Peter York On Ads: Northern, fat, and maudlin is not the same as real

PG Tips
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The Independent Online

My feelings for Paul Whitehouse are borderline unnatural, a bit like the Charlie Higson character Ralph in The Fast Show. How can you be 100 per cent manly and hygienic about someone who's done quite so much for you and the nation? It all started with Harry Enfield in the 1980s and the Whitehouse contribution to those characters: Stavros (I was working with a Stavros at the time), Loadsamoney, the plasterer (he was working for me), and Tim Nice But Dim. TNBD was every other Sloane boy you knew, until Life completely imitated Art and he was James Hewitt. Then there was Harry Enfield and Friends with Whitehouse on screen this time with Kathy Burke (multi-channel means you can watch it all the time on UK Gold.)

But even Paul, bless his little whippety face and his London Everyman 1950s black-and-white voice, has his weaknesses, his noble sentimental frailties. In Happiness, his curious series about media types in deep North London, (I'd have placed it in the Nick Hornby bit of Islington rather than the old Tony Blair streets if you'd asked me), there was much to enjoy. Whitehouse's own character did something absurd but profitable, like being the voiceover for an animated creature, and had earned a big expensive house out of it. Like most of the other characters - almost famous, making decent money - he was in denial about being a thesp or in the business. They all seemed to want to be blokes, to keep it real. (The sessions with his shrink, played by the much missed Chris Langham, were completely wonderful.)

But then there was Johnny Vegas, playing a friend, and there's the weakness. Let's face it, many men with weaknesses for keep it real have one for Johnny Vegas. They think that Northern, fat and maudlin means real. Oxbridge middle-class media types are particularly prone to this pathetic fallacy. Whenever I hear the words genuine or authentic used of a player, I reach for my Browning.

So I was sorry to see our Paulie, who's neither middle class nor Oxbridge, signing up to the Johnny Vegas Appreciation Society like a wine club based in Tetbury. Consider for one moment the larger Northern comedian. Bernard Manning, Les Dawson, Roy "Chubby" Brown, Peter Kay, Alexei Sayle, Eddie Large ... and Vegas. Then tell me who's the odd man out, the one with higher education, the one who went to art school. Vegas, of course.

I've had my moments with the rest of them. Les Dawson in a frock was always good. Peter Kay worried me in the same Channel 4-style "My Own Secret Accrington" way until Amarillo; after that you forgave him anything. The thing about Vegas is he seems to come from a certain tradition but, with a few tweaks, he could've ended up as Grayson Perry.

Vegas first hit the advertising big time with "right room key" for the defunct ONdigital in the late Nineties. Interesting casting. Was it meant as hip, or as an homage to the ITV tradition? Was Vegas contemporising the whole thing or was he the missing link? His co-star was a sort of knitted glove puppet ("Monkeh"), undoubtedly out of the ITV DNA.

Now they've revived the dream team for the new PG Tips campaign. I'm fascinated in a nerdy way about who owns the Intellectual Property Rights in construct. Did it all lapse with the death of ONdigital? Did Vegas buy out the knitting? You don't expect to see the same fictional pairing promoting two completely different clients.

Anyway - and what did I tell you? - the whole thing's about PG Tips' 100 per cent naturalness. And the linking theme, the sub-text, the McGuffin, is Vegas's own authenticity. Have you ever for one moment doubted PG Tips' naturalness? I've always assumed it was made from brick dust and henna with powerful flavour boosters, the MSG of the tea world. That's what I like about it. The utterly instant brewing, the brutally russet colour, the no-questions-asked taste. Why else would you buy it? If you want natural there's a range of horrors in any deli now. So why spend expensive TV time making claims you'd think were irrelevant to most of the target market?

In their B&Q Basics kitchen, Vegas - with a mug of course - and Monkeh, with a dainty cup and speaking much more RP-ly than I'd remembered, are going through the rubric of PG's naturalness. It's just tea leaves and water, says Monkeh. Plus milk and 5 sugars and macaroon parts in mine, says Vegas. It's an odd household. Monkeh's the health-conscious aspirant wife, telling her counterparts out there not to worry about PG Tips on the health or the social fronts, it's only the maddening men who mess it up. Next up they'll be having serving suggestions and recipes.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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