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Soon to be crossposted to my blog: By bread alone - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Soon to be crossposted to my blog: By bread alone

By bread alone


A few months ago – January, actually: so long as that?  Ah, yes: right: before the lurgi and then the Miraculous Recovery Just in Time for Cheltenham; right, then – in January, I had occasion to meditate upon the persistence of pastoral in old railway posters.  I now find myself (I looked, and there I was), post-Cheltenham, dwelling upon Hovis adverts.


I suppose that most of you shall have seen the iconic adverts for the famous loaf, including the one shot in Shaftesbury that is the first-favourite advert, ever, of the Great British Public: the Boy on the Bike: and such poetic iterations of it as The Runaway and the First Tea After the War

culminating, of course, in the 2009 advert celebrating a century and two-and-twenty years’ worth of Hovis’ trading, a second of time for each year, eternity in a loaf of bread –

– an advert which, when I, er, adverted an ex-pat friend in Oz to it, caused her to inform me that I had made her mascara to smudge.  If you are overseas readers, do please watch these adverts before we proceed.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.


Note, if you will, that milk adverts have been influenced by the Hovis stamp.


Other Hovis adverts, if not quite so iconic, are also recognisably akin to these: the baker set in his ways:

and the Hovis Is For Life advert that in a sense adumbrates the 2009 advert that has so justly been named the best of the decade.


Now, what commonalities may we find in these adverts – and what do they say about Britain and the British, both who we are and how we wish to see ourselves?


Consider the ‘OXO Family’ adverts (begin about 1:35, if you like):


Are these not the descendants of the family that – with real butter and real tea and liquorice and kippers – sate down to a loaf of Hovis and the First Real Tea After the War?  Even now?


There is a yearning here, for the elder ways:


And of course, there is rurality (in the Hovis For Life advert and The Runaway) nicely balanced with the small community – even if that small community is a part of a larger and industrial one.  I have noted elsewhere that any metropolis is a congeries of villages that are not yet wholly submerged in the new city: ‘the backdrop of a peaceful-seeming countryside, an old house of seeming respectability and safety, or one of those London neighbourhoods – Hobbs Lane, say – that seems to retain something of the village it once was before being surrounded by the creeping city.  Seems’; and, ‘Of course London is “that flower of cities all”. And yet one doesn’t need to see it as Cobbett did, as a great wen, or even refer to it as “The Smoke”, to feel that its virtues are not cosmopolitan, but rather derive from the virtues of village and countryside, those being simply – in London – writ large, and perhaps thereby attenuated, save in the moment of crisis. … What it comes to, I think, is this: That English people do not love London, nay, Londoners do not love London, for its port and pomp, its sprawl or sway, its sometimes meretricious dazzle. Rather, London is loved because it is an aggregation of English villages and hamlets, Clapham and Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Kensington, Notting Hill, Hounslow and Shepherd’s Bush, Hampstead, Camden Town, Kentish Town, Gospel Oak. A collection of neighbourhoods, of shared experiences and shared local jests and favourite locals with favourite ales and a favourite barmaid. These are Burke’s “little platoons” that together form the army of society; these are the sources of a Chestertonian local patriotism.’


Even chocs get in on the Rural Appeal:


and this despite the fact that we’re used to chocs going for the Sexy Bird in a Punt or Canoe business (why, yes, I am thinking of the long association of wet, clingy, transpicuous dresses and Cadbury Flake).  Appropriately – as Flake and Aero are considered rivals – Aero has gone with the ‘hunk’ advert, which sells me, for one, on something, but not the product.


I have eschewed the Flake advert with the swan, as there is simply too much Classical subtext (Leda, anyone?).


The family, then, the nuclear family, larky children, earthy da, competent mum who really runs the show, and rurality or suburbanity: these seem to strike to the heart in most adverts.  What else?  How else do we wish to see ourselves?


The North is if course associated with Hovis adverts.  It is, historically, a Macclesfield company, to be sure; and if there are those in the Ainsty or near the cathedral close in Durham who would consider Macclesfield to be a part of the soft and sunny South, the greater part of the country (and every advertising agency in London) yet half-believe that the North begins at the Watford Gap.  Yet the iconic North of the Hovis adverts is something else again: a Pennine paradise, like its people thrawn perhaps to the initial view, yet warm and large-hearted, unpretentious and affectionate; the North, wide-skied and keen, the roof of England under pure, clear skies. 


And there is a strain of Northern-ness in many other adverts, as there are adverts that pray in aid the charm of the West Country or Wales, Ireland or Scotland: just as American food adverts evoke, often, the Wild West or the Old South or New England – or Texas.


Rurality and regionalism are, then, guarantors of, markers of homely authenticity.


So also is the factitious belief that we are familiar – as long ago we should have been in fact familiar – with those who make our bread or raise the corn and mill the flour.  Food adverts in the UK tend overwhelmingly to suggest the cosiness of the village baker and butcher and greengrocer, either directly – the baker, and his lad on the bike making his rounds; the old baker and ‘young’ Harold – or indirectly, by focussing on families, from the OXO family to those sitting down to a Hovis loaf for the first tea after t’ War, who are also working class.  Again, the implication is that in these people, the backbone of society, there is a communicable authenticity, one that may be acquired with the bread or the OXO cubes simply by purchase.


Finally, of course, there’s the affectionate component.  There is the innocent and ultimately marital sexiness of the Hovis For Life advert, in which the male and female leads in fields of (Southern) arable grow from childhood friends to lovers literally rolling in the corn to parents of small children leading them on a ramble through the tall and waving grain.  There is the OXO family classic, ‘Remember Preston’: well, those sprogs came from somewhere, after all.  And there is – although in these less innocent times there will doubtless be the usual attributions of ‘subtext’ – there is the abiding and, I truly believe, innocent British affection for cheeky, larky lads.


Again, this is a matter of cosiness.  The Hovis Runaway is par excellence the sort of wee bairn whose image immediately evokes protective and paternal (and maternal) concern.  We have seen this before: the Southern Railway posters were iconic in this regard, and as late as 1985, an advert for British Rail – having the rather plangent tagline, ‘We’re getting there’ (please don’t hurt us, we’re trying like billy-oh, guv, honestly) – culminated with another tot being helped on his way by an avuncular old porter who is clearly kin to the Postie in the Hovis advert.  The ideal is evident: a world of community, rural or suburban, tightly knit and familiar, one of Burke’s little platoons of society.  It is, in fact, a deeply Conservative ideal.


It is fair to say, I think, that the iconic (that word again) sound, the evocative sound, of Britain is not, say, the skylark, or a brass band, or a military band, or the sounds of sheep or pigs or cattle, or the clatter of a mill, or a choirboy’s treble uplifted in song in a cathedral or college; it is, rather, the kettle on the hob.  The British ideal is a homely cosiness.


More than that: it is a homely cosiness not unmixed with a sense of loss and nostalgia.  The 2009 Hovis advert is very much like a brilliant short film – a film trouvée, as it were – that may be found at that marvellous site,

The Retronaut, whose analysis cannot be bettered:


And so we return once more to the 2009 Hovis advert, all 122 years and seconds of it.  We may all of us be moved by different aspects in it: for me, the wars and the Coronation, for some no doubt the World Cup, for many I make certain women’s suffrage and the miners.  But what does it say of us that it does move us?  There is a homeliness and a cosiness shot through it; there is a thread also of nostalgia and loss.  There is a celebration of community; there are the working classes; there is, of course, an appealing lad as the central character.  The miners’ strike itself dissolves its tension when the strikers and the police stop to chaff Our Lad affectionately.  The community changes around him as the years flit by: West Indian Commonwealth immigrants begin to appear on previously lilywhite streets, and then Asian Britons as well: yet the community remains knit tightly.  It is, like Churchill on the wireless, outnumbered, indomitable, and ultimately triumphant.


In short, it is Britain as the British wish desperately to believe it to be, the British as seen by themselves.  I have suggested elsewhere that one cannot comprehend the English, at least, without understanding Julian of Norwich, and that one cannot understand Dame Julian without comprehending Margery Kempe.  Here, if you like, is a modern redaction of her Book, at once vulgar and spiritual, sentimental and calculated, homely and universal.  It will, no doubt, sell a good deal of bread (to go with that intolerable deal of sack: how Shakespeare would have loved this advert, with a fellow craftsman’s admiration); but as a cultural artefact its importance is far greater and more lasting, and repays the most persistent study.  Man shall not live by bread alone, but he can know himself in a loaf of bread – and the adverts for it – even as the world may be bounded in a hazelnut-shell.



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noeon From: noeon Date: March 29th, 2010 05:47 am (UTC) (Link)

Non nobis (if you like that sort of thing)

The first set of "classic" 70s Hovis ads have interesting technique - voiceover, always older and recollecting simpler ways while the memory plays in its untouchable clarity on the screen with no background sound save the Dvorak (New World Symphony? Really? A Czech composer writing in America for iconic British pastorale).

The second spot, 122 years, has notable differences. Instead of rural and local memory-accentuated regionalism if you will-the boy traverses the large event historical terrain, trans-regional communal memory verging on the world stage. Also, the boy speaks in the 'present' at the end of the advertisement, far more of an actor than the nostalgic, elegiac voices of the classic spots and the silent, personal nature of their memories. And home has to be voiced as well. It is not implicit. (And why is the miner's strike in there? I can't quite puzzle it out but it's a meaningful moment.) Also the jaunty new music.

The chocolate adverts were a bit distracting. 'Galaxy' chocolate. For rural life. Why? (And how long has CHOCOLATE been a common feature in rural life, or are they really just getting the viewer to think 'milk'?) I don't even know what to say about the canoe (just because some watery tart ate a Cadbury flake bar...) or the hunk (what in the world is wrong with his pronunciation? It's not properly anything. Is it meant to sound American? Regionless? Eurotrash? But yes, there's nothing wrong with his pecs. Pity it's not silent.)

I think "Young Harold" is my favorite of the lot and how clever, how utterly clever to tie it to King Harry, who shall never hear "herald" anymore. And of course the Crispin's day speech and the odd nostalgia of remembering how young KB was, not to mention the pathos of that particular Agincourt.

What the Retronaut's time-travel clip from the 40s reconstruction ties up with a bow is the importance of music to the overall mood of the piece.

The Oxo family are their own little slice of continuity. It's remarkable, really. 42 ads over 16 years is more stable than many off-screen families. The dad with his "bangers" is the little revenge within the mundane. (The first two in that collection were terribly funny. The American BBQ was a suitably savage ritual, and leeks wrapped in liver is really a balls-to-the-wall defense of the 'large hunk of meat' theory of cooking). The Oxo gravy granules in a jar spot is an ironic defense of tea ("Just was well I wasn't making coffee.")

The Oxo family are the descendants of the first tea after the war, but with the shine taken off a bit. The harvest/fertility imagery of Hovis for Life is quite the opposite pole, almost classically mythological in its radiant figures.

The Pace ad is well chosen. How very Texas regional (San Anton pride) but the united outcry of the West against "NEW YORK CITY" (I love the three word usage and the outrage it implies). The rope is a bit ominous in an otherwise humourous piece. And really, what is the United States other than New York and the rest?

Again, the implication is that in these people, the backbone of society, there is a communicable authenticity, one that may be acquired with the bread or the OXO cubes simply by purchase. I think this is very well put, but the authority lies in the office and not just in the person, in an era when the offices are gone or all-but-forgotten, when Tesco's is the greengrocer-butcher-baker all in one and gravy comes from a jar like Kenco (which is oddly good, a fact that perplexes the hell out of visiting American coffee snobs).

Give us this day our daily tea.

And courtesy, perhaps, with Julian.

Edited at 2010-03-29 05:54 am (UTC)
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