I have often thought that eating some really serious brown bread is a bit like pushing a bike up a very steep hill, a hill called “health.” So what a surprise to find that in 2006 a poll of 1,000 Britons voted this 1973 ad for Hovis bread as the Favorite British Commercial of All Time. And none other than Ridley Scott directed it. Indeed, this story of a young lad delivering bread by bicycle up a steep cobblestone mining-town street is laced through with nostalgia and a sentimental use of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. (So beloved is it that Brits often request the classical work on radio as “the Hovis music.”)
Before Ridley Scott became a blockbuster film director, he cut his teeth by directing episodic television in the UK, and then forming an advertising production company with his brother Tony called RSA Films (Ridley Scott Associates). According to Scott, he was involved in the production of roughly 2,700 commercials over the company’s 10 years.
This iconic ad was one of several he directed that year for Hovis, but this is the one that stuck. It might be the simplicity of the ad, the Sisyphean struggle of its young protagonist (who at least gets to easily ride home), or any number of factors, but it would be a stretch to really see the auteur in this film. If anything, it’s reminiscent of his kitchen sink meets French New Wave short film from 1965, "Boy and Bicycle," which is interesting more as an oddity and a starring vehicle for his brother than a great film.
The Independent tracked down the boy in the Hovis ad, Carl Barlow, who was 13 at the time, but is now 57 and a retired firefighter.
"It was pure fate that I got the part as the Hovis boy. I was down to the last three, and it turned out that one of the two boys couldn't ride a bike, and the other wouldn't cut his hair into the pudding bowl style - it was the Seventies after all. As the only boy who could ride a bike and would cut his hair, I got the part."
This year, as part of an ad campaign for Evans Bicycles, Mr. Barlow made his way to the top of the hill one more time, with the help of an electric bike:
The original commercial is not Ridley Scott’s most famous one. That would go to his Apple Macintosh “1984” ad that screened during the Super Bowl. This list shows a few more that Scott directed, into the 1990s.
Finally, an iconic commercial invites parody, and, in fact, cherished comedians The Two Ronnies made fun of the Hovis ad in this brief skit from 1978.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.