'In awe' of Alan Parker: acclaimed ad and film director dies aged 76

His egalitarian approach helped to set UK advertising on a new course in the 1970s, before he moved into film.

Alan Parker in 1994. Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images
Alan Parker in 1994. Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

The advertising and film worlds have paid tribute to the acclaimed director Sir Alan Parker, who has died aged 76.

Parker was widely regarded as one of Britain's greatest commercials directors in the 1970s when he switched from copywriting and shot memorable TV ads for brands such as Birds Eye, Cinzano and Parker Pens.

The only child from a working-class family in Islington, he personified a new egalitarianism in British advertising and was part of a golden generation that included Frank Lowe, David Puttnam and Charles Saatchi.

His success in advertising paved the way for a glittering career in Hollywood as a director of films including Bugsy Malone, Evita and Fame, when he continued to work with many of the talents he had first met during his advertising days.

Puttnam, the producer of Chariots of Fire, who worked closely with Parker, paid tribute to the director.

“Alan Parker was my oldest and closest friend and I never ceased to be in awe of his talent," he said. "My life, and those of many others who loved, respected and admired him will never be quite the same again.”

Madonna, who starred in Evita, said she was sad to hear of the death of “one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with”.

Parker was proud of his working-class roots and recounted in a video interview for the History of Advertising Trust how he challenged the status quo by casting people from outside London to appear in some of his ads.

He was one of the inaugural members of Campaign’s Hall of Fame in 2008, when the magazine ran the following tribute to Parker:

"The Swinging Sixties re-energised the UK agency scene. Class barriers came down, heralding the arrival of a new breed of creatives, united by their eagerness to explore fresh ideas rather than their social backgrounds. Nobody symbolised this new egalitarianism better than Sir Alan Parker.

"The one-time copywriter turned filmmaker (Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express and The Commitments are among his credits) had none of the middle-class mentality that prevailed in Britain's agencies at the time.

"Parker's writing style was natural and informal. He simply wrote as he spoke. A press ad showing a model wearing Pretty Polly's new hold-up stockings carried one of his most memorable copylines: 'Yes. We have no suspenders.' Another, extolling the paintwork of the Ford Cortina, declared: 'When it rains it shines.'

"His approach reflected his working-class origins in Islington where he was born, the son of a dressmaker and a man who painted railings for the electricity board, in February 1944.

"He left school at 18 to work in the postroom of a small agency called Maxwell Clark. There, he was befriended by the writer Gray Jolliffe. 'He encouraged me to start writing ads in my spare time,' Parker recalls. 'I’d write stuff in the evenings and he and his agency copy chief would give each of them marks out of 10. It was an amazing apprenticeship.'

"Later, he was teamed with the art director Paul Windsor who, when tapped up by Collett Dickenson Pearce in 1967, insisted on Parker coming with him.

"Parker's no-nonsense style flourished within CDP, whose awesome array of talent resulted in some of the most memorable campaigns in UK advertising history.

"'My own creative group was full of misfits who didn't belong anywhere else – Jolliffe, Bob Byrne, Alan Tilby and others – and who surprised everyone who thought they should be shown the door by doing rather excellent work,' Parker says.

"The rivalry between the creative groups was intense. Parker remembers putting up a sign in the corridor where the group headed by Charles Saatchi and Ross Cramer ended and his began, which declared: 'The creative department starts here.'

"Parker set out his stall with a press ad for Harveys Bristol Cream called “ice cream”, which adopted a tone and language not seen in ads before. 'Of late, a few people have been looking at their regular glass of Bristol Cream in a new light,' his copy began. 'They’ve been taking to a largish glass not normally reserved for our sherry. Plonking in two or three chunks of ice.'

"Colin Millward, CDP’s creative chief, was taken aback. He told Parker: 'We’ve spent years putting this product on a pedestal and you’ve come along and started selling it off a barrow!'

"Millward, though, could recognise a rising star when he saw one and Parker's progress was swift, not least because he wasn’t seduced by the trappings of success. 'I wasn’t a Jack-the-lad, out nightclubbing every night. There were a few of us who had married young and just wanted to get home to the wife and kids at the end of the day.'

"Meanwhile, he was eager to get more involved in the burgeoning medium of TV. He’d written some of the early Hamlet spots, but was concerned that CDP was getting trapped within its print comfort zone, hiring commercials directors from New York to make up for the paucity of British talent.

“'No-one gave a thought to the fact that commercials would become an industry of its own,' he says. 'The film people thought we were a bunch of wankers selling deodorants. Also, hardly anyone in the agency understood how to make or write a commercial involving the spoken word.'

"The proposal Parker took to Millward was to be a defining moment in his career. Could he have some money to turn CDP’s unoccupied basement into a mini-studio where he could experiment in making commercials?

"Anxious to keep his protégé happy, Millward agreed. The agency projectionist operated the camera, Windsor lit the sets and Parker got to shout “action” and “cut” for the first time. 'Suddenly my life changed. In 20 seconds, I had become a film director.'

"Well, up to a point. None of Parker's commercials were broadcast. Those that clients liked had to be re-shot by union-registered directors. However, Millward and CDP’s co-founder, John Pearce, had an answer to Parker’s frustration. He would become their in-house director. They would underwrite a bank loan to get him started and promised him the pick of the best scripts.

"The speed of events dismayed Parker. 'I truly didn’t have any ambitions to be a director of any kind,' he insists. 'I really took a great pride in being an advertising person. I loved it and if I had any ambitions at that point, it would have been to take over from Colin as creative director when he retired.'

"Instead, the fledgling Alan Parker Film Company went on to produce some of the best UK ads of all time for clients as diverse as Parker Pens and Birds Eye and, of course, the highly successful Cinzano campaign starring Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins.

"In the end, Parker's story is an intriguing one full of "what-ifs?" How would CDP have fared under his creative command? Suppose it had been Charles Saatchi, instead of Parker, who had written the better screenplay for SWALK, the first movie to be produced by the one-time CDP suit David Puttnam?

"Word has it that Saatchi was so wounded by coming in second that he abandoned all thoughts of screenwriting and set about conquering adland instead.

"What’s certain is that Parker helped set UK advertising on a new course, as his rich legacy of great work will always testify."