You’re watching the third commercial in the fourth ad break of the
evening when you suddenly realise there’s something missing.
In turn, you’ve witnessed supermodels, celebrity chefs, television
presenters, footballers, athletes, stand-up comedians, captains of
industry and members of the general public - even the kind of jumped-up
socialites who are just famous for being famous - touting everything
from beer to banks to takeaway chicken.
Then it suddenly dawns on you. There are no actors among this motley
crew. They can’t all be resting, surely? Or too snooty to pocket the
advertising dollar? So what’s happening?
There was a time when you were almost guaranteed to see luminaries of
stage and screen endorsing all manner of products and services with
thespian gusto. They were all at it. Helen Mirren brought sophistication
to Virgin Atlantic, Bob Hoskins talked up BT, Joan Collins hammed it up
for Cinzano and Rutger Hauer was enigmatic for Guinness.
Even the late, great Orson Welles took a bow for Sandemans Port, when he
had famously fallen on hard times. Now, with one or two notable
exceptions, they all seem to have vanished.
There are a number of reasons behind the phenomenon; the first and most
mundane being the recently resolved dispute between Equity and the
Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.
For the main part, TV viewers are currently scrutinising shoots carried
out earlier this year, when card-carrying actors were advised by their
union not to appear in ads. So agencies and production companies were
forced to look outside the pages of Spotlight for their protagonists.
Suddenly, non-actors were in the frame for their 30 seconds of fame.
The next, and more compelling reason, is the commercial director’s quest
to create credible scenarios. ’Generally, I’m trying to create a feeling
of naturalism,’ Trevor Melvin of Blink explains. ’If you’ve got people
thinking, ’Wasn’t he in the Bill last week?’, the spell is broken.
Non-actors can often bring something new and fresh to a script.’
Melvin’s Meat and Livestock Commission commercial through BMP, featuring
a devoted octogenarian couple, was a case in point. The casting agent,
Amanda Tabac, discovered the engaging pair at a day centre for the
’They were just good mates,’ says Melvin, who was also responsible for
the effervescent Lilt ladies. ’They had each other for support and were
very relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera. It’s a shame some
of their improvisations didn’t stay in, they were so funny.’
So how do you go about getting a half-decent performance out of a
non-professional? ’Remove anything wooden from the set so there is no
point of reference,’ the director, Paul Weiland, says. He has
directed everyone from Gary Lineker and the Spice Girls to Jonathan Ross
’It’s not rocket science,’ he continues. ’You’ve just got to create a
relaxed atmosphere and know exactly what you want. As a director, you’ve
got to have an attitude and a point of view and convey that clearly.
Actors are trained to react and have opinions, whereas non-actors are
more like puppets.’
Tomboy’s Theo Delaney, a die-hard football fan who has directed Eric
Cantona, Alan Shearer and Peter Schmeichel among others, prefers to keep
his distance for fear of becoming overawed. ’Celebrities’ most precious
commodity is time,’ he explains.
’So it’s important to let them see that you are being totally
professional on set and that they aren’t left hanging around. I treat
them just as I would any other actor: keep them informed, reassure and
There are various tricks of the trade that can also help. Weiland admits
to having kept the camera running on occasion, so his charges are
unaware they are being filmed. One ploy of the Godman director, Mark
Denton, is to tell his subjects that the shot he is going to use is
already in the can and he’s just trying one more ’for luck’, which
relaxes the situation. Denton, who has acted in commercials himself and
is gearing up for a performance as the Edwardian footballer, Nobby
Shufflebottom, in a forthcoming Co-op ad, says the critical period is
pre-shoot, during casting.
’You’ve got to be able to spot that special ingredient that makes
someone relaxed in front of the camera. Even professional actors can
fall apart sometimes,’ he says.
Melvin agrees, maintaining that because non-actors have nothing to lose,
they often produce more effective performances within the short
time-frame of a commercial.
He should know - he’s even directed his mother-in-law for a Halifax ad.
’She is 75 years old and has seen it all,’ he says. ’She isn’t afraid of