Articles Square Eyes Television UK

sex, lies and mobile phones – UK advertising

Friday, March 23, 2001

An approachably handsome young man sits on a tram in a snowy city. With a friendly English accent he tells us that in Helsinki it gets very cold (no shit, Sherlock- he’s wrapped up nice and warm, anyway). 

Finns embrace new technology, he continues, and HP are working on a wireless system that will let people know exactly when their tram is coming so they don’t have to wait outside in the cold (we cut to a bunch of blond kids checking their mobiles indoors).

It’s small scale and personal – a practical use for new technology. The ad closes with a nice twist when the kids rush out just in time to throw snowballs at our hero’s tram; he modestly concludes “It’s pretty cool.”

This ad isn’t selling us anything tangible. A project in Finland isn’t going to help me, and if I didn’t already know that HP are Hewlett Packard, formerly humble makers of printers and large bits of hardware, the ad isn’t even going to tell me much about what the company does.

Instead, it’s trying to sell me a company’s changed mission statement. HP are now moving into the services side of IT (for example, they made an unsuccessful bid for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global management and consulting organisation last year), and this ad tells us about their new direction.

It works pretty well – we don’t see any physical products (the mobile phones on view aren’t made by HP), instead we see HP people and ideas, which is what consulting’s all about.

The other ads in the series (mountaineers watching daytime soaps and an Internet guru not being accorded the fame he deserves) also try to show us that the company is clever, witty, globally attuned, human, and quietly confident – ‘pretty cool’. This is a big change from the old HP image, which was steady, workmanlike and absolutely not cool.

HP have altered their product, and so they’re advertising this. Guinness, on the other hand, haven’t changed what a pint tastes like, but they too are trying to change their image.

Faced with younger drinkers who like Red Bull and vodka, alco-pops and Belgian wheat beers (just not all in the same glass), St James’ Gate is trying to tell us that the old blond in the black dress is really sexy too.

We’ve had suicidal horse-riders racing passionately off cliffs, and a feisty couple stripping off their clothes in a rain storm (if they’d had their Finnish mobile phones wiith them, they could have stayed dry and still caught their bus in time). Now we’ve got a sweaty, moody fire dance. (They’re going through the elements, as it was pointed out to me: water, fire . . . clever, huh?)

The ads are brilliantly shot, with great soundtracks, and you do indeed think ‘passion’. Just to underline this, they finish with a coda that shows the couples in the pub all over each other and their pints. The fire-dancers ad overdoes this slightly, when in a passionate embrace the guy spills his creamy white love juice on the floor. (I can just see him sheepishly explaining, “This has never happened to me before. Really. I must be tired.”)

But Guinness just isn’t that sort of drink. It might mean many things – quality, tradition, integrity, humour, even – but however sexy the ads they produce, none of the sexiness rubs off on the product.

Change your advertising if you’ve really changed what you do. If not, don’t bother. A sheep in a Prada dress is still a sheep.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Celebrity Confusion – UK reality TV

Thursday, March 15, 2001

If ordinary people are on TV, does that make them celebrities, or just the subjects of documentaries? What about famous people doing ordinary things? Or people that start out ordinary and become famous?

It’s been quite a time for celebrity confusion. First ‘Popstars’ showed us ordinary folks being turned into celebrities with dramatic success, culminating in their number one single in the UK over the weekend. Then ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ sought to turn famous people into ordinary folks by allowing us to see what they looked like in their dressing gowns.

A lot has been written on the explosion of reality TV shows recently – from the scheming and salacious American offerings like ‘Survivor’ and ‘Temptation Island’, to the more character-driven and prosaic British programmes such as ‘Airport’ and ‘The Hotel’. (As a quick aside, has RTE done one yet? I’ve been away for a while, so might have missed it, but given their penchant for plagiarism it seems a startling ommission.)

Even knowing what to call these things is actually quite hard. The original ‘Big Brother’ had real people in it, but everything else was completely unreal – even the house was designed for the purposes of the show. It came off like it was adopting a fly on the wall approach, but of course deep down it was a gameshow, with the contestants asked to do artificial things to try and win the money. Much more ‘Generation Game’ than Nick Broomfield.

But if that’s a docu-gameshow, then some of the others have been more like docu-soaps, which are a little truer to the tradition of documentary, since in theory the people are doing their regular jobs, and the camera crew just happens to be there to capture it all. 

But ‘Popstars’ was a particulary weird amalgam of the two forms. It was a gameshow in that people entered a competition, and the winners got a prize – a recording contract and all that. But then it turned into a docu-soap, as we followed their adventures in the real world (well, as real as the music business can ever be), as they set about their new jobs.

I found myself completely hooked on the show, mainly because I grew to like most of the people in the band. Myleene came across as a calculating bundle of ambition, but the others had their redeeming features, with mouthy but warm Kym being the star. 

The best of the reality dramas are character driven – Nasty Nigel supplanted Nasty Nick in the popular imagination, and we recall the spiky hotel manageress, and the cruise ship cabaret singer with a heart of gold. But these people are shown being themselves, with no script or expensive production to hide behind. They might become famous, but they’re famous for being real. 

We already knew the people that entered the ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ house as celebrities. Here was the process going backwards, and we had the opportunity to see them as they really were – was Jack Dee really funny, was Chris Eubank as mad as we thought, and was Anthea Turner as annoying as she seems?

In truth, Jack turned out to be both funny and have a warmth beneath his curmudgeonly exterior. Eubank really was hat-stand, Keith a salt of the earth lad who really couldn’t sing, and even Anthea came across reasonably well. 

Always assuming they weren’t faking it for the cameras. That’s the thing about famous people apparently being real – they’re experienced enough in the medium to fool us. Which is why I’m sorry the ‘Popstars’ kids are now off to go and be real celebrities – I liked them much more when they were just ordinary people on TV.

But of course this is the irony of it all – you want to see real people on TV, but the process of being on TV means they stop being ordinary, and we need new blood. Maybe Andy Warhol was right after all – just don’t bother me when my turn comes for the 15 minutes, because I’ll be too busy watching you guys.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Touching Evil

Thursday, March 08, 2001

It’s a staple of the police drama on TV that the hero has some flaw in him – he drinks too much, his marriage has broken down, he’s jaded by the crap he deals with every day.

But in the end he gets the job done, and in doing so acts as a necessary buffer between polite society and the more disturbing world of crime. He might be tainted by the work, but it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it.

But ‘Touching Evil’ (currently reprising on TV3 on Mondays) doesn’t leave us with the same warm glow of achievement put out by regular police dramas. Its subject matter is grim enough – serial killers, paedophiles and various other frightening criminals whose hearts are as dark as night – but we’ve seen this aleady (remember Robert Carlyle in Cracker?). Where the show shines is in having the hero as messed up as the people he’s chasing.

In these days of psychological profiling, a good TV detective has to understand some scary minds, but Dave Creegan (played with a sad intensity by Robson Green) seems to empathise with the suspects a little too well.

In a recent episode someone was killing women and putting their hearts in bin-bags. So the heart is rubbish, huh? This isn’t ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, that’s for sure.

The uneasy camera is never still, it’s always raining, and even the most mundane of items can appear menacing. In a quiet moment, Creegan’s sitting in a greasy spoon cafe and we see a normal refillable red ketchup bottle on the table in front of him. The stains of ketchup around the nozzle at the top look for all the world like dried blood. And you know that’s how Creegan sees it.

Even the normal witty comebacks among the cops here take a pretty grim turn. When a colleage comes round to see Creegan at his house, she’s taken aback by the state of the place. “I don’t want to upset you, Creegan,’ she thoughtfuly says, “but the last time I saw a bedroom like this, the bloke in it had just shot himself.”

And Creegan’s not too far from this. Joyce Millman in Salon magazine lists his problems: “Shot in the head in the line of duty, he returned from his near-death experience with a scar on his forehead and a case of the heebie-jeebies that nothing except a brisk walk on the wild side can temper . . . Bad things keep happening to Creegan: His marriage failed because of his work; his girlfriend was murdered by a serial killer he was tracking; he had a nervous breakdown; he came back to work just in time for a squadmate to be murdered by a different serial killer; [next] he was set on fire by yet another serial killer.”

This all sounds a little too much but Green’s performance is riveting, at least partly because he knows how close to the edge he is. The title of the show spells it out – if you touch evil, you will be touched yourself.

Rather bizzarrely, his closest comrade might be Sonny Crockett from ‘Miami Vice’. Quite a few episodes of this better than average police show (overseen by Michael Mann) end with some expendable cops killed and the bad guys getting away. It’s at times like these that Sonny gets into his car and goes for a moody drive.

What both cops share is an awareness that there’s no-one who understands them better in the world than the scum of the earth they’re chasing. This was also the issue driving Mann’s movie ‘Heat’.

It might seem a long way from Al Pacino and Don Johnson to Robson Green, but in their different ways all the dramas look at the price you have to pay if you choose to immerse yourself in a world of cruelty and pain. Even just watching Touching Evil makes you feel like you need a wash afterwards. But you’ve got to love TV that takes you to grim places and doesn’t leave you with a pat happy ending.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Frankie Says – British nostalgia TV

Thursday, March 01, 2001

I was a child of the 1980s, and the pop culture of the time scarred my naive teenage years. My first slow dance was to “Careless Whisper”, and I wore the checked shirts and braces of a devoted Big Country fan. Howard Jones went to my school, and for a while everyone I knew had a haircut like his. Including the girls (not that I knew any).

So the Saturday night BBC2 series, ‘I Love the 1980s’ should be right up my street, reminding me of the delights of ra-ra skirts, Bros and BMX bikes. Looking at one year at a time sounds great, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s a complete waste of time.

It’s just lazy history. Intersperse the period footage with a few quotes from some of the folks involved and some random celebrities or comedians, add the appropriate soundtrack from Kajagoogoo and OMD, and Russell Harty’s your uncle. It’s the TV equivalent of that classic pub conversation:

“Do you remember those sweets, what were they called?”


“Yeah, Spangles!”

“Oh yeah, Spangles. They were great. What about Morph?”

“Morph. He was great. And what was the name of that ITV kids’ program that was supposed to be like Blue Peter?”


“Magpie! God, I haven’t thought about that for ages.”

The BBC 2 series just replaces your mates with minor celebrities. Do I really care that Jamie Theakston had a cool Mongoose BMX bike? And while I like Louis Theroux, his recollection about his first trip to McDonald’s hardly rivalled Oscar Wilde for its witty apercus.

Even if it’s famous people telling me stuff I already know, it’s still stuff I already know. Rather than a dash through the obvious highlights of each year, there are a number of other approaches that would have been more rewarding. For example, an in-depth look at a particular area that illustrated something of the spirit of the time. As it is, every time I think the show’s about to explore a more interesting area, we’re on to a two-minute profile of Bananarama or the like.

Or if you’re going to do oral history, spend a longer time with fewer (real) people, and build up a more detailed picture of their lives at the time. 

But that’s not what the producers of this show are trying to do. Their lowest common denominator, list journalism approach is aiming only at recognition. You sit there stupefied on the sofa, just about managing a response such as “Oh, yeah. Rick Astley. I remember him.”

So I’m far from impressed. But if I’m home on Saturday night this week (as I was last week, when I turned down an invite to a lap-dancing club – you tell me if I made the right choice), I’ll be the one in front of the TV with my Frankie Says t-shirt on.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision