Sid Roberson doesn’t want to dwell on the past. ’I nearly called
off the interview because I thought it would bring back too many bad
memories,’ the seasoned commercials director admits, getting comfortable
in an armchair in the Groucho Club. ’I didn’t want to have to go through
all that again.
It’s upsetting even now.’ So let’s at least get it over with
Roberson is, of course, referring to the demise of his production
company, Sid Roberson Films, which went into liquidation in the summer
of 1992 after some 23 years of trading. It was a bitter blow to a
dedicated professional who had cut his teeth alongside Alan Parker and
Ridley Scott in the 60s, and won practically every major award over the
years. Roberson took it extremely hard, not so much for his own sake,
but for that of his 20-odd staff, whom he regarded almost as family.
If there was any solace to be had from the whole sorry experience, it
was the way in which adland rallied round him - Paul Weiland offered him
moral and practical support, while sympathetic gestures and noises came
from the most unlikely places.
’People kept telling me I’d be all right, that I was a fighter,’
Roberson says. ’But I certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. I just
But perhaps they had a point after all. Four-and-a-half years on, the
irrepressible Roberson is right back in the thick of it and his stock
would appear to be higher than ever. He’s running his own production
company again - something he swore he’d never do - though Sid Roberson
and Partners is what you might call a ’streamlined’ operation consisting
of himself and just one full-time member of staff, with reinforcements
pulled in on a project-by-project basis.
A year after opening for business, the company is enjoying a steady flow
of scripts from what Roberson describes as the ’grown-up agencies’ - the
pick of the bunch are probably Hula-Hoops and W. H. Smith - and he is
relishing his ’second chance’.
Roberson ascribes his resurgence primarily to his directing credit on
the Fast Show, the quick-fire BBC comedy series featuring the likes of
Paul Whitehouse (with whom he had worked on an ad for Fab ice lollies),
Charlie Higson and Caroline Aherne, which picked up a slew of awards in
1996. ’It’s just a collection of jokes, basically. They are like
commercials without any products, and they are better than most because
there are no clients and no restrictions,’ Roberson says.
He has a point - you can barely sit through a commercial break these
days without one or other of the Fast Show regulars popping up:
Whitehouse extolling the virtues of milk, Aherne donning her Mrs Merton
persona to tout British Gas. The short sketch format of the Fast Show
also allowed Roberson to experiment with a variety of film styles. ’They
just let me do what I wanted. It was great.’
Brimming with a new-found confidence, Roberson put together a new
showreel consisting entirely of Fast Show sketches and dusted off his
bulging but slightly dog-eared agency contacts book. ’I didn’t want all
of my old stuff on it and I kept it down to a few minutes. I’m aware
that people in advertising have the attention span of a gnat. They’re
used to looking at films that last 30 or 40 seconds.’
Having been around the block a bit, Roberson admits he’s more likely to
be on first-name terms with established creative directors than the hot
young teams who actually commission commercials directors. The response
was warm enough - John Hegarty allegedly described it as the best comedy
reel in London - but it seemed no-one was quite ready to use Roberson’s
Then he received a call from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. He was holidaying
in Spain at the time, and realised something significant must be afoot
when the agency insisted that he return immediately. The following day
he had a meeting with the senior creatives, Paul Briginshaw and Malcolm
Duffy, who told him he was in the frame for a huge project for W. H.
Smith. Afterwards, as Roberson went down to his car, his mobile phone
rang. The job was his.
Whatever you think of the unashamedly populist Nicholas Lyndhurst
campaign - many ascribe to Gerry Moira’s Private View that ’there’s
something slightly sinister about Lyndhurst in drag’ - no-one can
quibble about its success.
Away from commercials, Roberson continues to direct TV series (recent
credits include Hamish Macbeth, with Robert Carlisle, and Harry, with
Michael Elphick) and he has just finished shooting a new comedy series
written by Simon Men Behaving Badly Nye, due to screen in April.
In his time, Roberson has served the UK ad industry in various
He’s been a typographer, an art director and a photographer (with David
Puttnam as his agent) and for a while he must have thought his time as a
director of comedy commercials was up. Fortunately, he seems to have
been given a reprieve; adland would be a poorer place without him.