John Hewer: Icon of TV advertisements
Thursday 20 March 2008
One of the most iconic advertisements in British television advertising history featured John Hewer as Captain Birds Eye in commercials for Birds Eye frozen fish fingers. The jovial, white-bearded seafarer was seen on a far-flung beach, surrounded by singing children and inviting them to eat at "the captain's table".
The character – described by his creator, Barry Day, as "Tony Hancock impersonating Robert Newton doing Long John Silver" – spearheaded the company's advertising campaign from its inception in 1967. Although Hewer was dropped in 1971, with the captain supposedly "lost at sea", he was reinstated three years later and continued, on and off, until 1998, when he retired, to be replaced by a younger sea-dog. He said that "many people expressed disappointment at not seeing the old captain again. True, I am an 'old' captain but in the early commercials, these kind people might be surprised to see me, with brown hair and beard, leaping up ladders and on and off boats."
Such an impact had he made that a 1993 survey named Captain Birds Eye as the most recognised captain in the world after Captain Cook. Hewer had earlier appeared in advertisements for Birds Eye frozen peas.
Born in Leyton, east London, in 1922, the son of a steam engine driver, John Hewer attended Leyton High School and began his working life at the London County Council, working in a department that helped those having difficulties in paying their rent.
He served in the Navy's Fleet Air Arm as a navigator during the Second World War, travelling to Vancouver and the Caribbean, and witnessing the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, but he did not see action. However, he performed with a group that entertained other service personnel and, as a result, despite a brief return to the LCC after the war, he opted for a stage career and joined the Unity Theatre, which had been formed in London a decade earlier to bring social and political issues to working-class audiences.
Hewer worked his way up to parts in the films The Dark Man (1951, a melodrama in which his taxi-driver character falls victim to Maxwell Reed's seaside murderer) and the thriller Assassin for Hire (1951, as a violinist whose instrument and lessons are paid for by his brother, a professional killer).
He then landed the title role in the BBC children's series The Great Detective (1953), playing it for the first four episodes, with Graham Stark taking over for the final two – curiously, with no explanation for the switch.
At about the same time, Hewer took the role of John Parrish, the bank clerk wrongly suspected of being involved in a heist, in the first episode of the crime series Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1955-56), which starred the horror actor Boris Karloff as an eyepatch-wearing detective investigating eerie cases involving criminals known by names such as the Abominable Snowman and the Missing Link.
Based on the novel The Department of Queer Complaints, written by John Dickson Carr under the pen-name Carter Dickson, it was a peculiar programme in many ways. Not only was it memorable for its transparently low budget and wobbly studio sets, but it was screened in Britain following a showing in the United States (1954-55), where several episodes – including that with Hewer – had previously been edited together into the feature film Colonel March Investigates (1952).
As a result of his involvement with the Players' Theatre, which performed music-hall entertainment, Hewer then starred as Tony, alongside Julie Andrews, in the original Broadway production of The Boy Friend (Royale Theatre, 1954-55), a musical that had been written specially for the company by Sandy Wilson, although Hewer had not been in the previous West End cast.
When he did later appear in West End musicals, it was in Noël Coward's Sail Away (as Joe, the ship's purser, alongside Elaine Stritch at the Savoy Theatre, 1962), Six of One (Adelphi Theatre, 1963-64) and Peg (as Jarvis, Phoenix Theatre, 1984).
During his career, the actor also produced music-hall shows on Southend Pier with the bandleader Henry Hall, and he was hired by Canadian television to host the variety show The Pig and Whistle (1967-77), set in a fictional, traditional English pub and featuring British music-hall entertainment.
The programme was launched as a response to regulations demanding cultural diversity on screen in Canada. Hewer introduced guests such as Vera Lynn, Max Bygraves, Lonnie Donegan, Andy Stewart and Barbara Windsor, and each show finished with a performance by the Roland & Romaine dance troupe and the Carlton Showband. He travelled to Canada once a month to record four shows at a time.
Hewer had a starring role in the film Strip Tease Murder (1963), as the host of a nightclub and his other pictures included the comedy Mister Ten Per Cent (starring Charlie Drake, 1967). He played Edwin Cherryble in a six-part BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (1977).
John Hewer, actor: born London 13 January 1922; married 1943 Edna Vernon (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died Isleworth, Middlesex 16 March 2008.
There was another field in which John Hewer achieved huge, but unpublicised, success in the late Sixties and early Seventies, writes Robin Houston. He teamed up with another actor and performer, Mike Hall, and set up the first conference production company in the UK to use "show business for business".
Hewer had been employed by Birds Eye (with whom he was later to find fame as Captain Birds Eye) to act in a training film for their sales team. He realised straightaway that there was a future in marrying show business with big business. Hewer and Hall's company (for which I was stage and production manager for several exciting years) caught the eye of many "blue chip" companies, including IBM, Mobil, Volkswagen, Beechams, and Gulf Oil.
Using their own talents and those of actor colleagues, John and Mike staged impeccably presented, technically advanced, and sometimes quite spectacular conferences, product launches, training films and cabarets, in the UK and in other European countries.
Such presentations are now the norm and were already so in the United States, but at the time in Britain it was a new concept, and Hewer-Hall was arguably the first – and certainly the most theatrically experienced – company to offer such a service.
Hewer's ambition was limitless. In the euphoria after one presentation he accosted me. "You know what I would really like to produce?" he asked, his tongue only partly in his cheek. "The next Coronation."
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