You could easily fill a book about the huge number of classic commercials that emanated from British ad agency CDP during the 1970s and 1980s. (And indeed someone already has. John Salmon and John Ritchie's wonderful 'Inside Collett Dickenson Pearce' is no longer in print, but you can - and should - still track down a second hand copy). Numerous campaigns deserve another airing, but none were more beloved by the British public than the exceptional series of ten spots created between 1978 and 1983 for the Italian vermouth Cinzano. Here are four of the best, including the first spot. That's by no means a classic in its own right, but it sets up the joke that would be repeated with increasingly clever variations throughout the rest of the series.
According to Geoff Howard-Spink, then CDP's director of account planning, "The man who ran the business was related to the Cinzano family and he saw the advertising we were doing for other people and decided he wanted us to do it for him as well." Legendary art director Ron Collins took on the brief. "His idea," Howard-Spink recalled, "was basically to take the piss out of [Cinzano's main rival] Martini and the whole 'Martini lifestyle' campaign that had been created by McCann Erickson, based on trendy jet-setters on the Riviera in hot air balloons."
Collins' first choice to play a "sort of glumf James Bond anti-hero" was Woody Allen, but he wouldn't do commercials. Next on the list was Peter Sellers, but he wasn't available (and was expensive and had a reputation for being difficult on-set). Finally, they settled on comic actor Leonard Rossiter, a modest household name in Britain as a result of TV sitcom 'Rising Damp', who was both available and affordable. Next Collins wanted a different woman to play opposite in him in each ad, and drew up a list that included Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren and even Elizabeth Taylor. Inevitably they also all refused, but instead British actress Joan Collins was booked to do a single commercial in return for £1500 and a first class air ticket from Los Angeles, where she was making the TV series Dynasty.
With Rossiter on-board, the direction of the campaign changed to accommodate his familiar comic persona of a self-satisfied and slightly seedy buffoon. According to Alan Parker, who was signed up to do the first ad, it was Rossiter himself who suggested what became the series' long-running gag, a variant of the old music hall routine about the guy who spills a cup of tea on himself when he looks at his watch. Instead, it was Joan Collins who became the butt of the gag, not just once but, as it turned out, over and over again over the course of the series. Indeed, the first ad went so well on-set that Collins was quickly signed up the very same afternoon to do another two.
The commercials proved so popular with audiences that the initial three ads were gradually extended into a series of ten separate films over the next five years. As the series evolved, so too did the central running gag, so that audiences were left guessing each time about how and when and over whom the drink would be spilled. The two best were arguably the pair directed by Hugh Hudson in 1979, 'Airliner' and 'Ski Lodge', which deployed two clever variations on the traditional drink-spill.
It wasn't perhaps the happiest of partnerships. Rossiter, a notorious micro-manager of his own performances, was self-centred and demanding on-set, and referred to Joan Collins dismissively as "the prop". She, always professional, grinned and bore it. However, the edgy chemistry between them added to the joke.
The series eventually ended in 1983 after a change of management at Cinzano, which decided it needed a more international approach to its advertising. Yet those ads still live on, as original and as funny today as they were when they first aired.