Friday, 1 July 2016
How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1988)
Bruce Robinson's follow up to Withnail and I reunited him with the star of that film, Richard E Grant, but failed to reach the same dizzying heights of cult affection. It's a shame because this story of an advertising executive who realises he is peddling shit and attempts to put an end to it, only for the bile and shit within him to rise up, in the shape of a boil, and take over his body is actually something of an underrated gem; albeit one a little rough around the edges. Imagine The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin written by Kafka and directed by David Cronenberg and you've pretty much got How To Get Ahead In Advertising.
The title's a little misleading however. It's a great pun, but Robinson would be the first to admit the film isn't really about advertising. The satire and wicked commentary at the heart of the film, one which is still so shockingly relevant today, is actually to do with the media manipulation and dumb consumerism in Western society in general, rather than the intricacies and falsehoods of advertising product. How To Get Ahead In Advertising is an anti-Thatcherite film, a diatribe against the falsehood of politics and journalism that is still the norm to this day; how 'the news' isn't actually the news, it's a selected and sifted broadcast designed to push the aims of those in power. Look at how the BBC are currently revelling in the anti-Corybn sentiment that has come so spectacularly to the boil within the Labour party - any fool could tell you this isn't about how he performed in the EU campaign. It's about preserving the hides and careers of power hungry Blairite Red Tory MP's who aren't in the least bit politically minded to Labour's cause and who refuse to listen to the membership who expressly requested a return to the left wing political agenda, because that ideology - the original tenet of the movement itself - has no place for them.
You only need look at how remarkably spot on Robinson's comments on the film are in Alistair Owen's excellent anthology of conversations with him, Smoking In Bed (published in 2000). This is the most accurate - and now sadly prescient - comment on the EU right now;
"Protecting our 'sovereignty' is a concept out of Alice in Wonderland. How can you talk about British sovereignty when you're driving an American Jaguar and stuffing a McDonalds down your throat? The truth is, if we had closer ties to Europe, the British establishment would get found out. In general, other European countries have better education, better transport, better architecture, better health, better food and better weather. Were we to join the Single European Currency, people might want to know why, for instance, a pensioner in Germany pockets three times as many euros per week as a pensioner over here, and perhaps that would stick a pin in this preposterously inflated fantasy of 'Rule Britannia'"
"Thatcher's approach to dissent was that if you didn't go along with what she said you were anti-British. You weren't. She was anti-British, in my view, because she was prepared to kibosh millions of working people to satisfy her Year Zero concepts. And they never got us anywhere. It's a cowardly and creepy way to conduct politics to say, 'If you're not in total agreement with me then you're anti-British'. I've never been anti-British. I am overtly anti-her"
Thatcher's legacy lives on in how politicians of any hue continue to deal in their trade. Take her name out and supply it with Farage, Johnson, IDS or Gove, or any number of moaning war hungry Blairites, and the point is still made. It is this reaction to the 1980s which set the course for the norm that propels How To Get Ahead In Advertising. Lies and suggestion are pushed to benefit a particular agenda and the public gullibly swallow it whole (as witnessed in the scene on the train where Grant's advertising executive character, Desmond Bagley, overhears his fellow passengers discuss the reportage on a raid somewhere and neatly skewers the lies they're so willing to believe and the faith they have in the printed press which in turn leads him to have his epiphany) It's big on concept and ideas but ultimately the film is smothered by them to the point that audiences are, perhaps ironically, turned off by the alternative 'Message'. It also doesn't help that Handmade were notoriously stingy on the budget making some of Robinson's concepts a little hard to pull off.
Nevertheless, this is a beautifully written thought provoking piece that is acerbically funny and deeply intelligent. Further proof that cinema needed more of Bruce Robinson, but that cinema perhaps couldn't handle or risk it.