Bill Hicks had some famously harsh words for those engaged in advertising (“Just kill yourselves. I mean it”) which spring to mind whenever I see a comedian in a TV ad, because seemingly every comedian who’s ever been asked to analyse his or her trade cites the great man as his or her hero. Still, messiahs have always found disciples depressingly fallible, and when an agency invites you to trouser this cheque while reciting these words into this microphone, the thought “What would Bill do?” is probably not the first that careers through ones synapses.
A quarter of a century ago I worked as a gofer at a theatre in Liverpool. One of the actors that season – let’s call him Bob, to save any embarrassment – was a member of the SWP (Socialist Workers Party for those below the age of thirty), who in his programme biog pronounced that he “could not love anyone who voted SDP [Social Democratic Party, ibid]”. His prospective feelings for anyone who voted Labour, Conservative or Monster Raving Loony remained unrecorded.
The next time I saw Bob was a couple of months later on a TV screen. He was [playing] one of a troupe of gurning yaffles who yelled “Tell Sid!” at each other in an advertisement. Sid was purportedly the only sentient lifeform in the UK who hadn’t heard that British Gas was being privatised, and that he was entitled to buy shares in a public utility. If he had the money.
I know, I know. Actors are playing a part. Richard Basehart, Sir Alec Guinness and Bruno Ganz have all played Hitler. That doesn’t make them Nazis. Playing Albert di Salvo didn’t imply Tony Curtis had any sympathy for the Boston Strangler. And actors are entitled to do ads. It pays the bills. It feeds the kids. And it can be crushing. You can graduate from the best acting school in your country, and a week later, to pay the fees for that school, you’re standing in front of a camera dressed as a prawn or a carrot.
I sympathise. But once you take that shilling, you have no right to proselytise. GB Shaw asked an actress, in the course of an argument, whether she’d sleep with him for a pound. No, was the vehement answer. A million pounds? Yes, she’d consider it. Then, he pronounced, they’d established her status – everything else was just haggling. I never did get to meet Bob again. I can foresee his defence – he took the money from British Gas and gave it to the Party. Subvert the System from the inside. Right. We all saw how that panned out. The system in the Eighties was so full of people ‘subverting it from the inside’ it’s astonishing that anyone got out with a breath in their body.
The ad that originally prompted these musings admittedly features no comedians, but it did prompt the question “Do these people really need the money that badly?” They can’t all have been bilked by Bernie Madoff. Are they in such pathological need of public visibility? Did Dubya’s memorable phrase about the difficulty of “putting food on your families” make such an impression on them?
As you may or may not be aware, there has been some fiscal unpleasantness recently, which has resulted in several corporate shake-outs. One of these has entailed an entity by the splendidly palindromic name of Aviva going round the globe collecting insurance companies like baseball cards. Now Aviva apparently need to inform the customers – present and prospective – of these companies that there’s a new sheriff in town.
To this end, a motley collection of celebrities have been corraled into a collection of bewildering ads which pose more questions than they answer, the first of which is detailed above. What this crew have in common – apart from their acceptance of Aviva’s lucre – is the fact that they’ve changed their names.
Cue Alice Cooper, morphed by the wonders of CGI into footage of him in his heyday, asking ‘would a glam rocker by the name of Vincent Furnier have made it?’. Well, now you mention it, Vince, I don’t see why not. I was probably a little staid in my early teens, but I for one was slightly put off by the moniker (my mother’s name is Alice, and she looked nothing like Vince). And I have it on good authority that Mr Furnier’s success was responsible for at least a dozen young Alices in the Anglophone world rushing into ill-advised marriages in the Seventies in order to rid themselves of their maiden name. Is that something you feel comfortable with, Vince?
Cue Bruce Willis, similarly CGIed alongside his younger self, careering a cab around New York in one of those Die Hard films I never got round to watching: over the roar of the engine, he asks us “Would Walter Willis have got the leading role?” Well, Bruce, I think you’re being unfair to yourself, and the name Walter. By your reasoning, it’s frightening to consider the level of world domination a certain entertainment corporation would have achieved by now, had it been founded by Bruce Disney. England’s football manager never felt the need to change his name to Bruce Winterbottom; admittedly, nor did he win the World Cup, but the man who succeeded him, and did, was called Alf.
Cue Ringo Starr, besieged in a car by hysterical fans, in a flashback to his halcyon days. He turns to camera, flashing a shit-eating grin, and intones “Would any of this happened to me if I’d been plain Richard Starkey?” Well, Ringo (or may I call you Rich?), I think you’ll find it would have. However, there is one caveat. I think you’ll find it would all have happened to Plain Richard Starkey, the fame, the adulation, the money … so long as you kept hanging round with The Beatles. God knows, John Peel confessed that he got a job as a DJ in Texas just by claiming to be your cousin, so as long as you remained in close proximity to those three, you were in the catbird seat.
The second ad, as Rich Halls would have it, “is a corker”. An anonymous suit steps in front of a cascade of numerals, booming “I Am Not A Customer Reference Number!”
Good for you, man. Me neither. On the other hand, I have numerous customer reference numbers. They simplify things. I hope your name is something like Zizzy Zivvirixxy, and not Bill Jones, otherwise your phone bills are going to be catastrophic.
Next up is Elle MacPherson, frowning in a terrifying manner, yelling “Don’t treat me like an idiot!” To which one can only reply “why not?”
Then we’re confronted by a scene of heartbreaking resonance: Macaulay Culkin, (who it seems will be trapped in moody adolescence until Social Services intervene) sits, alone, in a darkened cinema, staring up at a sixty-foot version of his equine visage, and intones “Remember me.” Leaving aside the rejoinder “For what?”, this is a wonderful film in itself. It’s Sunset Boulevard for the twenty-first century, condensed into four seconds. Whoever conceived it should be pelted with all the awards that his or her cranium can withstand.
Then it’s back to Ringo, unfortunately. A hapless chauffeur waits at Arrivals for him, bearing a placard emblazoned with RINGO. “Don’t call me by my stage name,” growls our hero.
Let me get this straight, Rick. People wouldn’t be waiting for you at the airport if you weren’t called Ringo. You said that in the other ad. You do remember that one, don’t you? What are we supposed to call you? (Apart from a couple of epithets that readily suggest themselves.) You don’t like Plain Richard Starkey. You don’t like Ringo Starr. Who are you this week? Reinhardt Springbok? Strobe Pancake? Give us a clue.
Ringo, of course, is a massively complicated person (much like Elle and Macaulay). The Last Beatle (no, not in that sense, I know Paul’s still around. I’m talking about that unpleasantness when he was parachuted in after the ejection of Pete Best), he’s carried a chip the size of the Dingle peninsula on his shoulder since pro-Best fans messed his hair before his first gig. Then John Lennon, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, remarked that “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. Ouch.
More recently, he managed to alienate a whole city – the city of his birth – by denigrating its year as European Culture Capital. Fair enough, Liverpool started it by knocking down his birthplace in Madryn Street, rather than preserving it as a kind of scouse Bethlehem, but that’s no excuse for inflicting this sturm und drang on the rest of the world.
Reinhardt (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?): I won’t call you Plain Richard, I won’t call you by your stage name. Just don’t call us. Deal?
Elle: I promise not to treat you like an idiot. Promise. You need to have a word with your agent and your acting coach, though.
Macaulay: Oh, I’ll remember you. I’m trying not to, but those four seconds are etched on my cortex.
Aviva: I love your name. Not only is it a palindrome, but it’s a double palindrome. (Look at it in the mirror). Your ads are hilarious. But in a sucky way.
What would Bill do? Laugh. I hope.