Among the delights I received for my birthday recently was the complete collection of Lord Peter Wimsey dramas produced by the BBC in the early 1970s and starring Ian Carmichael. So, over the last couple of days, we have watched Murder Must Advertise, which is, to my mind, the best of the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries.
I think the weakest of her books are those (Five Red Herrings, Busman’s Honeymoon) in which the main focus is on the mechanics of the murder. Conversely, her strongest books are about something else, and the murder is just a way of bringing that into focus. The murder in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, for instance, is purely incidental to a book that is all about the after-effects of the First World War, and in particular the place of the shell-shocked in a society that was desperately trying to forget an experience they could never quite leave behind. And Murder Must Advertise is about the peculiar character of an advertising agency. Sayers herself worked in advertising between 1922 and 1931, during which time she created the Guinness Toucan and devised the ‘zoo’ advertisements that we still see today.
Murder Must Advertise was published in 1933, so must have been written immediately after she left S.H. Benson’s agency. It is a book suffused with intimate knowledge of, and affection for, the workings of an advertising agency. Indeed, it is the most accurate fictional portrait of an advertising agency I have read (though I confess, I haven’t read many). Watching the 1973 television adaptation, and recalling the book I read for the first time only a few years ago, I find myself instinctively recognising the industry I entered nearly 50 years after she left it, as if advertising had not changed in all the time between. In fact I don’t think it had changed in that time, not in essence; it has changed much more dramatically in the years since then. So much so that I suspect the young copywriter I was in 1977 would have found the agency world that Sayers knew far more familiar than the advertising business of today.
I became a junior copywriter at Taylor Advertising Associates in Manchester at the very beginning of 1977. It was my first full-time job after spending 18 months on the dole since leaving university. Taylor’s occupied the third floor of a characterless modern office block near the centre of Manchester; the Opera House was next door, we backed on to the (then) new law courts, and Granada TV Studios was 100 yards or so down the street. (A few weeks before I had missed out on a job as continuity scriptwriter at Granada, it came down to two of us and the other guy got it, but that was my only visit to the studios since Taylor’s, in my time, did no television advertising.) The layout of the office was basically a long corridor lined by four or five offices on either side put together out of board and glass partitions. I don’t recall the walls actually shaking if you knocked them, but you always got the impression that they would. Other than the material (and the presence of that fatal iron staircase), the layout was pretty similar to that of Pym’s Publicity as presented in the TV adaptation of Murder Must Advertise.
The distribution of offices was similar, also. When I first started at Taylor’s I had a portion of an office across the corridor from the studio. After a few weeks I moved into a glass-walled cubicle within the studio alongside Geoff, the senior copywriter. The one thing notably absent from Pym’s Publicity is any designer or artist. We know they are there because of the kerfuffle over the Nutrax advertisement that the Morning Echo refuses to print, but the visuals and the copy are clearly produced separately because it is only belatedly, when the two are seen together, that anything untoward is noticed. Clearly, in Sayers’s day, words and images were produced separately. ‘My original rough’ says the copywriter, Ingleby, ‘was illustrated with a very handsome sketch of a gentleman overwhelmed with business cares. If the innocents in the Studio choose to turn down my refined suggestion … I refuse to be responsible.’ At Taylor’s, it was rather more integrated: some combination of designer and copywriter would brainstorm ideas, then the copywriter would go away and produce headlines and a draft of the body copy, this would then be handed over to the designer who would come up with a scamp. If this was to be presented to the client, then he might use Letraset for the headline, but usually the headline was simply handwritten while body copy would be indicated with grey Magic Marker, the image itself might be nothing more than stick figures. Once approved, the designer would brief a freelance illustrator or photographer to produce the finished artwork, while the words went to a separate department where a rather forbidding character who had very possibly been in the business for as long as Murder Must Advertise had been in print would have the responsibility of specifying type face and size, leading and all the other details of the font to be used. One of the biggest changes that computers brought to the business in later years was that, for the first time, the designer found himself selecting fonts and arranging words on the page; with that change came a shift in focus, the design taking precedence over the words. As a copywriter, my very first glimpse of what the ad I had devised would look like usually came when we saw the camera-ready artwork just before it went off to the newspaper. Letraset and Magic Markers both came in during the 1950s, but other than that detail I am sure that an ad at Pym’s Publicity would go through exactly the same process.
One of the images from the TV dramatization that proved unexpectedly nostalgic was when we see Carmichael, as Death Bredon, leafing through a guardbook. At Taylor’s, guardbooks were kept in the conference room and jealously maintained by one of the senior secretaries. A guardbook is basically a large (usually A2 or even A1) hardbacked scrapbook into which every ad we produced was carefully pasted. There was one for each client, and they were the first port of call whenever we had to prepare a new campaign. You might still find the odd guardbook about in a more old-fashioned agency, but in the main they disappeared with the advent of computer storage. But at the time they were an essential part of the machinery of any advertising agency that had clearly remained unchanged from Sayers’s time until my own.
On the other side of the corridor were the account managers. The rather supercilious character of Armstrong, played by Robin Bailey, had a direct avatar at Taylor’s in our deputy Managing Director who handled the most prestigious accounts. He was rumoured to be independently wealthy, he lived out in the Cheshire countryside, drove the sort of car that used to be called a shooting brake, and regularly filled the back of that car with straw for his horses. But the whiff of criminality represented by Tallboys (Paul Darrow) also had its echo at Taylor’s, although without extending to drug dealing or murder (at least, not so far as I know). One of our account managers, who favoured something of a wide boy appearance, had a list of low-rent clients several of whom were rumoured to have links with the underworld. As the newest and youngest member of the agency, he would occasionally collar me to run errands to one of his clients, a place called The Fireplace Surround Centre that had its outlet in a seedy backstreet not too far from our office. I never enjoyed those trips, because I always assumed that the message I was delivering was asking for money, and that he was nervous of confronting a tough-looking bunch himself. Of course, nothing ever happened, and I suppose they always paid up since we continued producing their ads throughout the two years I was at the agency, but that never stopped me imagining.
All offices are, of course, engines of gossip. But one thing that is both very prominent and very true in Sayers’ portrayal of Pym’s Publicity is that it is a place for talking; within the agency, the television dramatization is far more an ensemble piece than a star vehicle. All advertising is like that. Like Ingleby, like Bredon, we are forever trying out the new headline, sounding out opinion on why it isn’t quite working. Although Geoff and I had our little cubicle in the Studio, we spent most of the time in the Studio itself, looking over the shoulders of one of the designers (or listening in on the baby alarm system we’d hidden in the MD’s office). In fact, anyone passing would just stop by to look at what the designers were doing, or possibly at what was on my typewriter (we used manual typewriters, heavy and loud;, it would be some years before I found out what an electric typewriter was like, still longer before I first used a computer). Every so often the MD would hold little gatherings where we were encouraged to bring in and talk about ads that had caught our eye. He stopped doing it when the copywriters always brought in ads with no words, and the designers always brought in ads that were all text. There is always a Miss Meteyard, a Miss Rossiter, a place of gathering (at Taylor’s it was often around the new-fangled photocopying machine, but that is just a modern equivalent of a secretary’s office). On my very first day the Studio collectively took me out for a beer at lunchtime. At around 2.30 my boss, Geoff, looked at his watch and said: ‘I suppose you should be getting back to the office now.’ So I did, and for the next half hour or more sat around in an empty building because my boss, my colleagues, anyone who might actually have anything for me to do, were all still down at the pub. After my first week, I got a pay rise. I was sad to move on after two years. There was something about advertising that made it feel like a very modern thing to be doing. But in so many ways it hadn’t changed since Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about it half a century before. Watching Murder Must Advertise was curiously like watching a part of my own past.