Thirty Second Cinema. Part V. Alan Parker: ‘Say hello to Ben’.

By Paul J Loosley

It would appear that the director Alan Parker fully subscribed to what the British poet Coleridge described as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Parker knew that his audience, whether for TVCs or movies, consciously or unconsciously, wanted to fully trust in what they saw and heard.

Believe it or not.

British advertising film directors of the 1970s learnt how to direct credible character through either total reportage (semi-documentary) filmic slight-of-hand or they extracted supra-realistic performances from either inexperienced or totally amateur actors.

The theorist Paul McDonald describes the evaluation of acting as ‘whether or not the actor has become the character’, yet he overlooks the possibility that the actor could, in actuality, be the character.

Alan Parker led this verité movement, developing his ability to direct ‘non-actors’ into a skilled and highly personal art.

In TV commercial terms Parker’s series of films for Bird’s Eye Beef-Burgers were notable for their almost complete believability.

The series featured an unknown, young non-actor called Ben (real name, unbelievably,  was Daz Cockerel) rejected any and all attempts to consume any and all other burgers, his perfectly natural delivery coupled with the young boy’s regional accent, created a realism way beyond anything that had come before, and subsequently created a cult following for the long-running campaign that saw Ben grow, have a girlfriend, ultimately emigrate to Australia and years later, return.

And scoffing Bird’s Eye Beef-Burgers throughout.  Cynically, having an audience believe so avidly in processed meat products, must be the apex (or nadir) of advertising chicanery.

As Parker himself says, “A film is an organic process, and often things tend to be revealed to you as the story evolves and the actors seek out their own truths”.

And it is this philosophy that Parker brought, quite refreshingly to Hollywood features; a chance to believe in the movies.

“A film is an organic process, and often things tend to be revealed to you as the story evolves and the actors seek out their own truths”

Parker’s patient skill with non-actors migrated to his first cinematic venture Bugsy Malone (1976) in which he worked exclusively with amateur children in a pastiche all-singing all dancing 1920s gangster film, kids dressed as adults armed with ‘splurge’ guns that fired custard pies.

In Fame (1980), a film about kids at a New York performing arts school, there were no famous faces, and most of the singers and dancers, especially in the big dance numbers, were actual students.

Later, one of Parker’s most successful uses of unknowns was in his film of Roddy Doyle’s Irish novel The Commitments (1991). The story of a bunch of enthusiastic lower-class Dubliners who, against all the odds, form a pretty good soul band.

The main cast were not trained musicians but were assembled into a highly appealing and skilled combo.

Their convincing performances, especially when they were singing famous soul songs and improvising dialogue, coupled with Parker’s ‘stolen’ shots of genuine Dublin backstreets, created a captivating and absorbing realism. 

The poster is enough to prove the point – not a recognisable face in the bunch, yet each a genuinely distinctive character.

Paul McDonald again observes in a section on verisimilitude, “Where film acting is closer to approximating the everyday – it becomes less obvious that the actor is acting”.

One could therefore argue that if the actor is either authentically ‘everyday’ or even unprepared, a higher degree of engaged credible spectatorship is achieved. Steven Spielberg (yes, even he) said, ‘If a director has to pull too many strings, the actor becomes a puppet not an artist’.

This subtle manipulation is what Parker brought with unparalleled skill from the British 30” TVC to the American big screen.

Parker’s films won copious awards of course, including six Oscars, and in 2002 he was made a Knight of the Realm.

Sir Alan William Parker, from Islington, son of a house painter, brought a love of natural people and an ability to draw real performances from them to both commercials and the movies.

Flying in the face of conventional and the incorrect fear that people would only want to see stars not real people on film.

Alan Parker, the British custodian of realism on film, left us last month.

Believe me, he will be missed.

Next week. Part VI. Hugh Hudson: ‘Le chant des oiseaux tapageurs’. And series finale.

Paul J Loosley is an English person who has been in Asia 40 years, 12 as a creative director and 26 making TVCs. Recently awarded a Master’s Degree in Film at UCL. And still, for some strange reason, he can’t shut-up about advertising. Any feedback; mail [email protected] (please keep it real).

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