ITV 50 Years of Fame: Private view - British Gas

British Gas commercials, like Parkinson, seem to have been on our tellies for ever.

Over the years, even if they've not been brilliant, they have been as warm, as middle class and as British as a favourite pair of slippers. Only one of the six ads shown here really stuck - most people can remember the Tell Sid campaign - but looking through them nevertheless brings on waves of nostalgia. A bit like John F Kennedy's assassination, you tend to recall what you were doing at the time.

First off, from 1986, is the most famous. A motorcyclist informs an extremely middle-class lady that she can pay for her gas shares in instalments - be sure to tell Sid (1). She tells her gardener (doesn't everyone have one?), who in turn sends on the news by carrier pigeon - presumably to the enigmatic Sid.

The Tell Sid campaign, the first in a long line of public sell-offs, caught the public's imagination. The ads neatly personified the man in the street who, for the first time in his life, felt that he was able to participate in big business.

One of the hang-ups of gas as a fuel was that it tended to be regarded as less "modern" than electricity. The next ad went a long way to correct this with shots of food cooking on the latest equipment to real sound effects playing "Cookability, that's the beauty of Gas" (2). A beautiful film (never have those blue flames looked so sexy) that out-electricitied electricity.

The "Don't you just love being in control?" campaign of the 90s used celebs to point out the advantages of using gas compared with electricity.

Here, an opulent Joan Collins berates her English butler for using a gas tumble drier for her dinner napkins - people might think she was saving money (3). The films continued with witty scripts for Larry Hagman, Harry Enfield and others, who all suffered the indignity of having their thumbs alight for the sign-off.

The series with Mrs Merton's possessive mum was entertaining enough to spawn a sitcom of its own on BBC1 (4). Here, when her 35-year-old still-at-home son keeps making calls at all hours, she suspects him of using the phone-query service offered by British Gas as a decoy for a girlfriend.

Feeling threatened, she snaps into action and banishes him to his box-room. It's a rare piece of insight for an ad.

Then, out of the blue, we go all serious with a voice talking about "an army of highly trained staff" to classical music and lots of dissolves to computers (5). A bit of a leap, this. OK, offer what your rivals haven't got but it's the corporate tone that's out of kilter with the rest of the ads.

Finally, the new millennium is ushered in with cuddly Ricky Tomlinson explaining the central heating service provided by British Gas to a squad of greenhorn recruits (6). Whether consumers regard him as cuddly or not, I don't know (I suspect not, as he's been replaced by Brenda Blethyn), but he's certainly a bit callous in this one, yelling at us while the poor fledgling serviceman falls flat on his back.

The future of energy is of global concern and is going to be at the forefront of the political agenda for years. The competition with other fuels and rival services can only increase. The North Sea supply is running out.

Will British Gas be able to continue with its traditionally humanistic approach? Will it advertise at all?

Ask Sid.

1. BRITISH GAS SHARES Title: See Sid Agency: BMP Date: 1986 2. GAS COOKERS Title: Plan 6 Agency: BMP Date: 1984 3. GAS TUMBLE DRIERS Title: Joan Collins Agency: BMP Date: 1991 4. HELPLINES Title: Malcolm's girlfriend Agency: BMP Date: 1996 5. HOME RESPONSE Title: Man in bungalow Agency: BMP Date: 1997 6. CENTRAL HEATING CARE Title: Fallback Agency: Clemmow Hornby Inge Date: 2003

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