Grit 'n' Polish

CROSS THE POND anticipating stately country homes and plummy accents, and what do you find? Geeky TV comics, canned spaghetti served on toast, and the McTriple with Cheese ("only £1.39!"). In this year's overdose of parallel commercialism, a.k.a. The British Television Advertising Awards, crass peeks out from behind the class. Compared with earlier incarnations of the Walker Art Center's annual eye-candy feast (penguins in space! pats of butter that walk and talk!), there's still a little slick surrealism, but the overall impression remains: Along the advertising continuum of grit and polish, grit is it.

As one of the many sufferers of Anglophilia here in Upper Venturaland, I was relieved to know that our colleagues in Britain would even contemplate a McTriple with Cheese. The clichés about British food are simplistic enough, but to see them make an awful American thing even worse is one of the great laugh payoffs of this year's package. It grounded the whole festive experience for me, and kept the theme of "just folks" in the foreground. If you've seen earlier programs ("the Brits" remain the Walker's most popular film/video series), you may know that these stints veer from whimsical to ponderous and from ultraluxe to arch-postmodern, and you may have always sensed that something was just a little better over there. This year, there's no need for such humility and envy.

Many campaigns this year employ a low-res, home video sensibility. Elderly Jewish couples puzzle sweetly over a digital camera; heavily accented American rodeo riders talk about their injured balls and their Wrangler jeans; and Volkswagen production-meisters are caught obsessing over door closure and windshield-washer misting tolerances. Sometimes the visual verité is altered by an incongruous music track; I'm still debating the merits of a campaign for Heinz prepared foods (beans, ketchup, spaghetti) that pairs reassuring scenes of blue-collar home life with angelic songs (hymns?) by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Is it heaven to be a night-shift worker? Are the low wages overcompensated by loving kids and spaghetti on toast at breakfast?

The "grit" theme surfaces in another fashion as some ads take postmodern irony out for one more spin. Campy "how-to" narration tells us how to drink Labatt's Ice beer "in the warmth," or how to economize at various privileged moments (weddings, conception) with McDonald's. The effect is slightly similar to our own black-and-white Miller ads that proclaim, "It's time to drink some beer." This combination of raw reality and arch tone reaches its enigmatic peak in some extremely short promos for a store chain called Littlewood's; you can see two elderly gents watch football on TV while burping and farting.

But enough about the grit. Is there amusement? Color? Complete, mindless diversion? Of course, but in smaller doses. One quasi-realist campaign for Batchelor's convenience foods finds guys without women being pathetically (but hilariously) clueless about life and food. At the other extreme, Helen Mirren takes several spots to luxuriate in the elaborate heaven that is Virgin Airways' "Upper Class" seating; she's so bathed in entitlement I almost thought the Empire had returned. Visions of superiority and style, in fact, characterize the program's one genuine "masterpiece"--an operatic ode to "One Perfect Day," sung by a wide variety of musical stars (Lou Reed, Emmylou Harris, Elton John, et al.). Their democratic mix of singing styles and tastes are matched with visions of the perfect topiary garden, and the client they're pitching is the people's radio/TV empire, the BBC. Grit and polish all in one!

The British Television Advertising Awards screens at the Walker Art Center through December 20; 375-7622.

 
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