It was about a series of television commercials in which two actors, Sharon Maughan and Tony Head, discover one another over a jar of instant coffee. The aromatic relationship, threatened at one stage by an ardent Italian Marino Mase, blossoms. Finally, Marino gets the elbow and the beanstruck Sharon blends with Tony 'because you make better coffee'.
The happy blendship, costing pounds 6m annually to make and screen, has boosted the coffee's sales by 40 per cent to pounds 55m a year, comforting the manufacturer, the advertising agents McCann Erickson, the actors (Ms Maughan alone earned pounds 100,000), and those viewers who, the Sun assures us, waited for 'the magic moment . . . through 10 teasing episodes of ads'.
A visit to the Nestle factory (Nestle Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex), where coffee is freeze-dried, seemed in order. But Alan Allbeury, Nestle's press officer, apologised: 'We have to guard our high technology from the opposition. No visitors pass the barbed wire.' He invited me to a tasting in the East Croydon headquarters, my first plunge into the Gold Blend experience.
There I met Mark Ayling, Trevor Batchelor and Sarah Dures, sitting at a circular white table with soup spoons in hand and dozens of bowls of black coffee before them. As the table revolves, they dip into the bowls, suck the samples fiercely ('You create a mist of droplets to envelope the palate and disperse the aroma into the nose'), then eject them into spittoons. As in a dentist's surgery, the spittoons have a water-spout, in this case for rinsing the spoon between sucks. Comments are noted: 'fine acidity', 'aromatic', 'oily', 'astringent', 'nutty', 'edgy', 'earthy', 'cowy' (tasting of fermentation), 'phenolic' (chemical flavour).
It takes them 10 minutes to sample 140 'cups' (as the bowls are called). Don't palates get blurred? 'We always have (slurp-spit) four cups of (slurp- spit) 'standard' coffee in the centre of the (slurp-spit) table which we can turn to as a (slurp-spit) guide,' Mr Batchelor said, his spoon flashing.
Around the room were shelves containing about 600 bags of coffee from Central and South America, Kenya and Indonesia, Indian carvings and a cactus. Did they drink coffee at home? 'I was tasting for four years before I did,' Mr Batchelor expectorated. 'I now only drink black coffee.' Mr Ayling said he drinks coffee at home 'non-stop'. When I asked about addiction, Mr Allbeury quickly interjected: 'Coffee is not addictive.'
After the experimental blending, roasting and tasting, Gold Blend (60 per cent arabica beans, 40 per cent robusta beans) enters its freeze-dried production stage, reaching the shops at pounds 1.69p a jar. The product's flavour has altered since its introduction in 1965. 'It used to be 60 per cent robusta and 40 per cent arabica,' Mr Allbeury said, 'but the English taste has become more sophisticated. As more people drink coffee without milk or sugar, they require a higher arabica content, with its aromatic, rich smoothness, and less of the thicker, heavier robusta. Hence our relaunch campaign five years ago with the Sharon-Tony soap opera.'
Drama and advertising have had a long symbiotic relationship. But lately, the distinction has begun to blur. This week, for example, the foyer of the theatre staging Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet will display Persil washing powder, made by Unilever, which is backing the production with pounds 50,000. Unilever is convinced of a link between purchase of theatre tickets and dishwashers.
Is this a trend? Will an on-stage Hamlet puff a cigar? Will Macbeth's witches cry 'Aaah, Bisto]' at the cauldron? According to Colin Tweedie, director-general of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts: 'It's all very new and we don't know exactly what's going to happen. There has to be an incredible amount of subtlety or it would be nonsense.'
Injecting advertisements into narrative drama has obvious limitations. But injecting narrative drama into advertisements - as Gold Blend has done - requires even greater refinement. Gerry Green, creative director of McCann Erickson, said that when ads were placed in newspapers heralding the second Gold Blend episode, commentators asked: Who did they think they were, making dramas? 'The newsworthy thing was that it was like episodes in a drama serial, each in 40 seconds, six seconds of which were given to the jar of coffee.'
Unlike Oxo's famous 'Life with Katy' commercials, the Gold Blend episodes have a 'tantalising' continuity. The idea is not entirely original. 'Cointreau ran a narrative commercial at Christmas for eight years. After that they decided it was getting a little old, so they did another campaign showing the characters eight years on.'
When Nestle asked the agency for a new Gold Blend promotion, the product was facing strong competition from its rivals, Kenco and Red Mountain. 'A new campaign was called for in which it was drunk in a slightly more classy situation,' Mr Green said. 'With the pounds 6m for a year's television commercials you could afford to run two or three with a story, male and female heroes and a go-between - the jar of coffee. The characters had to exhibit a certain quality of taste, and also had to be unattached so there could be some sort of relationship. They were likely to be 30-something, both preoccupied during the day with business.'
How did Sharon Maughan respond? 'I always ruled out doing commercials,' she told me. 'But I happened to be in the foyer of the (McCann Erickson) building, waiting for a friend. Someone told Gerry and he rushed out and asked if I would talk to them about this. I laughed my head off. I thought it was hysterical.'
Ms Maughan, an actress, was talked into the role. 'I'm nothing like that woman,' she said last week. 'I'm from a particularly poor working-class environment, Kirby, which is an overspill of Liverpool. I went to a comprehensive school before going to Rada. That's part of the life and persona that I want to project in my work - rather than this finishing school-type woman.'
But wasn't she now coffee-cast for life? 'There are always people who suggest it's a mistake, but everyone becomes strongly associated with one job that's a success. I'm determined to say it's only been for the good. If I were asked to do another campaign I would love something funny, perhaps with funny make-up.'
Nestle, yet to make up its mind about a sequel, has been 'bombarded with letters from people wanting to know what happens to Tony and Sharon. One newspaper even asked several novelists to come up with an appropriate ending'. Here's one from me:
Tony and Sharon are in their honeymoon hotel. Open windows admit the sound of surf and romantic music. While Tony sleeps, Sharon, looking radiant, quietly slides out from under the sheet and sits on the edge of their kingsize bed. She picks up the phone and punches a button.
Sharon: 'Coffee for two, please?' (pause) 'Gold Blend, of course]'
Tony (stirring): 'Did someone say Gold Blend, darling?'
Sharon: 'Our blend.'
Tony: 'Darling . . .'
He reaches for her. They kiss.
Sharon (murmurs): 'The per-fect blend.'
There is a knock at the door. A waiter, Marino, enters. Tony sits bolt upright in bed.
Tony (aghast): 'What the . . .]'
Marino (cheerful): 'Buon giorno] Cafe for the happy couple's pleasure.'
Sharon (embarrassed): 'You] A waiter? . . . In this hotel?'
Marino bows, smiles enigmatically. He pours coffee into two cups and hands one to Sharon and secretly slips an object into Tony's cup.
Tony (chuckles): 'No hard feelings?'
Marino (shrugs): 'Ah signor, life - it is too . . . short?'
He watches solicitously as Tony swallows the contents of his cup, coughs and chokes. His cup shatters on the tiled floor. Tony writhes. After a final spasm he is dead.
Marino (murmurs): 'Something the signor drank perhaps?'
CUT TO: A jar of Nescafe Gold Blend. .
Voice Over: 'Life should begin and end with Gold Blend.'
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