Although John Lloyd is a highly accomplished director of commercials, his other career as a television producer puts his advertising achievements into the shade. This, after all, is the man who was responsible for – with varying degrees of involvement – The News Quiz, Spitting Image, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Have I Got News For You and QI.
When you consider what he’s achieved in this other realm it’s amazing that he ever managed to find time to direct ads, and it seems almost unfair that he proved good enough to make some of the best loved commercials of all time.
Had he given in to the nerves that plagued him on the way to direct his first commercial – a film for Phileas Fogg snacks – it could have been a different story: “I’d watched directors – particularly on really difficult shows like Spitting Image – and I’d seen them crying, having breakdowns, resigning under pressure, shouting all the time, and I thought it must be the world’s most difficult job. I was terrified.
“I remember they sent a car to take me to Shepperton and I was so scared that I wanted to say to the driver ‘can you stop because I’ve got to be sick’ and yet within two hours I was enjoying it so much I was thinking ‘I’ve been doing the wrong job for the last 13 years.’”
This opportunity had come about because Steve Barron, who started Limelight, wanted to break into commercials: “But because he and the other directors at the company were known for pop promos, nobody took them seriously. People said ‘you music video guys, you’re all on drugs and you don’t understand proper structure’, so Steve felt he had to get people from other areas and for some bizarre reason he asked me.”
The choice wasn’t as bizarre as Lloyd’s modesty suggests. Alongside Jim Yukich he had co-directed a pop promo starring the Spitting Image puppets for Genesis’s 1986 song ‘Land of Confusion’: “I wrote the storyboard and did all the preparation and he didn’t really do a lot but he got more of the credit because it was his production company.
“I was actually in LA when ‘Land of Confusion’ won an award and he hadn’t even bothered to tell me. I was in my hotel room getting drunk on the contents of the mini-bar when I saw it on the telly... I couldn’t believe it. He was just down the road in Burbank or somewhere accepting this prize.”
The experience had given Lloyd the confidence to try directing by himself and on the way home after filming Phileas Fogg he was filled with excitement. “Because I was new to it, we over-ran and I went home at about two in the morning, and again I wanted to tap on the driver’s window, only this time I wanted to say ‘remember my name because I’m going to be a famous director one day’. I was absolutely hooked.”
Having worked in television alongside directors of varying ability, John Lloyd knew how to get the best out of a crew: “If you’ve done your storyboard properly, planned it properly and you know your own mind – and if you can then be reasonably civil – you will be adored. A crew will do anything for you. They will literally walk off a cliff if you ask them to. But very few directors are like that. Most of them are not very well organised… they haven’t thought it through. Often they think if they just shoot a lot of stuff then somebody will work it out later.”
Successful collaboration is a theme dear to Lloyd’s heart: “I believe in teams... any writer or director who works in film and television who thinks it’s all down to them is insane because it’s just not true. I often say that a great crew is a gestalt because it’s like a single being – the camera operators are the eyes, the sound people are the ears, the transport is the legs, the grips are the arms – it’s one huge Transformer creature really... and the director is just the map-reader.”
Lloyd believes that this collegiate spirit produces the very best work: “On the finest shoots I’ve ever done, the agency and the client are part of it too... we are all as one. That used to happen quite a lot in the 80s and the early 90s. The first year of Barclaycard, you would not have known that the agency people were not close friends of the crew.”
An anecdote about the difficulties of filming in an Egyptian souk reveals the usefulness of the cooperation that Lloyd cherishes: “When we got to Luxor, it turned out they’d never seen a film camera in the souk so we couldn’t move for people shouting at us...so in order to get a clean shot of Rowan [Atkinson] we had to set up a fake film crew. We got all the agency people to pretend to be the most clichéd film crew you can imagine with one guy dressed as a Hollywood director in a baseball cap in charge of a completely fake film crew using a camera body we didn’t need and carrying a boom mic. We got them to make as much noise as possible so all the crowd would watch them and, meanwhile, we could get all the shots we needed from the back of a van with a hidden camera.”
These experiences cemented Lloyd’s belief in a collaborative approach: “Although somebody has to have ‘final cut’ it works best when you sense that you’re all making it together... sometimes at the end of a shoot you can’t even remember where the ideas came from... and you realise that it isn’t important.”
Given Lloyd’s faith in his ability to lead in this fashion and the directorial experience he’d gained, might he have been able to create a more harmonious atmosphere on the notoriously ill-tempered set of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ if he’d opted to direct it himself? “I think I probably would have done but multiple-camera directing is a very difficult job... you need eight pairs of eyes. There are people who can do it far better than me.”
Nevertheless Lloyd felt he’d learned enough to offer valuable guidance to director Richard Boden: “Before we started I said to Richard ‘for two years Mandie Fletcher [who directed the second and third series of Blackadder] and I were like dysfunctional siblings so I just want to remind you that I’m the boss and I get final cut, and if I give you some advice about a particular scene, please don’t say ‘so you know how to direct, do you?’ because I’m going to get very cross.’ So on the very first day, we’re about 40 shots in and I say ‘I think we need a three-shot here’ and he says: ‘Do you want to direct this?’”
After being angrily reminded of the earlier warning, Boden fell into line but neither man had a solution when the final day of shooting famously went awry. The sharp thinking had to come from elsewhere as, with time running out and a set barely fit for purpose, the actors attempted to make it look as though they were being mown down by enemy gun fire as they charged out of the trenches. It looked woeful and when the actors refused to film it again because the experience was “too horrible”, Lloyd had no idea what to do.
Editor Chris Wadsworth suggested that they slow the action, a production secretary said they should superimpose poppies on the final shot; and a sound engineer added a little birdsong. Although Lloyd claims that his sole contribution to this spectacular brinkmanship was to insist that there would be no end credits, in doing so he forgets that junior colleagues must have felt sufficiently emboldened by the collegiate spirit he had nurtured to make the suggestions that saved the day.
One of the most enduring professional relationships of Lloyd’s career has been with Rowan Atkinson and, as director of the Barclaycard series, he admired and learned from the comedian’s approach to problem solving: “Rowan is an electronic engineer by training and loves mechanisms. He loves it when it’s neat and that’s what we were most proud of... not just that they were funny ads but that they were brilliant sales tools.”
It was a way of thinking that served Lloyd well when he directed a commercial for Boddingtons: “It was originally going to be shot in black and white with a man in the bath wearing a frilly shower cap but the BACC wouldn’t allow him to be shown drinking beer in the bath. The agency were stuck because they didn’t have a script so I went in and said: ‘for a start, guys in the north don’t wear frilly bath caps... let’s make him a girl and get her out of the bath – she’s putting the beer on her face, and her boyfriend comes in and smells the beer on her and says: ‘hey, chuck... you smell gorgeous’. And instead of it being grainy black and white – which is a Southerner’s view of the North – let’s make it sexy; give them a loft and a shiny floor’. It was fantastic fun to do and I think it’s very close to being a perfect ad.”
Lloyd feels his ability to solve problems is his greatest strength as a director: "all the really cool jobs were going to Paul Weiland, Graham Rose and Ridley Scott... while I got all the stuff that people couldn't fix."
When Lloyd agreed to direct a series of commercials for Red Rock cider he had the opportunity to work with another comedy legend – Airplane! star Leslie Nielsen. The ads demonstrated Lloyd’s ability to work with American comic sensibilities and he forged a strong friendship with the Canadian star. Before long Lloyd was in the running to direct the third film in the Naked Gun series.
Although he initially describes this as a missed opportunity and recalls Mel Smith telling him he was mad to hesitate because of the money on offer, he’s sanguine about the chance that came and went because “the script was terrible” and he was comforted when he met up with Nielsen a year or so later and learned that making the film had been “a horrible experience”.
The last two selections in John Lloyd’s Desert Island Clips were both directed by Roger Woodburn. The first is a film for Heineken which has long-lost shopping trolleys gamely making their way back to a supermarket: “I look at some of Roger Woodburn’s work and he does something that I can’t even begin to do... he makes somebody care about a metal shopping trolley. That is genius.”
“My other choice is Roger’s Dambusters ad for Carling Black label – that’s one where I feel I’m in the same box as Roger. Looking at it, you just know that it’s the director’s idea to do the bouncing bomb into the four pints of beer at the end. I swear, only the director could have thought of that. That’s a director who says: ‘I’m going to give more value for money than I need to, and everyone at home is thinking ‘thank-you very much, I got a free joke at the end that you didn’t have to give me’.
Although John Lloyd is genuinely humble about the happy accidents that helped to create the extraordinary path that he’s meandered along and plainly grateful for all the success that’s come his way, it’s also obvious that he still rues the opportunities that didn’t work out. He has that strain of restless ambition that’s never quite satisfied, and you sense that he’ll never stop striving for more. It’s another dimension of the perfectionism that has benefited every lucky soul who has ever commissioned him to do anything.