In his native France, David Belle is an urban hero whose movement has attracted a large following - predominantly young adolescents from the inner-city estates of Paris. In this country, he is almost unheard of.
That is set to change, thanks to the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creatives Tom Ewart and Dave Sullivan. Two months ago, the pair saw a snippet about the movement on late night TV and were inspired to find out more, using the internet. They were so fascinated by what they discovered that they were determined to feature the movement in an ad. Ewart and Sullivan were able to beat a team of Nike creatives to Belle, much to their obvious delight.
"That's the great thing about the internet - discovering something and plucking it from obscurity,
A few weeks later, a brief from the BBC landed fortuitously on their desks. The challenge was to make people reassess BBC1 in its first branding campaign. Instead of being perceived as staid old Auntie, the channel of middle-England and the institution that Britons turn to at times of national importance, BBC1 wants to bring in younger viewers, emphasising its role as an entertainer and provider of unmissable programmes.
Like all good commercials, Ewart and Sullivan's ad is a simple idea based around a simple truth: the way people behave when there's something good on TV, rushing home or changing their social schedule.
Highlighting the must-see nature of BBC1, the story tells of one man's intelligently unconventional journey home, in which he avoids the gridlocked city by taking to the rooftops. Stripping off his shirt at the office, our hero climbs out of the window, shimmies up the building and performs a series of acrobatic leaps and tumbles until he reaches the window of his apartment. Even then, his feet do not touch the ground and he light-footedly springs across a table and on to the sofa.
As the viewer is left breathless, the protagonist casually leans back and points the remote control at the TV, not even slightly out of breath.
The ad, directed by Tom Carty, is mesmerising and visually sensational. Aesthetics are central to Parkour and Carty has brilliantly captured the sheer beauty of the protagonist, from his back, which ripples like a swimmer's, to his elegant, balletic movements. The incredible fluidity of the performance is emphasised by the laid-back, romantic music Sway, a Rip-off Artist re-mix featuring the voices of both Dean Martin and Julie London.
The ad promised to be a logistical nightmare, not least because wires and safety nets were not an option. As Sullivan explains: "Le Parkour is not just about big jumps, it's all about creating shapes in the air and you only get that if you defy gravity."
Yet there was a big jump - an enormous jump, in fact - of 23 feet. Such stuff must be every account manager's nightmare.
Yet, according to the team, Christine Madden, the head of marketing for BBC1, was not difficult to convince. She even sanctioned one of the ad's quirkier touches, a shapely naked woman playing the piano.
"It's true to the story,
she says. "There are images of beauty throughout the film."
Madden admits that getting the big jump over with on the first day was a huge relief: "I managed to get some sleep that night - the first I'd had in three weeks!"
It was not an easy task either for the producers and crew. While the BBC Broadcast producer Edel Erickson sought clearance to use around 15 rooftops, the first assistant director told everyone to put 999 into the speed dial of their mobile phones.
"There were safety experts throughout and we spent a long time deliberating the script and his safety. That was of the utmost concern," Madden said.
Carty was never in any doubt about Belle's safety. Studying him in Paris helped Carty not only to understand the philosophy and Belle's ability, but to work out the best way of capturing it.
The team enhanced the script by watching Belle - who they describe as the Bruce Lee of the movement - and using shorthand to refer to certain moves, such as 'monkey' and 'spiderman'.
"Most people have said David's mad,
Carty says. "He's not at all. He's very calm, very low-pulse. He works out the measurements in his mind first, like Schwarzenegger, as though he's got a computer in his head. Then it's just yes or no. There's no bravado - he doesn't take risks."
On-set, Belle was able to tell Carty to the exact stone where he was going to land so that he could position his camera. It was important for Carty to show the complete move so that the viewer understands that there are no tricks or stunts involved.
Belle was also given complete freedom to choreograph his own moves. "It was important to give him the space and the respect he needed to do the job - not that he was arrogant or a superstar. He wasn't - he was a very humble man,
The respect, admiration and incredulity inspired by Belle have not been restricted to those who worked with him. These emotions are also stirred in viewers of the commercial.
Perhaps even more importantly, the BBC is more likely to be taken seriously by the younger audience it seeks to address as the film exudes an effortless cool. When the BBC beats Nike at its own game, you know it's on to a winner.