The Ruddles ads

Essay by jonathan Street


‘The Dinner Party’ is a rather surreal Television advert made in 1993 for the real ale brewery Ruddles. The ad was made specifically for Television, this is where it's most suitable, because the richness of the colour, and the effects used in the advert would not look quite so convincing on film, also the large number of shots would boggle the mind of any cinema audience, as this is above the average level of weirdness for an advert.

This particular subject is in my opinion rather striking, and quite unlike any Television advert I have ever seen, because although it uses humour as well as unusual set pieces to push its product Ruddles Ale the advert also has some bizarre and out of the blue artistic references that are not generally typical of contemporary beer adverts.

Ruddles brewery was formed in Rutland, which is Britain’s smallest County, they sold out to Watneys in 1986, who in turn sold the brewery to Grolsch (the Dutch Brewery) in 1992.
Grolsch quickly realised that Ruddles needed a high profile advertising campaign in order to boost their sales, so they went to the advertising agency BST, who were given the brief "To come up with something quintessentially English and timeless" (Randall 2001:299). This, it was felt summed up the traditional and distinctive taste of Ruddles Ale, partly because the setting is a country house and has a typically British feel in terms of style. Also the sense of humour surrounding this crumbling estate is of the very sarcastic kind indigenous to these islands, and not dissimilar to that of the popular TV series Blackadder in the way that the humour doesn't necessarily click with people who've never lived in England.BST contacted former Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band member and all round artiste Vivian Stanshall

who suitably fit the brief, Stanshall (who, as I’m sure you know had a degree in art) was to devise an advertising campaign for the Ale, based upon his highly successful and definitely unusual "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End" Stories, which started out life as a comedy radio show spanning the 1970's to the 1990's and spawned a book, a stage play, two albums and finally a feature film in 1980 that starred a formidable Trevor Howard as the title character Sir Henry.

BST's creative director Paul Lees and account Director Tim Nicholls were shown this film, which boasted a disturbingly surreal sense of humour, not dissimilar from that of the Goon Show at its darkest.
Stanshall was reportedly very eager to elaborate upon his stories for the adverts and came up with several ideas in a relatively short space of time.

Although the advert was an extremely artistic and surreal piece, it was still confined to the barriers of being commercial, and to this end Stanshall had a team of writers who worked with him, thus keeping the advert from becoming completely off the wall. However I believe that it still pushed against the boundaries of what is thought to be strictly commercial advertising. Aesthetically 'The Dinner Party' is quite warm and has bright bold colours, many of which are reds and purples, the reds symbolically representing the life and energy contained within the piece. Whilst the purples traditionally indicate royalty and wealth, which I believe emphasises the over the top characters who appear (through their behaviour) to be exaggerated caricatures not unlike those belonging to the surreal world of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

The colour of the sets doesn't quite express local (natural) colour, through the windows you can see that the sky is an unusual shade orange.

The colours stand out most about the piece, as they are all saturated and mainly secondary colours, thus presenting an unreal and dreamlike situation. There's a lot of fluidity to the camera movement, and then sudden and quick hand held shifting and panning shots, which emphasises the weightless and dreamlike quality that the advert exemplifies.

I think that if this ad indeed reflects society it's in a rather warped way, I believe is that it was intended to be the opposite of normality and order. It's not meant to challenge society though, the idea was to have a finished product that remains timeless, and therefore can be used until it's done to death.
I believe that for the reader to fully understand exactly what I'm analysing I should take you through the complex sequence of events in this advert.

"The Dinner Party" opens with a point of view shot looking through the bottom of a beer glass at the various guests surrounding the dinner table of a stately home.

The overweight and belching head of the table, Sir Henry Rawlinson (who bizarrely, is played by Dawn French) slumps back in his chair and looks at his watch

as his brother Hubert (who is played by Stanshall himself)"In his Forties and still unusual" (Stanshall 1978) dips his quill into the lime green soup, waiting for inspiration. "The Reverend Slodden" (Stanshall 1978) then slumps into his soup, the butler "Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer" (Stanshall 1978) casually pulls the Reverend out and fixes a snorkel over his face before dropping him straight back into the soup.

Hubert starts reciting a poem, something similar in tone to Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat.

While all this is going on, a guest looks into a mirror to reveal that the front and back of his head are identical (they're covered in hair)

and a pair of false teeth fly across the screen, stopping briefly to take a couple of bites,

as a bald guest suddenly sprouts copious amounts of hair and beard.
Sir Henry blows the froth from his beer, which creates a large storm cloud above the table;

they then start singing a Viking style jingle and row the long table out of the room.

It is this truly unique and unusual element of the ad that drew my attention to it in the first place, the artistic influence is certainly an important aspect and I think much of the adverts originality is due to this.

The slower and more tired pace in the first half of the advert shows how the characters are meant to feel before drinking a pint of enlivening Ruddles. But the speed and energy represents the apparent effects of the beer on its drinkers during the second half of the advert, it is almost saying 'You too will have this much surreal fun and excitement' with the energy and strong musical backup.
It could almost be advertising psychedelic drugs rather than Beer, with with all its wonderfully surreal imagery.
The Rawlinson characters seem even more outrageous in today’s politically correct world, as they are meant to be stuck at a point in time when the British empire was crumbling, yet the powerful men who then peopled this country were too self important to believe it, they are of an imperial age, making them totally abstract from anybody alive today. It is this seemingly bizarre behaviour that reminds me of the stubborn characters in J.B. Priestly’s play "An Inspector Calls" which moralises over the powerful but extremely flawed members of a family at the head of industry around 1912.

We are looking in on their crumbling world with fascination, which is why the odd and darkly humorous radio plays and film are still so amusing now, as no aspect of the work could have possibly dated (except for the very ‘80’s joke about ‘the old quartz digital’ watch), and be viewed as old or not in tune with the times because it was purposefully dated when it was originally conceived. The advert is not as dated as the film appears to be though, the 1980 film was shot in black and white (or sepia) whereas the advert was full of vibrant colour and lots of energy in terms of pace and speed. Which is very unlike some of the most recent beer ad's that spring to mind, such as the Stella Artois and Guinness ad's which are incredibly grainy and contain harsh cold colours, I think that these adverts are more likely to be destined for showing before a feature in the cinema than the Ruddles ad and its edited variations (there were about three of these).

We have also come across two very low quality recordings of alternate poems that Viv recited, but have never seen these included with the visuals.
Stanshall certainly impressed others involved, as BST's Creative Director Paul Lees points out "Tim (Nicholls, Account Director) had been in the ad business for many years and quickly saw that Stanshall was the most creative person that he had ever worked with." (Randall 2001:299) and his second wife Ki Longfellow agrees that "Living with Vivian Stanshall was not 'like' living with the Odd Family Rawlinson, it was living with every Rawlinson who ever lurched round Rawlinson End" (, 10 Dec 2002) these quotes I feel show the kind of man that Stanshall was, he was an essentially creative and sensitive man, but as you can imagine quite an oddity in the extremely hard and competitive world of advertising.

The reason that Dawn French portrays the male head of the Rawlinson family (Fig 12) is that the actor who played him in the 1980 film, Trevor Howard had died some 5 years previously in 1988. Although Stanshall was not in tune with the alternative comedy of the time (his style of humour was of the more old fashioned type), he did admire French. She had recently finished a series of the TV show 'French & Saunders' that same year; this programme seems to have considerably impressed Stanshall.
While of the artistic aspects, the dinner guest who's face is exactly the same as the back of his head (ie; covered in hair), and is wearing an out of place bowler hat (See image 9 below) is reminiscent of Rene Magritte's 1964 painting Son of Man,

because he seems to have a face but it is not visible.
Another interesting point about the advert is that it could be included as a segment in a Surreal or Dadaist film, and (apart from the end jingle of ‘Ooh! Ruddles, Real Ale’) you would not necessarily realise that it was advertising a product, as it is just as unusual and nonsensical as anything I’ve seen in Hans Richter's "Dreams That Money Can Buy".

The reason that I site this advert as a good example of a contemporary surreal work is that it’s so different from any I’ve seen before or since, it is unique because at the time it was striving to be different so that it would be noticed, and many ad's made at the same time have dated beyond all reason especially those using then known tv or film stars.

This advert on the other hand remains as fresh as it was when originally aired, and I think that it has influenced many of the adverts around today, as far as colour and the speed of shots are concerned, like many of the beer ad's it uses bright, saturated colours and many ads, such as the Strongbow and Heineken ones aired recently use the same palette, so the general style of this type of ad hasn't changed in the last decade, making 'The Dinner party' an excellent example of the contemporary Beer advert.

Malcolm the Porcupine went to see
If a moon of green cheese would float
He exhaled a spray of 'will you go away'
To the land where the hoppity oats
He brewed humpty of Ruddles
Which he dumpty in puddles
And licked up whenever it snowed
In final conclusion, twas only illusion,
Malcolm Porcupine said 'I'LL BE BLOWED'

Commencing his doodles
With oodles of noodles
From soup of a green green hue
Sir Cuthbert first faltered
Nonplussed, altered
Then called for his favourite brew

Rolling an eyeball for kicks
Is somewhere between and betwixt
But feared overbite
Or the gift of hindsight
But not a patch on a Ruddles at six

Ruddles - The Video