanting to steer things in a direction that will show his or her political policies in the most positive light, help sell a book, perhaps, or try to re-write history, the interviewer determined to bring a deeper truth to the surface and see through any smoke-screen.

John Humphrys was faced with the accusation that the BBC is biased in an event called intelligence, and put up quite a strong defence.

“We-ell”, I said, stuttering in my first and last major TV interview, “I suppose if the pronounciation [note spelling] is the same, it won’t make much difference really”.

That single sentence reply seemed to satisfy Mr Humphrys. No follow-up that would see me fall into a trap that he’d set. But having researched his career path, I’m fairly sure I was his first-ever interviewee, as I’d never seen him on TV previously despite having been a regular viewer of TWW on which channel the piece appeared that night. After all, the camera was set up at the top of the town, and they’d come over the hill from Cardiff. So maybe I was the first in a very long and distinguished line …

And so we continued our journey to the cafe and polished off our customary slices of bread pudding. “Navvies wedding cake, they call it”, the lady behind the counter once said (and she was right).

Next morning, my appearance on the box was referred to by headmaster Mr Bell-Jones at the end of Assembly. I suppose in the current school environment I would have been congratulated caerphillyprofusely and made to feel as though I’d achieved something utterly wonderful. Not so in my case, as ‘Ding Dong’ announced that “… one of our boys, Richard Fox, appeared on television last night. It’s a pity that he pronounced the word ‘pronunciation’ as ‘pronounciation'”.

Caerphilly never did change its official name to the Welsh spelling (Caerfili); I recovered from my bread pudding addiction, graduating to tinned sardines; and of course I always remember how important it is that, whenever I pronounce pronouncements, especially in TV interviews, they absolutely must be delivered with the correct pronunciation.

Well, you live and learn …

 

 

Image credit: A slice of plain bread pudding, by Roly Williams (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Microphone, a different viewpoint, by Vikramdeep Sidhu from Jhajjar, India (Ready to Jam) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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