LORD JIM: James Garrett is one of the great names in British commercials. Now "Gentleman Jim" is retiring after 40 years. Caroline Marshall reports

Now that James Garrett has finally retired, aged 75, we might legitimately ask whether we should stand by for his memoirs. One of the great names in British television commercial-making, key player in a sophisticated gathering of communication advisers when he worked for the Tory Party leader Sir Edward Heath, friend and role model to the power brokers in advertising for four decades - wow, his memoirs would be dynamite.

But, sadly, this is never to be the case. In a business populated by people who are very good at promoting the idea that they are more important than you know, Garrett plays the opposite card. He's never given an interview before and never courted publicity.

"I've always held a passionate belief that production companies should be seen and not heard," he says. "We're the gentleman's gentleman's gentleman of the business. I believe that if there is any kudos or acclaim going around, it belongs to the agency."

And yet a romp through his reel would suggest he has much to celebrate. From the landmark "Manhattan" commercial for British Airways to the "moving oil" campaign for Castrol and the "Beattie" films starring Maureen Lipman for BT, here is a broad body of work that is effective, beautifully executed, original and enduring in its appeal.

Garrett was born in Bristol in 1928. Educated at home and Bristol Grammar School, medicalled out of the army on dodgy heart grounds, his break in film-making came at British Transport Films. This was one of the government's post-war dreams, a unit set up to promote the nationalised transport industries.

BFT made two or three films a year which were distributed to cinemas. Many big names got their first break there: John Schlesinger cut his teeth on a film about Waterloo station, David Watkins (who later won an Oscar for Out of Africa) was an assistant cameraman when Garrett was an assistant director. During an eight-year stint, Garrett was introduced to the great names of the documentary world.

He also became active in the film trade union as shop steward, a member of its general council and finally one of five vice-presidents who ran the whole show. "They tried to stop me from joining the unit when I was offered the job because I wasn't a union member and that made me feel bloody-minded. So once I joined, I joined for a purpose," he says.

He joined Pearl & Dean Productions, as a commercials producer, in June 1955. It was three months before the start of commercial television. A year later he switched to TV Advertising, a production company run by Ronnie Dickenson of CDP fame. Dickenson is the closest Garrett has to a mentor."He was a kind man, though quite strict. If I have any business acumen I got it from him," he says. On Dickenson's departure in 1959, Garrett took over the management of the company with David Peers.

But he was itching to do it for himself. Garretts opened its doors in 1963 with a small staff of eight people: Garrett, two producers, an administrator, an editor, a secretary, an office boy and the director Richard Lester.

They all worked out of two rooms in a studio in Kensington. In year one they needed to turn over £70,000 to break even. In the event they netted £125,000 and the average commercial budget was only £300.

The union closed shop exercised such a stranglehold on the business that Garretts could only look to two areas for new talent, feature films and television, because those people would already be members of the union.

After about three years, Garretts became the largest production company in the UK. "It wasn't our policy to be big, it came to pass that way," he says.

Andrew Cracknell, the former creative director of Bates, recalls: "At its peak Garretts was Harrods at its best - expensive, but a high quality, utterly tasteful, utterly reliable service. And that reflects Jim. It's impossible to imagine him being anything other than decent, polite and constructive. I'll never forget the one occasion I heard him say 'f***'. I almost had to go and lie down."

But size and success brought a dilemma. Agencies distrusted size, regarding it as being alien to creativity, yet it would have been madness to stop the momentum. So Garrett hit on the plan of maintaining growth by setting up standalone companies, independently managed and each with its own chemistry. The only common denominator was that every company should be director-led.

In the 15 years between 1965 and 1980, he set up a dozen or so such companies with varying degrees of success. Another aspect of the strategy was to give the companies to the managers after they had contributed profits to the centre for five consecutive years. The Annex, launched in 1986, is one of those offshoots. In perfect symmetry, as the Garretts name disappears and the company is closed down, Garretts' staff have joined The Annex.

In 1965 Garrett met Mary Wells who had been sent to London by her Interpublic boutique agency to help McCann-Erickson dig itself out of a hole with a major client. Wells promised Garrett support if he opened a shop in New York. His was the first UK production company to do so and for ten years it attracted a lot of work to London. Garretts also entered into sales arrangements with companies in Germany, Italy, France and, later on, South Africa.

In 1968 Garrett was asked by his friend Geoffrey Tucker, an adman who had been seconded to be director of publicity at the Conservative Party Central Office, to assemble a team of communications advisers for Edward Heath. Way before the days of political spin doctors and image makers, the idea was to use the television medium to repackage "Edward" (who was out of touch, unpopular, pretentious, snobbish and rude) as "Ted" (who was interesting, generous, thoughtful and friendly).

Garrett put together a team which included Dick Clement (the writer of Porridge), Bryan Forbes (the film director), Barry Day (copywriter, then at Lintas), Sir Ronald Millar (later Thatcher's speechwriter) and Terence Donovan. The aim was to make sure it was Ted who was seen on television and rallies and heard on the radio, not Edward. The treatment worked. He won the 1970 General Election, his only electoral victory - he lost three others. But it was no simple task.

"Heath was not an easy man," Garrett recalls. "He was suspicious of anything to do with communications. He thought he could communicate with the public via a letter in The Times."

These years, the late 60s, were Garrett's most rock and roll time in the business. "It was swinging Britain and we were working a lot for American agencies. It was great fun." In those days Garrett drank buckets - his tipple was white wine. Now he's a strictly a mineral water man. Why? "Something had to give, I was 17-and-a-half stone," he says. " I've never missed it in terms of needing to reach for a glass but I suspect that I had some of my better ideas when I'd had a bit to drink, and those moments were denied me after I stopped. But I also did some very stupid things too."

Garrett has always enjoyed mixing with the advertising establishment. As a member and past-president of the Thirty Club, the doyen of advertising dining clubs, this essentially private public man has forged friendships with the industry's powerful players that have transcended the ephemeral world of commercials. "Through the Thirty Club," he says, "I made contact with agency management in way you can't when you're a supplier to a supplier."

What does he consider the secret of his success? "Being genuinely interested in advertising, wanting to work for it, not taking too much time off the clock, persistence and bloody-mindedness," Garrett says. Is he, as some have suggested, a control freak, unable to take his hand of the tiller for 40 whole years? After all he only stepped back to three days a week two years ago. In 1984 he hired Mike Gilmour, the head of TV at J. Walter Thompson, ostensibly to be his successor. But after Gilmour left Garrett was still in charge.

"I probably should have stepped back ten years ago, but the fact is I didn't," he says. "Involving Mike was my most serious effort to hand over the reigns. I believed - though this may be a convenient memory on my part - that he would find his successor."

What about handing the company on to his sons, both of whom work in the film business. Was that an ambition? "Not really, no. I asked them if they wanted to come into the business and they said no. Superimposing one's children is not a recipe for success."

Garretts' golden period was in the 70s and 80s, when its star director Richard Loncraine was working hard across a range of commercials, everything from special effects to performance. Now a fine director of feature films - he shot last year's Emmy award-winning Gathering Storm - Loncraine has been represented by Garretts throughout his career. "He never strayed," Garrett says. "I feel enormously indebted to him."

As the wheel turned, however, other companies came to the fore and the Garretts star declined. With Loncraine increasingly absent on film and TV work, the company lost the high ground in commercials. It downsized, moved to smaller premises and so on, but it was too late to maintain Garretts' position as a standalone brand. It could not shake off its "old school" tag, despite attempts to reinvent itself by taking on new directors.

Garrett, no doubt, saw it coming. And in any case he will be remembered for much more than his company. For a while in the 80s he had a successful headhunter company called The Talent Store. He even interested himself in the programme contracting side of the business and developed the concept of daytime television which he tried to get the IBA to adopt in the 80s. What he has contributed, calmy and unobtrusivey, to British advertising is incalculable. He saw the whole game, saw where it was going and his sane advice has affected the careers of numerous people.

So what next for "Gentleman Jim" as he is called? "I've no obsessions other than rugby," he says, and he's busy planning a big 75th birthday trip to the Rugby World Cup in Australia next month with his wife. But you sense he'll never quite switch off. "I still spend my evenings in front of the box in a state of perpetual jealousy," he says, with a wink.

SHOWREEL HIGHLIGHTS 1963-2003

Aids awareness - The first campaign to tackle the Aids problem, thought to be too direct to keep on air. Produced for COI Communications and directed by Nicolas Roeg.

BA - The landmark "Manhatttan" ad for BA was directed by Richard Loncraine for Saatchi & Saatchi. The 90-second film showed the island of Manhattan coming in to land at Heathrow and presaged the increasing influence of special effects in advertising.

BT - "Beattie" launch ad and most of the follow-up films starring Maureen Lipman. The ad was produced for J. Walter Thompson and directed by Tony Smith.

Braniff - Two-minute film predicting the future of supersonic flight produced for Wells Rich Green and directed by Richard Lester.

Castrol - The "moving oil" commercial produced for Bates Dorland and directed and lit by Julian Cottrell.

Halifax - Campaign launch of "Xtra", the first to use people to form the "X". Produced for Bates Dorland and directed by Roeg.

Levi's - "Pawnbroker" produced for BBH, directed by Loncraine.

Midland Bank - "Giant", an effects commercial with effects done in camera or on film, long before the days of doing everything "in post". Produced for WCRS and directed by Loncraine.

Renault Clio - The "Nicole-Papa" campaign from the transformation onwards, produced for Publicis and directed by Loncraine.

Tom Thumb - "You don't have to be big to be beautiful" campaign starring Dudley Moore, produced for Young & Rubicam, directed by Dick Clement.

Wrangler Jeans - "Diary of a pair of jeans". The first high value commercial shot on video tape in the style of pop promos. Produced for CDP and directed by David Mallet.

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