Everyone has to start somewhere. Very few are lucky enough to start at the top – either through massive talent or family inheritance; and those that do are usually ruined by the experience. In my case, the desire to be a persuader through writing began about as near the bottom as you can get.
At the age of twenty-one – armed with a Joint Honours degree in History and Politics – I eschewed the option of a further degree in favour of skulking back home to Mum and Dad in order to find a job.
It was 1969: the Beautiful People had come and gone. That is to say, they had come inordinately often and gone off their faces on varietal drugs. Now it was time to either get real or become a junkie. The vast majority of us chose the former option.
Here comes a fact that contemporary millennials cannot grasp – and I do understand why – but in those days, a good University degree rendered one automatic élite potential. Simply by opting for a mainstream professional career, lifetime employment (and a fat pension at the end of it) were pretty close to being certainties.
My problem was that, being insecure about my abilities – but also suffused with fantasies about becoming a definitive novelist – the last things I wanted to be were, in no particular order, a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, a civil servant, an architect, a surgeon, a social worker or a teacher.So I started working life as a trainee copywriter in a Manchester ad agency called R H Jackson. The deal was that I turned up looking plausible five days out of seven, and they in turn paid me £14 each and every week.
My father’s reaction to this was as follows: “Sixteen years of education and you wind up writing bloody advertising jingles for fourteen quid a week”.
RHJ had, let us say, an eclectic range of clients. The finance director insisted on calling them customers – a term used I think to stop any of us from entertaining any delusions of professional grandeur that might bump up our salary expectations. I don’t know why he bothered: the agency operated from seedy offices just off Albert Square, and the clients emitted little in the way of glamour. They produced and/or distributed car tyres, nappies, compressors, carpets, gimmicky household gadgets, mopeds, garden seeds and washing lines.
Somewhere along the way, we had acquired the advertising account for a used car dealership in Stockport. In 1970, its owner took the decision to expand his business and launch a new flagship outlet in the centre of the town. We were handed the task of turning the grand opening into a sensation.
The theme of the promotion (for which I must accept the entirety of blame) was “The balloon’s going up”. But behind this cliché, there sat a reasonably solid idea – a huge bunch of real balloons to be launched into the Lancastrian skies, several of which were attached to a card offering 0% finance on any vehicle bought from the shiny new dealership.
If you’re still not impressed, then get this: the really bold part of the plan was to get Dr Who to turn up to the opening day. The Dr Who actor at the time was Jon Pertwee, a well-known TV star with his personalised time-travelling car, WHO 1. Poor Mr Pertwee must have been strapped for cash at the time, and to our astonishment accepted his role in the launch with alacrity. Better still, he had agreed to pitch up in WHO 1.
There were just two problems. The first was that Stockport lay slap bang in the middle of Manchester Airport’s main flight path. Any launch of radar-confusing balloons therefore required flight controller clearance at the highest level.The second was one of crowd control. This was a problem we spectacularly failed to foresee, our expectation being that at best a dribble of sci-fi nerds and infants was the best we were going to get. It was an early lesson for me: never, ever underestimate the pulling power of shlock television.
This latter problem became apparent by 9 am on the Saturday concerned, when the client rang my boss to say that over 3,000 people in all the ages, sizes and colours had pitched up to await the arrival on Earth of Dr Who and his retinue. The Stockport constabulary were less than impressed by our lack of preparation for the inevitable. The client was more than distressed by the huge costs being threatened by the cops. In short order, my boss impressed upon me the importance of getting arse down to dealership immediately.
I arrived just before noon to scenes of pandemonium: traffic being diverted, makeshift cordons not entirely controlling swaying crowds, gas filled balloons straining at guy ropes and loud chants of “We want Doctor Who”. Jon Pertwee, meanwhile (himself a great vintage car enthusiast) was trying to steer his genuine antique vehicle WHO 1 towards the dealership, with the help of the long-suffering Stockport boys in blue.
He pitched up an understandable hour late, and I immediately discussed with Pertwee the drill for upping of balloons. Using a dealership phone in his eyeline as he addressed the multitudes, the plan was that I would wait for the go-ahead from airport traffic control, and then give him a thumbs up. At that point, he was to yell “The balloon’s going up!”….at which point, the cord holding down the balloons would be cut.
Jon Pertwee proved to be the consummate professional: not only had he spent over an hour patiently signing autographs, his “launch” speech had to be extended and further extended as he waited for my signal. I, meanwhile, was receiving second by second contradictory guidance from Manchester airport as to the clarity or otherwise of the skies above us. After what seemed to me a geological epoch, the nervous voice at the other end said, “OK, it’s looking clear now”. I gave Jon the thumbs up.
His speech segued seamlessly into the Up thing, and as the flock of balloons zoomed upwards, the voice on my phone suddenly said “Wait! No….not now!”.
What followed was a frantic argument between me and the traffic controller about whether or not I had been given the necessary permission. But this was all completely academic, because a gigantic blob was irreversibly wobbling about all over the airport’s radar screens. After the denialist style of Basil Fawlty, I put the phone down.
However, there is an odd historical sequel to this historic cock-up. Many years later, I discovered that, while at the dealership, he met car customiser Peter Farries. And this led to the eventual construction of Dr Who’s futuristic Whomobile. The completed car was 14 feet long and 7 feet across, with fins that reached 5 feet into the air. There were no doors, and one had to hop in over the wing:
So there you are. From a half-baked provincial sales promotion there emerged another stage in the saga of Doctor Who. It was a long way from being my finest hour: but the client was pleased, nobody died, and looking back at the events today, I cannot help feeling a warm sense of satisfaction.