A JWT tribute to its Oxo mum: Lynda Bellingham

The scene is a big sound stage at Shepperton studios. Tensions are running a little high on the Oxo family kitchen set.

A couple of years into the campaign, it’s the third long day of a week-long shoot.

The kids are tired and ratty as Derek Coutts (who went on to direct all 42 spots) lines up yet another shot.

Everything is just about ready to go but Lynda Bellingham is still in her dressing room. The crew are exchanging looks as they wait for her to emerge…

Suddenly, in the gloomy recesses of the studio, a distant door crashes open and the nation’s favourite Oxo Mum comes stomping down the whole length of the sound stage in floods of tears screaming: "If you don’t shoot this ******* scene now I’m ****** out of here because I’ve had it up to here and I just CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!"

Stunned silence. Three or four dozen people freeze solid. Alternative careers are considered.
Lynda looks slowly around at a tableau of horror-struck faces. Milks the moment for everything it’s got. Then takes a sweeping, theatrical bow.

As the applause erupts around Lynda, everyone on that set knows they’re in the presence of a consummate professional.

A couple of days later yet another chapter of the Oxo family saga wraps successfully. And happily.

And so it continued. For sixteen years, JWT’s Oxo family campaign graced British TV screens. And for sixteen years there, at the centre, was Lynda.

Holding everything together as her TV family bickered and sulked and toyed with their food – and literally grew up in front of the viewers' eyes.

It’s so easy to look back at the second incarnation of the Oxo family (Katie and Philip’s previous Oxo campaign ran through the 60s and 70s) through warm, fuzzy glasses.

Yet when the first spots were aired thirty years ago – when bite and smile was the order of the day for food commercials – Daily Express readers voted Oxo the worst campaign on television. All that bad behaviour! How could they?

Fortunately the rest of the country thought otherwise; Oxo went on to win the TV Times viewers’ award three years running.

Somehow, we’d all got it about right. It may not look that way today, but there was a distinct edge to the Oxo family. Indeed, our fearless client John Stuart once turned down a script because it researched too well. For which, read "too safe".

Hands up anyone who can imagine that happening today?

But the person who absolutely nailed it was Lynda. It’s the acting between the dialogue that made Oxo ads resonate. The silences, the little bits of business, the looks.

Punchlines like "Remember Preston?" and "Tonight’s the night then" may have got the laughs but it’s those priceless moments like Michael gently restraining Lynda as she advances on daughter Alison with a carving fork that really made it worth getting out of bed that day.

Right now, it’s not easy to watch Lynda's very last Oxo spot – the one where she and Michael stand among the packing crates and agree that it’s "time to go."

For Lynda, being the Oxo Mum may indeed have meant that the RSC didn’t come calling, but in all those 16 years Lynda never presented herself as anything other than the perfect ambassador for the brand.

But times changed. And so did the nation’s eating habits. In 1999, it really was time to go.

But surely not now.

By Richard Saunders (Who co-perpetrated the majority of the JWT campaign with Peter Celiz. All the best bits are Pete’s fault.)

Watch Bellingham's Oxo ad highlights here

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