I’ve a real liking for foreign-language films; I have done since I was a teenager. I think this started with late-night French films on BBC Two in the pre-video recorder era. I’ve often impressed film buffs with my knowledge of, say, François Truffaut – a whole season of whose work I watched avidly in the early 80s solely in the hope of seeing French people get their kit off.
These days, of course, it’s different. It’s about the sheer quality of the stuff available as well as the benefit of having subtitles to concentrate on: you have to pay attention, or you won’t know what’s going on. Checking your phone, pottering about or glancing at a book is just not possible. You can’t half-watch a subtitled film; you’re either completely engaged, or not at all.
In this country we’re blessed with Walter Presents, the oddly named and, to my mind, underpromoted bit of All 4, Channel 4’s free-to-air video-on-demand service. It really is a joy. I’m currently puzzling my way through a very dark Croatian spy thing called Guardian of the Castle in which Yugoslav-era spooks do an awful lot of brooding and the odd bit of killing.
The only downside of All 4 offerings is that something weird happens every 15 or so minutes: the film stops and some adverts appear. And here’s the thing: you can’t fast-forward through them; you have to watch them! It’s incredibly annoying, which is strange when you remember that for most of us it was always this way. When the ads came on, especially before the invention of remote controls, we had to actually sit and watch these things. This now seems astonishing. I realised I hadn’t sat through an ad break for what felt like years. I can’t be the only one. How can TV adverts work any more?
As a kid I used to like watching adverts; I think I even started recording them. It’s funny which ones stick in your mind. I remember asking my bewildered parents if they used a particular oven cleaner, which was called something like Oven Pad. It was because in the advert there was a nice cartoon face on the thing. Why did they do that? Did kiddies’ pester power really drive oven cleaner sales? Those who campaign against alcohol advertising won’t be surprised that Heineken adverts hit home, featuring this nondescript lager refreshing “parts other beers cannot reach”. It was the one with a row of bare-footed coppers whose toes started moving as soon as the Heineken was swallowed. I swear that the absurd feeling of head-to-toe wellbeing I get from every evening’s first drink is in some part the result of hardwiring laid down by that advert.
I fell out of love with ads after an art lesson in middle school. Mr Coutts said something about them just being a way of getting us to buy things we didn’t really want or need. He had a point. I never felt the same way about them again.
Now, watching them in the middle of a gritty Croatian spy drama, it’s just painful. I’ve lost my immunity to their awfulness. During the three ad breaks I forced myself to sit through the other night, my toes were curling like those of the coppers in the Heineken commercial. There was one about how environmentally sound EDF is; a bloke hiding in a fridge handing a woman some cheese; and, worst of all, the ads for banks, which, interestingly, appear to have the most production money to spend. The Lloyds Bank advert featuring a black horse racing alongside delighted people to the sound of a Carpenters track made me want to tie my TV to the tail of a galloping horse so I could never watch anything of the sort ever again.
Breaking news: I’ve just spotted that if you give Channel 4 £50 a year, you don’t have to watch the adverts. I’m in.