In one of television’s most famous commercials, an elderly man is seen going from one second-hand bookshop to another trying to buy a copy of Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. He succeeds only when he finds a shop through Yellow Pages. The twist of the 50-second advert is that the elderly man is Hartley himself. The commercial was the brainchild of a Colossus in the world of television advertising, Bob Brooks, who has died in Berlin.
For more than 30 years, Brooks directed several thousand commercials for British television. Throughout the industry, he was known for his short temper, which he explained away by saying: “I was angry and would shout and scream. That’s because I took the work so seriously.”
Born in Philadelphia on December 26, 1927, he was first noticed while working on an advert for Procter and Gamble’s Crest toothpaste. It featured a child holding a dentist’s report and saying: “Look, mom, no cavities.”
Brooks arrived in London in 1961. His most memorable commercials here included the “lip-smacking, thirst-quenching” Pepsi campaign (1974). That same year, he featured Martians in an advert for the instant mashed potato product, Smash. Campaign magazine dubbed it the “TV ad of the century”.
JR Hartley, played by Norman Lumsden, was first seen in 1983. The Yellow Pages commercial resulted in life imitating art. Author Michael Russell, who had published a book about fly fishing, recognised how great a cult figure Hartley had become and used the name as a pseudonym for a real book, Fly Fishing – Memories of Angling Days.
By the time Lumsden died in 2001 at the age of 95, he had a string of credits to his name. But people remembered him best as Hartley, and the advert was screened again as a tribute to him.
One of Brooks’ wittiest campaigns cast Maureen Lipman as a Jewish grandmother, Beattie, in 32 commercials for BT. On hearing her grandson had failed most of his exams, but had passed in pottery and sociology, she cries: “He gets an ology and he says he’s failed! You get an ology, you’re a scientist.”
Brooks directed a handful of television plays, one of them, The Knowledge (1979), all about four men learning how to become London taxi drivers. Written by Jack Rosenthal and starring Nigel Hawthorne, it was nominated for a BAFTA award. In 1995, Brooks retired and went to live in Monaco.