AS GOOD AS IT GETS Who Will Be the Best of the Best? Nov ’09

I worked at the BBC in London, went back to Australia for a couple of years, won some awards, and returned to London.

LONDON, JANUARY 1969. Armed with my “award-winning” reel, I do the rounds of advertising agencies. They watch my reel, give me tea and biscuits, and throw me out. I go to Lintas, the advertising arm of Unilever. Meet their Head of Television, Ian Fawn-Meade. Show him my Australian commercial reel. He promptly shows me his.

Mine: 16mm, B&W. His: 35mm, color.

“Not up to London standards,” says Ian.

He’s right. Mine sucks.

“Sorry kid.”

I’m tossed out the door. Hey, where’s my cuppa tea?

NEXT DAY 8:00 a.m.
Ring… ring. Go away, I’m asleep. Ring… ring.

“Good morning, Ian here.”

OMG it’s Mr. Get-Out-Of-Here himself.

“Stefan, I feel terrible about yesterday. How’d you like a job of filming Captain Birdseye, a sort of mini documentary? Come in and see me at 10:00.”

Try to stop me.

I’m there at 10:00. Ian’s client, Birdseye, feels that after two years they should retire Captain Birdseye from their fish sticks TV commercials and try a different approach. My job is to make a short film showing how the British public loves the Captain.

Best Actor: John Hewer, Captain Birdseye for 31 years, thanks to me, sort of. Best of the Best: British Gas, my old flame!

We hire a London black cab for the day. Captain Birdseye is actor John Hewer. Pick him up in full uniform and go off shooting. The cab stops at shopping centers. John is mobbed by fans. I run-‘n’-gun shoot. Back into the cab. Find a school playground. John gets out. The kids see him — mayhem! Pull up at a bus queue. John is mobbed. You get the picture.

I edit it at Lintas. Ian is thrilled. Our film does the job. John goes on to play Captain Birdseye until 1998 — that’s 31 years.

Besides being an actor, John has a conference company. He asks us to make conference films. Yes please! And he wants them non-stop. We go together to the south of France (read all about it in DV, April 2007, “The Dog Stays in the Picture”).

John has a friendly competitor, Herb Kanzell.

If you think a conference is 50 salesmen at the Holiday Inn, think again. For Schweppes, Herb hires the Royal Festival Hall with full orchestra and cast of actors and singers. The on-stage narrator is Alec (Obi-Wan Kenobi) Guinness.

British Gas is a client of Herb’s. Soon, John Hewer, Herb Kanzell and British Gas are my biggest clients. I’m starting a new film before the current one is wrapped up.

British Gas has a new toy: A massive IBM computer. They want me to make a film about their new computerized accounting system. It will show all the gas regions in the U.K. and how the central computer links them up.

Job finished, I mail the invoice: £12,500 (about $25,000).

Thirty days pass. No money. It’s that wretched computer, I suspect. I phone my contact, Clive: “Don’t worry, it’s our new computer, it has some bugs. We’ll get you a manual check.”

Two days later, the manual check arrives. I bank it. Three weeks later, the new computer springs into life. Yeaah, another £12,500! That makes $50,000. I phone Clive. “Bank it as well. Let’s see if our new system works.”

After a month, I phone the accounts people direct. “You banked it? Good. We want to see if the…” Cool, I’ll sit on my hands. Pay it back, when their system clicks in.
Another month. I phone again: “Hey, I’ve been paid twice.”

“No. That’s impossible. We have a new computer.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Let me double check” [No pun intended.] No, you’re wrong, you’ve only been paid once.”

“You paid me twice.”

“No, once.”

“Are you sure?”

Click! He’s gone – and so is their money.

Paid twice. That’s as good as it gets! British Gas, you are THE BEST OF THE BEST!

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