Vernon Howe

Architect of such advertising campaigns as 'Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach'

Friday 05 December 2003 01:00

Vernon Andrew Howe, advertising art director and film director: born London 18 January 1943; married 1971 Liz Frost (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1978 Lucy Coulson (one son, two daughters); died Esher, Surrey 27 November 2003.

Vernon Howe enjoyed a distinguished career in advertising. With his copywriter of the time, Terry Lovelock (now a noted jazz percussionist) he was responsible for first informing the nation that Heineken was the only beer that "refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach". Later on, directing Terry Howard's script for Campari, he brought us "No, Luton airport" - Lorraine Chase's deathless response to the question "Were you truly wafted here from paradise?"

Tall and engaging, with the polite stoop of the considerate person of stature, he had an easy and uncalculating charm, devastating in its effect. In some ways a quintessential ad-man, he had about him an innocence, or lack of side, an openness, not always found in a tough and cut-throat industry. He had no bad words to say about anyone, and oddly enough received none in return.

The son of a hospital administrator, he was born and brought up in Southgate, north London. He began his career as an art director at a fabled but long-defunct advertising agency called Pritchard Wood before he moved on to Collett Dickenson Pearce. It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of this agency during the 1960s and 1970s. It produced brilliant and influential advertising - for Hovis, B&H, Heineken and Birds Eye - as well as brilliant and influential people, Sir Frank Lowe, Sir Alan Parker, Lord Puttnam and Charles Saatchi amongst others.

It did this by rewriting the rules of advertising. The consumer was no longer just some faceless demographic to be bludgeoned and bored into compliance, but a real living person who could be charmed, entertained and persuaded. More mature readers will remember with pleasure Vernon Howe's commercials in which he repeatedly made a dishonest woman of June Whitfield on behalf of a series of unfeasibly delicious Birds Eye products.

John Salmon, a colleague at the time, recalls that Howe was one of the first of many ad-men to be seen at the wheel of a fast sports car. Everyone else at CDP had to drive Fords, but Howe had somehow managed to wangle himself a bright orange Porsche. Howe's delight in and enjoyment of the good things of life was infectious, open-hearted and uplifting. It did not, as it can often do, inspire envy or malice. On him, as they say, it looked good.

Howe made the move from working in an ad agency to directing commercials after Alan Parker, then himself the UK's leading commercials director, made an uncharacteristically bad judgement call and declined to direct the first Heineken commercials. "What are we going to do?" asked Howe. "Alan thinks they're rubbish."

At the suggestion of Frank Lowe, the ever-modest Howe stepped into the breach and directed "The Policemen's Feet", the first commercial in what was to become one of the most famous advertising campaigns of all time. He then went on to direct a large number of excellent commercials including the much-loved "And mummy says when I grow up I'm going to be a proper little madam" for Clarks children's shoes.

He also shot a perfect vintage set with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore for Harvey's Bristol Cream when all three of them were more often in our sitting rooms. The Christmas commercial featured Moore asleep in bed, flat cap still on, waking up to see Cook, very badly disguised as Father Christmas, shovelling the Bristol Cream into his sack. "Oi, you're taking things," wails Dud. "New policy," replies Pete, as flat as his cap and still shovelling. They certainly don't make them like that any more.

Howe moved to Los Angeles in the late Seventies and continued to direct distinguished commercials for the American market. In 1986, too, as Henry Vernon, he directed a 90-minute film, The Danger Zone, which made no impact at the time but has now won cult status as a biker movie.

Much as he loved LA and all its easy-going sunlit hedonism, he and his family returned to the UK in the early Nineties. He rejoined the British advertising scene, both directing himself and bringing new talent forward.

Whilst very much a part of the glory days of British advertising, Vernon Howe never got stuck in his thinking. He was always on the lookout for new talent and new ways of doing things. In his later production companies, And Howe and Bliss, he took great pleasure in encouraging new directors, full of advice and practical experience, but never imposing his own views upon them.

Throughout his life, he was a good and enthusiastic tennis player, so good, indeed, that as a young man he had considered going professional. That he did not was advertising's gain and tennis's loss. Who knows where he might have taken British tennis if he had gone the other way? He was involved with Frank Lowe in setting up the long-running and highly successful Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club. He remained a keen supporter and player and an invitation to join him for a day at Queen's was a sure ticket to a thoroughly enjoyable occasion, regardless of the tennis.

Nick Welch

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