Lights, camera, traction!
Andrew Roberts recalls how product placement made the cars the stars of post-war film and TV
Wednesday 25 August 2010
Overcast skies, children screaming, primates ripping off the windscreen wipers – it could be any British bank holiday trip to a safari park, but for one twist: the obnoxious brat in the Ford Granada Mk I really is the spawn of Satan. The reason he's so annoyed only becomes obvious when you take another look at the car. A PR officer has made a serious error. Damien, fruit of Lucifer's loins, clearly believes he merits a top-of-the-range Ghia with its vinyl roof and tinted windows, rather than an XL Estate.
Vehicle placement is as much a part of Hollywood as villains with hammy English accents, but such phenomena were also seen in post-war British films and television – it was simply more subtle. A past master of the art was Ford: the Consul GT in The Sweeney and the Capris of The Professionals are only the tip of the iceberg. The 1963-1965 seasons of the BBC's Z Cars starred Zephyr 6 Mk IIIs. Although few motorists were likely to jump their Ford Capri 3000 GT Mk II over Tower Bridge, it was driven by John Wayne's stunt double in Brannigan (1975) – the film where big John menaces Tony Blair's father-in-law, Anthony Booth.
Eight years earlier, the fact that Harry Palmer drove his Cortina GT Mk II across an ice floe in order to save the world in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) imbued a popular family car with a touch of international glamour. For an earlier Michael Caine epic, The Ipcress File (1965), Ford equipped a Zodiac Mk III with a laminated screen so poor Gordon Jackson could be shot without the windshield imploding. At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, Peter Rogers borrowed the entire Consul and Cortina PR fleet for Carry On Cabby (1963). The Carry Ons defected to British Leyland with Carry On at Your Convenience (1971), and the Morris Marina Super in this film was given to Sid James – who soon sold it for gambling funds.
The first British film Ford was directly involved with was the controversial Never Let Go (1960), which centred on a travelling salesman's 105E Anglia Deluxe being stolen by a teddy boy in the pay of a used-car racketeer. The film is remembered for Peter Sellers' truly terrifying performance, but as almost all the 90-minute running time was devoted to the fate of the Anglia it was clearly a marketing opportunity not to be missed, despite its X certificate.
But it was not only major films which benefited. Many B-film producers of the era had cause to be grateful to Britain's car manufacturers. With shooting schedules of a few weeks, actors wearing their own clothes and where retakes were frowned upon, a reliable (and free) car was welcomed. This realm of low-budget British films is one Vauxhall called home. An excellent 1963 thriller Five to One boasted a 21-year-old John Thaw at the wheel of a Victor FB Estate, while a Cresta PB 2.6 helps to rid the world of cardboard robots in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964).
As for Standard-Triumph, their hour came when a Vanguard Vignale starred in The League of Gentlemen (1960), a role heralded by a poster campaign along the lines of "The Vanguard: the car that all gentlemen prefer". A decade later, a Triumph Stag cameoed in Diamonds Are Forever. The most controversial example of Stag placement goes to those used by Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. However, the opportunity to market the Stag as "The car that all short American vigilantes who decimate English villages of their psychotic in-bred inhabitants prefer" was sadly lost. Meanwhile, Thunderball (1965) showcased a Herald 1200 convertible as the car of choice for doomed villainous sidekicks.
Some of the most innovative vehicle placements were courtesy of the Rootes Group. It seemed the standard formula for a British film in the Fifties was a Jaguar Mk VII for the villain, a Wolseley 6/80 for the inspector and a Rootes-mobile for the hero or heroine. The Sunbeam Alpine in To Catch a Thief (1955) and its successor driven by Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960) are two of the best-remembered Rootes triumphs, but this overlooks such gems as a Humber Hawk saloon being eaten by the titular star in Night of the Demon (1957) or Norman Wisdom crashing a Hillman Imp in A Stitch in Time (1963). Other incentives to visit your local dealer included a Sunbeam Rapier helping to battle mutant alien children in Village of the Damned (1960) and Bela Lugosi in a Humber Super Snipe in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952).
By contrast, the British Motor Corporation, a company that lacked a proper marketing department until the mid-1960s, was far less prominent on screen. "I bloody hate British Leyland" was Michael Caine's comment on the failure of BMC's successor to understand the marketing potential of The Italian Job (1969) in contrast to the enthusiastic support of Fiat. There were a few exceptions – the Austin-Healey 100/6 in School for Scoundrels (1960), the MG 1100 in Children of the Damned (1963) and the Morris Mini Cooper in The Fast Lady (1963), but the best is the 1967 classic Robbery. Mostly remembered for its opening pursuit between a Jaguar Mk II 3.8 and a police S-Type, the film also stars an E-Type Roadster, Morris Cooper S Mk I, VDP Princess 4-litre R, Austin Mini, A110 Westminster and a Mk I Austin 1800 Landcrab driven by Mike Pratt of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Of course, Pratt is most often associated with a white Vauxhall Victor FD 2000 SL, a car that was usually pursued by villains via a really shoddy back projection, and an unfortunate white Jaguar 2.4 Mk I that was forever driving over the edges of cliffs.
In the Sixties, direct television programme sponsorship was banned in the UK, unlike in the US. But this didn't prevent the square-jawed heroes of The Saint, The Prisoner, The Baron and The Persuaders driving a Volvo P1800, Lotus Seven, Jensen CV8, Ferrari Dino and an Aston Martin DBS respectively. Then there was the Hillman Imp used by the perpetually chain-smoking Man in a Suitcase and guest-villain Peter Wyngarde at the wheel of a Vauxhall Viscount in The Champions – possibly the most decadent sight in the history of television.
By the 1970s, the writer-producer Brian Clemens wished to feature British cars in his The New Avengers and approached British Leyland. Although Patrick McNee retained his iconic 1926 4.5 litre Bentley, it rarely appeared on the screen. He acquired a Range Rover and a TWR-tuned Jaguar XJ1C while Gareth 'Gambit' Hunt favoured appalling flares and a Jaguar XJS. As for radiant Joanna Lumley, her 1976 MGB Roadster distinguished itself when Clemens took delivery of the MG only to discover that he was completely unable to engage reverse gear. It turned out the gear knob, and it's diagram of the shift gate, was from an Austin Princess.
Better still was the continually malfunctioning pre-production Rover SD1 3500 Automatic, which did nothing for its reputation as a Car of the Year. Gambit's XJS suffered equally from faults, but British Leyland was unable to provide a back-up Jaguar, forcing Clemens to lease a second XJS from a dealership. While British Leyland's largesse also extended to an Austin Maxi 1750 and a Daimler DS420, Clemens' entire experience with the company had so soured him against the British motor industry that he used Fords on The Professionals as soon as possible. Perhaps they should have followed the example of Norman Wisdom in One Good Turn (1955) and borrowed an Austin J40 pedal car.
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