I was thrilled when Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond chose as best car demonstration commercial one of the many films I produced during my days as Head of Television at Collett, Dickenson and Pearce (CDP). I knew they were planning something of the kind because the BBC had phoned me last year to ask about the film. But it was still good to see it happen. And I think it’s worth talking about how the commercial was made. First, though, why don’t we watch it?
The authors of the script were a young creative team, Graham Fink and Jeremy Clarke. They excitedly showed me the script. ‘What do you think, Mark. Could we do it?’ I looked at the words written on the paper in front of me. It was certainly a great idea – show a Land Rover hauling itself up the face of the dam using its winch. But would it be possible to film it for real? Remember, this was in the days before CGI made anything possible. Every shot in the film had to be achieved without trickery or recourse to special effects. I asked Graham and Jeremy how they’d got the idea. And could a Land Rover actually do it? Apparently, it could. They had based the script on a story that they’d been told by the account group when they were briefed to write the script.
A farmer in Australia had decided to try and fell a tree by attaching it to the winch cable on his Land Rover. He broke for lunch. When he came back the tree was still upright but the Land Rover was suspended from the top. It was this story that had inspired Graham and Jeremy to write a script that showed the vehicle hauling itself up the face of a dam. The idea was a creative dream, but a producer’s nightmare. Would we actually be able to film what had been written?
Apart from the obvious technical challenges, there was a tiny budget, for what was in effect an entire brand relaunch. Graham and Jeremy wanted one of the top directors to film it, but the budget it wouldn’t be enough to buy the services of somebody like Ridley Scott, one of the writers’ chosen directors. As luck would have it, though, Glynis Sanders at the Paul Weiland Film Company had just signed an ex-cameraman, David Garfath, as a director and was trying to get him off the ground. David was a superb craftsman who’d photographed many movies and commercials. But he’d never directed a TV commercial.
I talked with Glynis to sound out the idea of David shooting the commercial. What I liked about using David was that he knew how and where to point a camera. He had the backing of company we trusted at CDP, a company with whom we’d shot many commercials, The Paul Weiland Film Company. But crucially, Glynis was keen to get David to shoot his first commercial so was likely to pull out all the stops to deliver a bargain basement price. And so it proved. Glynis handed the job to another producer, Laura Gould, who brought the quote in within the budget. That was the upside. The downside was that we now had to go and shoot the thing.
Basically, there were two stars in the commercial: the Land Rover and in a supporting role, literally, the dam. We had the Land Rover. Where would we find the dam? Briefly we toyed with the idea of going to somewhere like Switzerland. But cost really ruled out the notion of going abroad. Much better we find a dam in the UK, the Land Rover’s homeland.
The needs for our dam were specific. It had to be what is known as a ‘coffer’ dam. That’s to say one where the face is sloping, rather than sheer. This would enable the Land Rover’s tyres to retain traction for the entire ascent. But the dam also had to have a road on the top to allow the Land Rover to drive away after it had climbed the face. In the end, after a busy reconnaissance trip, we chose the Clywedog Reservoir Dam in Wales, which fulfilled both these criteria. The only problem was, it was miles from anywhere. The nearest town was Llandrindod Wells, and that was a 45-minute drive away. This was where we booked a hotel to accommodate the crew and agency personnel. Graham Fink, however, elected to have his share of the accommodation budget spent on a tent that he pitched to one side of the dam and slept in. (Don’t ask.)
And so to the shoot itself. We had to film everything in one very long day. Luckily it was July, which gave us a lot of daylight to play with. And we needed fine weather and no wind. Anything above a force three would stop us hauling the Land Rover up the dam. Plus, for the final shot, we required a helicopter, but we could only afford to hire it for an hour. And, boy, were we lucky.
The weather was glorious, not always the case in mid Wales in July. From sun-up we began work, filming the scenes where the Land Rover drives across a stream to reach the dam. If you look closely at these scenes you will see that they were shot in the early morning. Once they were safely in the can, we turned our attention to the main event, the Land Rover climbing the dam face. We’d hired a stunt man to sit in the car as it winched its way to the top, Roy Alom. Roy’s career had seen him perform many stunts, perhaps his most famous being stunt double to a wheelchair- bound Herbert Lom in one of the Inspector Clouseau films. This brief appearance in the movie required him to go over a cliff in the wheelchair, presumably to certain death. As Roy told me as we both stood looking up at the face of the dam, ‘usually what I do is all over in seconds. For this I am going to be hanging from that bloody dam for hours’.
One of the problems for me, and Graham and Jeremy, was that the two cameras we used were positioned half an hour apart. That’s how long it took to walk from one to the other to see what was actually being filmed. But, as I said earlier we were lucky. Thanks to David Garfath’s meticulous preparation, not to mention the kind weather, we were able to get all the shots we needed. Even the helicopter appeared on cue, and captured that vital end shot of the Land Rover from the air.
Back in London, Pam Power, was in charge of editing duties. Pam had cut films for the likes of Ridley Scott, so she knew what she was doing. She did a great job of cutting the film to its stirring soundtrack. Talking of which, during the pre-production process, somebody had suggested that Godley and Crème, who’d done soundtracks for couple of CDP films, should provide the music. But Graham and Jeremy had other ideas.
They wanted a piece of music that, like the Land Rover, was British, sturdy and all conquering. What else could they possibly choose but ‘The Dambusters’ March’, by Eric Coates? Well, full credit to the boys because nobody else had thought of it. Like all good ideas, it seems obvious afterwards.
We weren’t allowed to use the original recording so we had to do our own. This meant hiring a pared-down version of the London Symphony Orchestra at a cost of £20,000, which, like the hire of the helicopter, only bought us an hour of the musicians’ time. Added to that, we’d already had to pay £10,000 for a year’s use of the music. These two sums took us way over budget. So I did a deal with the Paul Weiland film company. We both contributed to the costs between us, eating into both companies’ profits on the job. By this time, everyone knew we had a piece of magic on our hands, which sweetened the burden of the extra costs.
There was just one final piece of the creative jigsaw that needed to be put in place: the voice over. Graham and Jeremy had chosen a robust actor to match the robust Land Rover, Brian Blessed. I believe this was the first time Brian had ever recorded a commercial voice over. And, true to form, his performance was as rugged as expected. The whole film was now in place and ready to be released to the TV stations.
So let’s return to Top Gear’s verdict. Is this the best car demonstration commercial ever? Whether your answer is yes or no, you might care to read what follows.
At the British Television Awards, held at the Great Room at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, the Land Rover commercial won a silver award. It was shown to the assembled advertising people. Not more than ten seconds into the film, the Great Room filled with cheers and applause. If anything, this grew louder as the two writers of the film walked up to the podium to collect their award. They returned to their seats, the approbation of their peers ringing in their ears.
It was then the turn of the Gold Award winning entry to be shown. A commercial for BMW flickered into life on the giant screen. Suddenly, the Great Room was plunged into silence. The BMW commercial ended and the writer had to walk to the podium in total silence. Nobody clapped, nobody cheered. It may have been a gold in the eyes of the awards jury, but it was the Land Rover film that won gold in the eyes of those in the Great Room that night.
Have another look. See if you agree with those folks in the Great Room – and Jeremy, James and Richard, of course. What I do know is that it’s a wonderful piece of work to be associated with and I am proud after all these years that people still remember it and talk about it.
Here is a full list of credits as they appear in the 1987 edition of the D&AD Annual.
Director: David Garfath
Copywriter: Jeremy Clarke
Art Director: Graham Fink
Producer: Laura Gould
Set Designer: Ewan Hercules
Agency Producer: Mark Andrews
Editor: Pam Power
Lighting Cameraman: Brian West
Music Arranger: Chris Gunning
Production Company: Paul Weiland Film Company
Agency: Collett, Dickenson, Pearce & Partners
Marketing Manager: Kevin Beadle
Client: Land Rover Limited