Why have members of Equity, the actors' trade union, been boycotting TV advertising work for the last five months? Robert Butler investigates.

Robert Butler
Sunday 15 February 1998 00:02 GMT

WHEN Sir Anthony Hopkins was at the National Theatre playing the South African newspaper proprietor Lambert Le Roux in Pravda (1985), he told a friend of mine - an actor in the same company - over lunch that there were three things he liked about acting. The first was money, the second was applause, and the third was voice-overs. A prominent farceur was asked by a more high-minded colleague why he did voice-overs. "I've no idea," he said, taking a ten-pound note out of his pocket, blowing his nose, and throwing it away.

Ever since the first British commercial was broadcast at 8.12pm on 22 September 1955 - the opening batch was for "tingling fresh" toothpaste, drinking chocolate and margarine - the advertisers' hunger for actors has been matched only by the actors' hunger for ads. Commercials have become as significant a source of subsidy as any handout from the Arts Council. The early stigma surrounding actors doing ads (artists-tainted- by-commerce, and so on) has vanished. Today, ads are an essential part of the cv. At drama school, along with verse-speaking, stage-fights and mime and movement, you can do classes in auditioning for commercials. You take a bite out of an imaginary hamburger, look the rest of the group in the eye and say: "Mmmmmmm, delicious." Then the tutor says: "No ... I didn't quite see the 'delicious'."

Voice-overs have radically changed actors' priorities, from their choice of roles to their choice of home. You can afford to do Pirandello, Gogol or Chekhov for pounds 225 a week at the Almeida if, for only one hour the week before, you extolled the virtues of a detergent, simply because a decent- sized campaign brings in pounds 5,000. Similarly, you can't afford to spend six weeks living in digs in the sticks - doing Ophelia, Trigorin or Jimmy Porter - if you lose one hour's work on a commercial. A regional theatre director told me he was considering building a sound-recording studio next to his theatre to tempt actors away from London.

The majority of actors live in London; one reason is that, at the bleep of a mobile, they can forget all the Stanislavsky stuff about inner realism and finding the truth within themselves, and they can forget about learning lines. They can simply concentrate on earning money. Inside the recording studio, the best of British acting sits behind tables, puts on headphones, shuffles papers on baize cloth, waits for a voice behind the glass window - probably the sound engineer's - to say: "Hello voice-over ... we'll rock and roll this ... in your own time." Voices trained on Shakespeare, Congreve and Coward apply their unbeatable vocal skills to shifting some product. Or, at least, they did until last September when the voices - en masse - fell silent.

In the history of industrial relations, the sour tiff between the advertisers and the actors has none of the last-ditch ferocity of the NUM against the National Coal Board or the union-busting swagger of News International against the print unions. It's not a strike. It's not, technically speaking, industrial action. Actors have simply refused for five months to do any ads or attend any auditions for ads. If an actor has already done the ad, or was contracted to do one, or was contracted with an option to renew, they still could. Otherwise, no.

This is a dispute between two groups - advertising executives and voice-over artists - who'd been doing very nicely, and passing on the bill to the client. Harry Enfield argues that since there's a silly amount of money swilling around, and only a tiny percentage is going on actors, advertisers are crazy to complain. Senior advertisers - Equity claims that the head of TV at Saatchi and Saatchi, Mark Hanrahan, is a leading hawk - don't agree. The two sides have been locked in a freakish struggle: caught between a cushion and a soft place.

THE CAUSE of the row lies in repeat fees. As well as the fee the actor gets for doing the ad (Equity minimum, pounds 79.90, with many getting pounds 160), the actor gets a proportion of the original fee each time the ad is shown. The size of the repeat fee depends on the estimated size of the audience at the time of the broadcast. It's easy to understand why the principle of repeat fees was introduced for drama series. It gets shown once, six months pass, then the channel repeats it and the actor gets paid again (if not quite so much). But when the principle is applied to ads, it seems a bit of a scam. You spend an hour doing an ad, and it gets shown a hundred times, and you get paid for each of these hundred occasions. Advertisers, understandably, want to pay more up-front and buy out the repeat fee option.

The last agreement over payments in voice-overs was drawn up in 1991. It was a five-year contract between Equity and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. When the two bodies - along with the Advertising Film and Videotape Producers Association - came to renegotiate the contract early last year, the IPA said it wanted to make substantial cuts to fees paid to voice-over actors. They wanted to pay "non-visual" artists less than "visual artists" on the grounds that visual artists - the ones who appear on screen - spend more time making the ad. Equity saw this as "the thin edge of the wedge". They pulled out of negotiations and a stalemate ensued. Five months ago Equity instructed its 36,000 members to refuse to do any TV commercials.

You can divide the voices into recognisable ones and unrecognisable ones. It's easy enough to spot A Fine Romance's Geoffrey Palmer giving an ironic, detached recommendation for the latest Audi, Jewel In The Crown's Tim Pigott-Smith lending a pressurised urgency to Honda and Lexus, Ever Decreasing Circle's Richard Briers wittering on about Homepride Potato Bakes, following in the footsteps of Christopher Timothy and Joss Ackland who also did Homepride's Fred, Have I Got News For You's Angus Deayton selling National Savings, or Men Behaving Badly's Martin Clunes and The Fast Show's Paul Whitehouse pitching in as small children on behalf of Safeway. But it's the ones you can't put a face to who do even better.

If you saw a production of She Stoops to Conquer at Greenwich in 1979, you might have thought that the actor playing Tony Lumpkin, who did a neat piece of business when he flicked out both feet and his shoes went flying off into either wing, was worth keeping an eye on. Well, you won't see him anywhere, because Enn Reitel did voices for Spitting Image and became the king of commercials. He does so many it's often impossible to spot his voice. For example, he can do a goldfish under water. One tabloid put his earnings at pounds 3m a year. It was the kind of publicity that went down badly in the ad agencies.

So 36,000 actors are refusing to do commercials largely for the benefit of a small pool of members, some of whom aren't doing any acting. Equity vigorously chases up anyone rumoured to be breaking the boycott. They can't expel them, but they can shame them. It isn't easy to prove, as many of the best voices are disguises anyway. One actor who was rumbled by Equity said sorry, but his house was about to be repossessed. Another unemployed actor with two kids turned down a pounds 25,000 commercial. A big cheer went up at a recent 900-strong Equity meeting at the news that several young actors had turned down huge sums to do car voice-overs. When Paul McGann gave an interview in a Saturday magazine last month he mentioned he was just off to do a voice-over. First thing Monday morning actors were ringing up Equity and complaining. McGann was contacted. It turned out he was doing something for local radio - which is allowed.

Steven Berkoff did Equity a big favour by recording an ad for McDonald's. It put them on the front page. Sir Derek Jacobi, Robert Powell, Tim Pigott- Smith and Prunella Scales were outraged, one of them saying they would be "loath" to work with him in the future. It's said that Berkoff - pre- eminently a physical actor - got the McDonald's voice-over job because everyone else was turning it down. But the lesson of the "McBerkoff" scandal for all those actors sitting at home, wondering whether or not other actors were sneaking off and doing ads, and whether anyone would notice if they did, was plain to see. Cross the unofficial picket line and you might never get to act with Robert Powell. No one has criticised Berkoff for promoting a burger chain which was criticised in the High Court by Mr Justice Bell for exploiting children, cruelty to animals and low wages.

The five-month boycott has led to a noticeable change in the nature of the ads. "I think the agencies have been managing to hide it from the clients," one creative director told me, "but it can't go on." The shelf- life of ads - like the Allied Dunbar one which has the man on the operating theatre breaking into "there may be trouble ahead" - gets longer. Instead of voice-overs we get subtitles, as in the new army-recruitment ad, which punchily types up its message. Instead of voice-overs we get clips. The BT ad about savings makes a subliminal pun by showing football clips of spectacular saves.

There are more voice-overs from DJs. There are more personalities; two "It" girls, Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and Tamara Beckwith, have been signed up. And there is more "street casting", using ordinary people - whether giving "testimonials" for Carphone Warehouse, or home-video footage, as in the "Kill Your Speed" campaign. Unscripted, unpolished reactions have an immediacy and naturalness that only the very best actors could rival: it's the live album versus the studio recording.

The IPA says that actors are drifting back to work. Equity says that IPA's hardline negotiating team are out of touch with its members. Advertising agencies just want to maintain the volume of ads. They don't care about actors' fees. Clients, too, are complaining about the drop in quality. What's worrying for actors, on top of the severe financial strain, is the way new campaigns are managing without them. They are missed mostly for their voices.

Recently, in an effort to split the IPA, Equity changed its strategy. Actors may now work for companies applying an inflation-adjusted version of the 1991 agreement. This position blurs both sides. The whole dispute could fizzle out without a resolution. But then, in some people's view, it was always a phoney one. As one commercials director told me: "I hate people picking on Enn Reitel. He's quick. He's fresh. He gives you exactly what you need. He slashes through costs." RB

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