Feature

Why BBC One’s Christmas ad waived ‘sugar and gloss’ to stop time for a mother and son

BBC Creative has put 'togetherness' at the heart of BBC One's Christmas campaign, which stops time to tell a story about a mum and a son reconnecting when they share a moment by the seaside.

Following on from the success of 2017's father-daughter festive campaign, BBC One is back at it again this Christmas with ‘Wonderland’ – a powerful ad that tells the story of a mother and son who find themselves frozen in time to spend a quality stretch together.

Crafted by Xander Hart and Edward Usher, the BBC Creative duo responsible for the network’s operatic and painstakingly crafted summer World Cup film, the spot is BBC's second in-house festive and, and it seeks to build on BBC One’s longstanding theme of ‘oneness’, pervasive in its idents and messaging.

Debuting on Saturday (30 November), ‘Wonderland’ opens with a busy mum scrambling to leave for work. As she’s about to head out the door, her teenage son (who is sitting just metres away from her) fires her a text to ask if she’s ‘still on for tonight?’. Exasperated, she tells him she’s not sure she can make their plans and rushes off.

She’s then depicted in the office, overwhelmed by her workload and surroundings, while her son whittles the day away at a seaside carnival to pass the time. The scenes come to a joint crescendo and time stands still for both of them – Bernard’s Watch-style. The mother rushes to find her son and enjoy a carefree day on the coast full of simple pleasures – like chips and penny machines – while everyone around them remains frozen.

The spot ends on the tagline: Christmas Time Together’.

“When we were writing scripts, we wrote a lot of different ideas down, but one truth we kept coming back to was Christmas is the only time of year you can put a pause button on what you’re doing in your life, sit down and de-stress with the people you’re closest to," explained Usher. "The rest of the year is just hectic and frantic but at Christmas, everything slows."

The theme is similar to 2017’s ‘The Supporting Act’, which told the story of a young girl vying for her busy Dad’s attention, only for him to notice when it really mattered. The success of last year’s ad and the message around ‘oneness’ garnered high-praise from the public.

But while the spirit of both films is the same, the execution is very different, with the in-house agency deciding to forgo CGI and animation for live action.

“It wasn't a case of looking at last year's and wanting to be different,” noted Hart. “It was very much what worked best for the story, and because we felt this was really a truthful emotional, human story.

"It didn't feel like we'd do it justice if we did it in animation. It felt like it had to be done in live action. So much of that was down to does the amazing actors we found.

A 'universal' story

The pair were also keen to explore how time is perceived differently by different people and showcase the same situation from two alternative points of view.

Briefed with creating a concept around togetherness at Christmas, they settled on exploring the “interesting relationship” between teenage boys and their mums, but didn’t really do any extensive research.

“Its something we’ve obviously both been through,” said Usher, adding they spoke to brothers, cousins and friends about that strange limbo between being a child and a teenager.

“We tried writing him as being younger but the story didn’t feel real. We also tried writing him older but then he wouldn’t have needed his mum as much.

Hart said they also spoke to a few mums at the BBC before embarking on the project, which kicked off in the summer. Among them was a busy producer working on the World Cup coverage.

“I asked her what she would do if she had a day off and she said she’d spend it with her kids and husband. You think a busy mum would want time for herself… so we felt like there was something in that,” he said.

In a culture where overworking is glamourised and projected as something aspirational, Hart and Usher said they saw this as a truly “universal” Christmas story. Director Sam Brown of Rogue Films said the brief he was given encouraged him to create something with a bit more grit than a typical seasonal spot.

Elaborating, he said: “There was definitely an invitation to strip away some of the sugariness and gloss of so many other Christmas ads and connect on a level that felt a bit more human and a bit more real.”

'It's not polished'

As for the fantastical time-stop scenes, there was no CGI involved. The majority of effects were done in-camera because the team wanted the story to feel authentic, with loose, hand-held lenses. “A lot of rope and wire” was used to suspend items in time and space, for instance.

“We didn’t want it to feel like computers had made the movie,” asserted Usher. “The BBC has this incredible storytelling history and we wanted our film to be more like an addition to that lineage rather than ‘here’s a posh ad’, you know?”

Hart added: “We wanted there to be an element of craft and a fingerprint on it. It’s not this polished perfect thing that can sometimes feel cold.”

"We didn't want to tell a story about time stopping to tell a story about a mum and a son reconnecting when they share a moment,” finished Usher.

The original music for the film is Emmy the Great’s Lost in You. The re-recording for the film was composed by Alex Baranowski and performed by Emmy the Great and London Metropolitan Orchestra.

The film is available from Saturday (1 Dececmber) on BBC iPlayer and the BBC’s social media channels and will be televised for the first time after Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One.