Confessions of a Jingle Writer
If you were to imagine a terror-inducing hybrid, the combination of an advertising luvvie, a Cambridge graduate and a theatre luvvie has to be it. I realise I’m about to meet one when the solid arrangement to interview Tom Hodge, the star of ‘Confessions of a Jingle-Writer’ at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, starts to fall apart. A 12 noon interview slot sails by as Hodge can’t be roused by his PR. ‘He was playing jazz last night’, she says, ‘so he may still be asleep.” A re-arranged 3pm slot also falls by the wayside, as he has to warm up and can only spare 15 minutes. Finally, a 6pm slot the next day is settled for and – after an Edinburgh policeman’s failure to correctly direct him to The Balmoral Hotel delays him by twenty minutes – Hodge arrives for his ‘slot’. Or should I say my slot. Already 18 hours and twenty minutes late, Hodge is apologetic that not only did he miss his other interviews, but he has to leave at 6.45pm to catch a train to London. How very advertising. “I’m sorry, I really am,” he says. “I spend my entire show taking the piss out of these people so apologies.”
Hodge’s show has been quietly successful. Based on his experiences as a composer with London production house, Grand Central, it looks at the history of jingles and shares some anecdotes of the ‘wacky’ requests by adfolk. “The show is essentially, as one guy put it, more Variety Club Christmas lecture than stand-up comedy,” he says. “It’s a wry look at jingle-writing and the kind of strange people that you meet in the advertising and media world. It’s also about the strange requests that you get asked for, the detail of the style of briefs that you get given, all the way through to the descriptions like ‘can you make it kind of fuzzy’ or ‘less purple’. Those kind of things that you have to unravel and give a musical feel to.”
You feel almost surprised that people will pay money to hear that, but, then, this is the Edinburgh Fringe. As a serious musician, Hodge’s debut came about after he was asked to play something at a friend’s birthday party in London. He launched into an impromptu jazz session and then started joking about a Strepsils jingle that he’d just completed. “My now director – Hannah Eidinow – was a mutual friend at the party and said, ‘while we loved the little jazz piano you were playing, what they were really into was the insight into the weird and wonderful world of jingles, why don’t you get fifty minutes to an hour together of this and let’s take it to the Festival?’,” he says.
Eidinow was the director of the Fringe First-winning play Gone last year, and after introducing Hodge to her producer, the show was put together.
It seems appropriate that Hodge turned 30 on the opening night of his show, as he seems to be tumbling from one crazy experience to another. A graduate of Cambridge – where he studied social and political science – he worked as an assistant to Tessa Jowell, before she was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Impressive though it sounds, it helps to know his aunt is Margaret Hodge. Minister for Employment.
“At that point, I really enjoyed politics, but I knew that I wanted to give music a go so I went and did some training,” he says. “I’ve been there [Grand Central] five years and started off making tea, then once they knew about my musical skills, I started getting bits of regular composing work, and then it got to the position where we turned it into a full-time composition arm of Grand Central.”
There, he’s worked on everything from a Renault ident soundtrack for its sponsorship of The Sopranos to the Strepsils’ Mr Throaty, which catapulted him to the Fringe. However, he mourns the decline of jingles. “Essentially nowadays, we’re not particularly writing the traditional style of jingle,” he says. “It’s all much more film score led, it tends to be a film score condensed into thirty seconds. I suppose it’s more to do with the sophisticated audience and viewing sophistication and that people are looking to advertising to change their style. Certainly from a film point of view, audiences have got more sophisticated and do expect more, so you could argue that that filters back into the advertising world. Or in some ways, the advertsing world is a leader anyway, with the big directors – Ridley Scott and the like – who cut their teeth with adverts. I have to say the original jingle people really liked, it did stick in their heads. It kind of begs the question, why have we really had to move to this kind of soap-drama, 30 second ‘make a story of the car ad or deodorant’ campaign’? Those musical catchphrases were doing a great job and it’s a shame we no longer use them.”
Aside from showcasing famous jingles - such as ‘you’ll wonder where the yellow went’ from the Pepsident advert – Hodge also regales the audience with spurious historical jingle-writers such as Justin from The Darkness and Lou Reed. “Justin wrote ‘washing machines live longer with Calgon’,” he says. “I start pushing my luck with a nineteenth century Spanish classical guitarist who it turns out is the author of the Nokia ringtone.”
His own favourite jingles are easy for him to name. “I like the old ones like Pepsident, Mars and Bodyform,” he says. “I always find that particularly amusing [Bodyform], the emotion that you’re singing about a sanitary towel. It’s a shame we don’t get them anymore.”
Jingle-writing is his future, though, as despite enjoying his time on stage, he’s not as enthusiastic about the Fringe’s notorious reviewers, who have not pandered to his sensitive side. “It’s been an emotional journey,” he says. “Ultimately the show’s written and performed by me, about me, so the reviews have been very personal. I haven’t got to grips with that at all. I seem to have created polar opposites in terms of what the critics think. If they take it as what it is, a bit of light-hearted fun, a few anecdotes, a nice kind of crowd-pleaser – then they’re into it. But if they’re like, where’s it going next, this isn’t stand-up comedy, those critics are not liking me at all.”
Here in Edinburgh, though, the ad industry is flocking to his show. He’s spotted many either ex- or current ad people in the audience, but only because they relate to his experience of advertising craziness. “You hear certain chuckles in the audience when the show’s on and you know they’re from the industry, they could only be,” he says. “The people who are in the industry usually stay behind to say they enjoyed it. I had one guy from Canada that was a copywriter in the seventies and he said things haven’t changed.”
I’d almost forgotten that I’d thought disparaging thoughts about Hodge being a hybrid terror until I ask him how honest he is when he tells people what he does for a living. “My business card says ‘composer’, but depending on who it is I say I do music for TV or, I say I’m a jingle-writer, quote unquote,” he says. Not only does he say ‘quote, unquote’, but as he says it he raises the two fingers of each hand to place the apostrophes around the words. “People are always a bit intrigued,” he continues. “Musician guys are like ‘you write jingles do you? Sell-out’.”
Confessions of A Jingle Writer is on at 4pm every day at The Pleasance, Edinburgh until 29 August.
Colin Montgomery, joint creative director at Citigate Smarts went to the show. Read his review on page 33.