From Adland to Hollywood: Sir Alan Parker’s journey from the world of advertising to international box office success

Sir Alan Parker

Privileged tonight to watch the film director Sir Alan Parker being interviewed by Sam Delaney, at the final event of IPA’s ‘100 Years of British Advertising’ festival. Not a lot of people know this, but advertising is where it all began for Sir Alan, who counts ‘Midnight Express’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Mississipi Burning’ among his many successes. First things first: I really enjoyed this interview. Sir Alan came across as modest and unassuming – with his legendary sense of humour well & truly intact. But just how did a North London boy, from a self-professed working class background, go from advertising greatness to director of smash-hit Hollywood movies? We were about to find out…

Sir Alan left school once he’d completed his A-levels, having secured a job at a small advertising agency based in Holborn. His dream at that time was to be a copywriter and, thanks to a combination of a hands-on role and supportive management, he eventually moved into the role of junior copywriter. A short stint at PRL followed, and then a move to Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) – at that time, the best advertising agency in London and where Sir Alan’s colleagues included David Puttnam, Charles Saatchi and Ridley Scott.

This was the 1960s, and the “60s revolution” was on its way. Up until then, advertising and copywriting had been Oxbridge-dominated. CDP, according to Sir Alan, was ahead of its time, with its bosses prepared to hire “different” people – “you could call us a bunch of misfits”. Employees were encouraged to write colloquially and to follow their intuition – only very basic briefs were ever provided. For the first time, in the world of advertising, it was your portfolio, rather than your school/university background that mattered. What’s more, it was the creative work that was CDP’s priority, and not the selling of the product – again, a completely new approach. The agency was even known to fire difficult clients – until then, unheard of.

Working with such talented colleagues meant a highly competitive environment (“All I wanted to do was to earn as much money as Charlie Saatchi – he was always paid more than the rest of us!”) and continual pitching to potential clients. The 1960s also saw the introduction of TV commercials, a medium that immediately appealed to Sir Alan, who was given a budget for 60 ml films and began to experiment accordingly. This was the start of his directorial career, with commercials for Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Hamlet Cigars (even if you can’t remember the commercial itself, I bet you remember its slogan “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”) and Benson & Hedges following.

Then came a massive stroke of luck: CDP offered Sir Alan an interest-free loan to set up a commercials company which the firm would support through the regular commission of work. Needless to say, he jumped at the opportunity – and went on to make many more memorable commercials. Who can forget Leonard Rossiter pouring Cinzano over Joan Collins, or Penelope Keith extolling the virtues of Parker Lady Pens? Those Birds Eye commercials were pretty memorable, too.

Underpinning all of the commercials that Sir Alan made was a keen sense of humour – something that undoubtedly appealed to the consumers he was targeting. Asked why commercials these day are less funny, Sir Alan replied that his generation had much more creative freedom (“We got away with much more than you would these days”) – back then, he even made improvised commercials, a freedom that is unthinkable nowadays. It was through making consistently successful commercials, appreciated by critics and the public alike, that Sir Alan honed the art of film-making. He spent an entire year preparing for his debut, ‘Bugsy Malone’, writing the script himself and funding the film by continuing to make commercials. Confident that he would be able to direct children, having done so in commercials and also being a father at the time to four small children, Sir Alan nonetheless remembers ‘Bugsy’ as having been “incredibly difficult” to make. “Making a musical, with a cast of children – if I’d known then what I know now, I would never even have tried!” Nightmarish though its development may have been, ‘Bugsy Malone’ was a huge hit and to this day remains hugely popular. Sir Alan followed it up with ‘Midnight Express’, whose script was written by none other than Oliver Stone – “the most unpleasant human being you could ever wish to meet”, Sir Alan informed us, delightfully indiscreetly. OS made no secret of the fact that he didn’t think Sir Alan should be directing this film – but, strangely enough, came round to the idea after ‘Midnight Express’ won that year’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Looking back over his career, Sir Alan commented that his film choices have been very varied – ‘Bugsy Malone’, for example, stemmed from his experiences of going to the movies as a child. He retains happy memories of his time in advertising, but has “no desire whatsoever” to return to it, although he greatly admires the people working in that world now.

Bugsy Malone

One final treat, to conclude the evening: a screening of ‘Bugsy Malone’, Sir Alan’s directorial debut. It’d been a while since I last saw it, and I was reminded all over again just how fresh and funny a film it is – and how well it has stood the test of time. Just like Sir Alan Parker himself, you could say.

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