The Magazine's review of advertising
THE PRODUCT: Virgin Trains
'Will you quit stalling? We're going to miss the train'
THE BRIEF: Make people forget how grim train travel has often been in recent years. Instead, inspire them with a bit of good old-fashioned romance.
WHAT'S GOING ON: As one of Virgin's new Pendolino trains powers through the English countryside, the Railway Children race down to the fence to see the "big dragon tearing by".
On board, modern day "customers" mingle with living, breathing icons of the golden age of the train.
Margaret Lockwood and May Witty order a pot of tea, asking the waiter to make sure the water's boiling. Cary Grant tries to chat up Eva Marie Saint. And (rather strangely, since the train has already been racing through the fields) Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon hobble down a Euston platform in high heels and make it on to the train just in time.
The advert - a full minute long - reaches its climax (to the kind of orchestral soundtrack one might expect from a Hollywood epic) with Cary Grant declaring: "Beats flying, doesn't it."
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon - Some Like it Hot
May Witty and Margaret Lockwood - The Lady Vanishes
Albert Finney Martin Balsam - Murder on the Orient Express
Sir John Mills - In Which We Serve
Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren - The Railway Children
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint - North by North West
A strange message, perhaps, to come from the House of Branson. But the atmosphere created by this advert is so seductive that the experience of post-Hatfield speed restrictions, delays and overcrowding, seems a world away. By linking the train experience with flying, it's almost as if the most realistic alternative to rail (driving) is not even considered.
"The whole brief was to reinvent the romance and passion of train travel," says Helen Kimber of ad agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, which created the advert.
Keith Lovegrove, author of Railway: Identity, Design and Culture, is in no doubt that the brief has been fulfilled.
Cover is blown
"This advert works on so many levels," he says. "It successfully suggests that travelling by train is once again fashionable. There's a subliminal message that there's a chance of an encounter with a celebrity on board, but there are various nods too to British culture - for example the two girls nudging each other as Cary Grant is chatting up Eva Marie Saint."
This is not, Lovegrove says, a new theme in advertising. He points to a 1938 advert for classic US modernist train, the 20th Century Limited, which said a visit to the bar lounge is "an experience akin to being a guest in a famous and exclusive club, for rarely does the Century move without a quorum of internationally-known people on board".
It's the combination of the old films with the modern which impresses Lovegrove most, however, as well as the way characters from two Hitchcock films meet in the corridor.
The care taken in production means this is one of those adverts which repays repeated watching. "When Tony Curtis is on the train, there's a cover of Hello! Magazine in a rack behind him with a picture of Curtis himself on it, with the headline "Life's a Drag". Little touches like that make it watchable again and again."
Helen Kimber agrees that the key to the advert's success is the trouble taken in "post production", ie the work done with computers and editing after the filming has taken place, and where the ancient is merged with the modern.
The previous Ad Breakdown article on the VW Golf "Singin in the rain" advert gave a taste of how this is done - in the Virgin case this work (by Ludo Fealey at Glassworks) took three months - the time an average advert takes to make from beginning to end.
His tasks included such things as matching the shadows on the new and old actors' faces, and reflecting the film actors in the modern props and windows.
Countryside adds to air of drama
The music, composed by James Brett who was the assistant musical director of the Party in the Palace at the Queen's Golden Jubilee, and recorded with the 62-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra, deserves special mention for the way it supports the mood of a John Williams Hollywood epic.
Behind the scenes there was much toil too, particularly for those involved in obtaining permission from the studios which own the original films, and in the case of actors such as Cary Grant who have died, getting agreement from their families.
In some respects this advert may become a classic, to rank alongside the BR promotional films and the 1980s British Rail "Relax" advert in which even the Penguin in the logo on a passenger's book dozes.
The central idea is not in itself new - not just in the way that Keith Lovegrove points out, but in the merging of new and old. Anyone remember Griff Rhys Jones and Holsten Pils, for example? But when so much love and attention has obviously been lavished on something, this scarcely matters.
Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Ad Breakdown refers to the 'classic' BR Relax ad, but all this did was highlight the vast difference between the ad and the awful experience of actually travelling by train. This Virgin ad makes exactly the same mistake. I had the misfortune to travel by Virgin last week and the misery of the journey when compared with the ad is indescribable. Show cramped seating, screaming children and executives yelling into their mobile phones and you'll be closer to the real rail experience.
Jane, Botley, Hampshire
I though the ad was brilliant!
Mark Richards, Nottingham
I absolutely cannot fault this very well crafted short film. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as an advert, because it is rather let down by the reality it promises to deliver. If only the trains in the UK were really this nice! It is a fantasy film therefore, to be enjoyed on only that level, and not to be regarded as reflecting the reality of train travel in the UK today anymore than "The Lord of the Rings" films reflected the reality of life in New Zealand.
Rob, London, UK
I always enjoy this ad when it's on - I like being able to watch out for all the little things (such as the magazine cover). It really is very well done, with attention to detail. Those irritating ads for insurance, loans, ringtones, and all the other dreadful rubbish should be ashamed of themselves!
What a masterpiece - it all blends together so seamlessly.
Its hard to comprehend the amount of work that went into it.
Excellent - well done!
Alan Jacobson, Canvey Island UK
As a blind person the ad is lost on me and as such will not erase the overwhelming memory of the new virgin trains for me.... which is the odour of the toilets that pervades the carriages. Enough to make your £7.00 burger wilt!
Dave, Oxford England
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