The famous Hovis ‘Bike Ride’ commercial was relatively easy  to write.
But, boy, did it take perseverance to find somewhere to film it.

In order to understand why the famous Hovis campaign was created it is necessary to return to the dark days of the early seventies.
This was a time when Britain was in a mess.
Its slow post-war decline had yet to be halted.
Strikes and unemployment haunted the political landscape.
And then, in 1974, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, introduced the three-day week in a desperate attempt to prevent striking coal miners from holding the country to ransom.

Like all businesses, CDP was affected by the three day week. In essence, this was an emergency measure introduced by the government designed to ration electricity. It demanded that all British companies turn off their lights for two working days each week. With impeccable timing, this measure was enacted just as winter approached. So, for at least a couple of days a week, the CDP creative department would pack up working when it got dark, just after four, and all go home.
However, very soon we discovered that the light boxes used to view transparencies – illuminated devices rather like the ones doctors use to use to study X-rays – were classed as industrial equipment and were therefore exempt from the measure.
This extended the working day as we stuck any old transparency on the light box and used the ambient illumination it provided in place of the office lights.

The three-day week also led to at least one good joke.
In those days, the managing director, Frank Lowe roamed the corridors and offices of CDP wearing a cricketing jumper and carrying a cricket bat.
On one of the dark evenings, when CDP’s lights were turned off, a young account man encountered Frank on the stairs.
Frank looked very serious and thoughtful. ‘What’s the matter, Frank’, asked the account man, ‘bad light stop play?’
The young account man left the agency shortly afterwards.

As you can imagine, in those gloomy times neither present nor future were held in much optimism by the British public. So when the agency was briefed to write a series of commercials for Hovis, it was decided to go back in time and exploit the past.
After all, Hovis had been around since anybody could remember. And surely a good dose of nostalgia was just what the people of Britain needed to cheer them up.

Geoff Seymour got the job.
He wrote two commercials that exploited nostalgia in spades. One showed an Edwardian family on the beach at a seaside picnic, the other, a mother and son returning from a shopping trip in a Northern town, also set in the same period.
Geoff had written the voiceovers as elderly men fondly recalling the days of their youth.
The films were beautifully shot by Peter Webb, but Geoff wanted music to hold the films together – music that would evoke the period and the location of the films.

Alan Marshall, Alan Parker’s producer, had seen a TV programme filmed by the accomplished documentary maker Frank Citanovich. Its subject was the footballing brothers, Jack and Bobby Charlton. The film used brass band music as its soundtrack.
Marshall suggested the idea of brass band music to John Salmon, CDP’s Creative director, who had written a commercial with Arthur Parsons for a new Bird’s Eye pie. But the pie was never launched and the commercial was shelved.
It fell to John Salmon to suggest to Geoff Seymour that this music might be suitable for Hovis.

In the end, Geoff recorded two tracks. On the ‘Seaside’ commercial he used a brass band arrangement of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’, slowed down to fit with the commercials languid pace. But, on the other commercial, which was called ‘Northern’, he chose to record the adagio from Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’. This was a staple of the many brass bands that exist to this day in northern England.

The commercials were well received and earned their fair share of praise and awards. They certainly exploited nostalgia and, if nothing else, served to remind the British public of the existence of Hovis. But, apart from nostalgia, the films gave no real reason to consider buying Hovis in place of a regular loaf. This is what led to a brief being issued for a new series of commercials in the early part of 1973.

This new brief made much of the product characteristics of Hovis. But there was one of these characteristics that stood head and shoulders above the others. Because it was brown bread, and therefore less refined than white, Hovis contained more wheat germ than other breads. Wheat germ was synonymous with goodness, so it was also ‘good for you’. At least, this appeared to be the case to David Brown and Ronnie Turner, the creative team charged with writing the new campaign.

It’s a terrible phrase, but doing a job like this – where more has to be made of a product’s characteristics – is described as making it more ‘product-focused’. But just talking about the wheat germ in Hovis didn’t seem enough to David and Ronnie. They felt that in some way they needed to show the bread being good for you. Lesser agencies would resort to what are known as ‘product demonstrations’ at this point – but not CDP.
David and Ronnie decided the best way to accentuate the goodness of the product was to set the commercials in a bakery, as opposed to the seaside or a northern street. They would retain the nostalgia of the Edwardian period, but write commercials more directly related to the baking of bread.

With this thinking in place, David Brown remembers the two commercials that he and Ronnie conceived being relatively easy to write. Geoff Seymour had, after all, laid superb groundwork for the campaign. And it’s a damn sight easier to follow in somebody else’s footsteps, and write follow up commercials, than it is to start a campaign from scratch. Even so, the scripts that Ronnie and David wrote had merits of their own, not least by placing more emphasis on the product without it being obvious. 

The first idea they came up with featured a young lad whose dad was a baker. The young boy and his family lived above the bakery and the young lad would be woken up every morning by the smell of freshly baked Hovis. ‘It were better than any alarm clock’, as the voice over said. Not only was this script evocative, but also it was totally centered on the product and its story of goodness. David Brown loved it, and so did everyone who saw it.

The brief, however, asked for two scripts, so David and Ronnie looked around for another way to feature a bakery, without repeating themselves. Instead of the baker’s son, why not use the baker’s delivery boy? They could show him out on his rounds and then, at the end of the commercial, bring him back to the bakery to enjoy ‘doorsteps of hot Hovis’ and a cup of tea. All well and good, but they also wished to demonstrate the health enhancing benefits of Hovis, particularly as they applied to growing kids. So they chose to show the young baker’s boy pushing his delivery bike up a steep hill, and then freewheeling back down. Hence the famous opening line ‘Last stop on round were old Ma Pegarty’s place…it were like taking bread to the top of the world’. 

As well as locating the two commercials in and around bakeries, David and Ronnie beefed up the end voice over: ‘Hovis has many times more wheat germ than ordinary bread…it’s as good for you today as it’s always been’. This line is still as good as it’s always been: it continues to be used today by Hovis in a slightly modified form.

Unlike Geoff before them, David and Ronnie chose a different director to shoot the commercials, Ridley Scott. The ‘Alarm Clock’ film was shot at Isleworth Studios in London. But obviously, ‘Bike Ride’ needed an exterior location for the lion’s share of the film.

Remarkably, these two Hovis commercials were the first commercials that David and Ronnie had ever made. David had previously been at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which was justly famous for its print advertising. But the London office of DDB wasn’t exactly renowned for its film output. In fact, the agency made very few commercials. So David and Ronnie were film virgins when it came to finding a location for the ‘Bike Ride’ film.

They couldn’t believe what was happening to them. There they were, being chauffeur driven round the north of England on an all-expenses paid jaunt, looking for the perfect hill. The pair held the brief for this hill very clearly in their minds. They were searching for a 1 in 4 incline, that faced South (for lighting reasons) had a cobbled surface, authentic, old cottages, and a view from the top that was free of all twentieth-century clutter. Ideally, their chosen hill should also lead to nowhere in particular, to allow the local council to close it for a couple of days without anybody objecting too much.

But could they find that hill? They spent three weeks visiting the northern counties of England. They drifted through Derbyshire, looked all over Lancashire, yomped round Yorkshire and went as far North as Northumberland. As David Brown has said, ‘after three weeks all we’d come back with was a taste for Tetley’s Bitter and Harry Ramsden’s famous fish and chips’.

It was the film company art director, Michael Seymour, who found a way round the problem. He figured out that if a hill like this existed, somebody somewhere would have photographed it. And very likely, this photograph would appear in a book. So he confined his reconnaissance trips to his local public library. And, sure enough, in an obscure book on landscapes, he discovered an old black and white picture of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, a small Dorset town. ‘I think you’ve been looking in the wrong place, he said to David and Ronnie, ‘you need to go south, not north’.

Once again, the pair set out on their travels, heading down to Dorset. The hill turned out to be exactly what they’d been looking for. But they felt slightly uneasy about the fact that they were re-locating the film from what was fast becoming the heartland of the Hovis campaign, the North of England, to the shires of the South. It was, however, the perfect hill so they stuck with it.

What was interesting about Gold Hill was the fact that few people outside Shaftesbury knew of its existence. David and Ronnie confidently expected coach loads of American tourists to be swanning about when they went to reconnoitre it. But no, apart from a few locals, the place was deserted.

The shoot took place over two days, two days when the weather was perfect. Ridley Scott could, in the words of David Brown ‘be heard having multiple orgasms’ as he peered through the camera and marvelled at the light. Ridley shot take after take. The poor boy pushing the bike up the hill had to repeat the action twenty times before the great man was satisfied that he’d got what he wanted in the can.

Back in London, with the commercial now in the form of what’s known as a ‘rough cut’, David Brown turned his attention to the soundtrack. He felt that using the same music as Geoff Seymour – a brass band version of the adagio from the New World Symphony – was too mournful for the film and would leave viewers feeling miserable. So he commissioned Joe Campbell, a prolific producer of music for commercials, to come up with something more upbeat.
But when David showed the result to Frank Lowe, Frank was adamant that David had made a grave mistake, and should persevere with the Dvorak music. Frank’s point of view was that the New World adagio would, in time, become inextricably linked to Hovis in the same way that Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ was synonymous with Hamlet. Frank was, of course, right and David bowed to his judgment.

What continued to bug David – and still does, over 40 years later – is his choice of voice over. Because the film was shot in Dorset, David and Ronnie succumbed to the idea of using an actor with a West Country accent, rather than Yorkshire or Lancashire. Even today, David Brown says that every time he sees the ‘Bike Ride’ commercial, he wants to rush into the studio and re-record the voice over.

Gold Hill, of course, has now become famous as the location for the ‘Bike Ride’ commercial and attracts many more tourists than it did when David and Ronnie discovered it. A gold loaf has even been erected to tell visitors that they are standing at the spot where bread was taken to the top of the world.

Many years later, David Brown was amused by an article he saw in a national newspaper headed ‘The Harlot of Hovis Hill’. This was the story of an enterprising lady who was running a brothel on Gold Hill in order to pay for her daughter’s private schooling. The article was illustrated with two pictures, one of the woman, and one of the young Hovis delivery boy, Carl Barlow, who went on to become a fire fighter in London.
But what interested David most was the description ‘Hovis Hill’. He suddenly felt that his long career in advertising hadn’t been in vain. At least he’d bequeathed something to posterity. Most of us would probably agree that he’s left behind more of a legacy than the vast majority of advertising writers could ever hope to.

Other ads in the campaign.

2 responses to SELLING BREAD FROM A BIKE. Mike Everett.

  1. Oakers says:

    Fantastic post! Speaking as a lover of advertising nostalgia (rather than someone that works in advertising), I greatly enjoyed reading about this commercial and how it came about.

    Dave – can you post more of this sort of thing for us nostalgia nerds, please?! Thanks – Chris (New Zealand).

  2. Chris Kyme says:

    This is what made me want to get into advertising. Good job I wasn’t watching the trollope you get on TV nowadays (well, mostly)

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