How Blackcurrant Tango created an advertising classic - and what creatives can learn 20 years later

On the 20th anniversary of Blackcurrant Tango's 'St George', one of the most popular ads of all time, Brittaney Kiefer speaks to one of its copywriters about what creatives can learn from its legacy.

Twenty years ago Ray Gardner stripped down to purple shorts, jumped into a boxing ring on the White Cliffs of Dover and challenged France, Europe and the world to a fight.

That classic ad for Blackcurrant Tango, "St George", went on to win a string of awards including at Cannes and D&AD, and was voted one of the 100 best commercials of all time.

Created by HHCL & Partners, the spot begins with Gardner responding to a French exchange student’s criticism of the new blackcurrant-flavoured Tango. His rant culminates with an epic scene in which an entourage backs him into a boxing ring, while he declares, "I’m Ray Gardner, and I drink Blackcurrant Tango."

It debuted on 17 October 1997 during Channel 4’s TFI Friday, airing only 10 times before the media budget was used up. But by the end of its limited run, Gardner was a fixture of the show and "St George" had gone down in British advertising history. 

On the ad’s 20th anniversary, Campaign speaks to Chas Bayfield, who wrote it along with Jim Bolton, about how the idea was born and what creatives can learn from its legacy. 

Where’d the idea for "St George" come from?

The "do it in one take" idea was originally a thought for the (now defunct) phone company Mercury Communications. We had the bosses of Mercury walking out of their corporate offices directly onto a beach. At the time we wrote it, the French had just blown up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour – something to do with nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll. By the time the ad came out everyone had forgotten this and assumed we were being anti-French for the sake of it.

The dialogue was inspired by Shakespeare and Captain Dan in Forrest Gump (the bit where he’s in the crow’s nest in a storm). The Harrier jets were a nice afterthought. 

Did you have any trouble selling your idea to the client?

Selling it was relatively straightforward. David Atter was the Tango client and nothing was too out there for him. In an age where most clients are driven by fear, it would be refreshing to work with another client like David who was impelled solely by the dream of making a brand famous. That’s why he bought an ad for a small sub-brand of soft drink that was the size and scale of something that only really Coke or Pepsi could have pulled off.

How did you make the ad and were there any challenges?

Production wasn’t easy. Ray Gardner was a natural choice, despite being three times the age of the target market. Getting him out of his trousers took 23 takes and the weather was very much against us. We shot the office scene and the white cliffs on the first two days, and the mid section on day three. On day three it snowed, despite it being April. We sat in a truck glued to a monitor on which was drawn a Chinagraph pencil outline of the position Ray needed to be in when he says, "You’re that!" as this was our transition point. Add this to the problems with Ray’s trousers and the snow and – well, it was a long day! 

It was also very foggy on the day we shot the white cliffs and the chopper kicked up so much dust from the field that we had to have Ray running along the cliff rather than towards it, which would have been more epic. We chose a TV drama director, Colin Gregg, because he was technically very able. He didn’t have a comedy reel but there weren’t any jokes – the simple idea of a guy getting so wound up by a complaint letter was funny enough.

Did the response to the ad surprise you?

Yes, mainly because HHCL wasn’t at all awards focused at the time. We all wrote the ads we wanted to make rather than the ones that our peers would love. It was a proper surprise that it went down so well in the industry. It even did well in Cannes, which as everyone knows is French. 

Any lessons from the process?

Only good ones. Take one brilliant planner (Dave O Hanlon), one brilliant account director (Minnie Moll), one brilliant producer (Pete Muggleston), one brilliant client (David Atter) and it really is yours to balls up.

Should creatives be actively trying to make ads that become famous like "St George", or does it have to happen naturally?

Of course – stupidly globally famous. But not to win awards necessarily; I’m not sure what has to be done these days to win one. We need to make ads that the public see and love, not ones that disappear down a wormhole that only marketing people ever hear about. We need to make advertising that stands out, whatever medium we use. 

You can wait forever for serendipity to visit. Or you can accept the things you can change (the effort, enthusiasm and attention to detail you give to your idea), put them with those you can’t (the rest of your team, your client, your agency, the product) and navigate a channel to greatness. Nowhere is perfect, nor is any client or any product. Your skill is to find the opportunity, however small it may be, that still exists in between all the obstacles. 

From your experience do you have any advice for creatives today?

Stop chasing awards and put your energy into making advertising that is loved. Help the public fall back in love with ads. Make outdoor beautiful again. Fill newspapers and magazines with things people want to read and interact with. Do social in a way that’s properly sociable. Do digital but make it newsworthy, otherwise you’re just filling the Internet with stuff.

Has advertising gotten worse? Can you even get ads like "St George" anymore?

You can. Recently I got asked by our global executive creative director to make a Blackcurrant Tango-esque ad for one of our clients, so the desire is still there. I’m not sure if any creatives getting into advertising today are doing it through a love of writing. For every "He waits" for Guinness and "I have conquered worlds" for PlayStation, there are thousands of ads whose words you don’t remember. 

The bigger question is "where is advertising going next?" The under-25s don’t seem to watch TV or read papers and magazines and they skip online ads wherever they can. How do we talk to them? There should be some serious advertising brains working round the clock on this one, otherwise we’ll all be out of a job.