Skip main navigation

A career in stories

Spanning both the small and big screen, Sir Alan Parker reflects on his career in storytelling, from how he became a director to borrowing references.
Hi. I’m Alan Parker. Do you know who I am? No. I don’t know And I don’t care. He’s lying! He’s lying! I’m a film director… Why? So what? That’s enough. …producer… Tell Jesus that we’re hungry. Shut up. …writer…
Done a few commercials. New ones too. Beefburgers with cheese. Started in advertising as a copywriter. Delicious. Geoffrey? That’s me, really. Oh, Geoffrey. So I never went to university, so I went into advertising as not a runner, as such, because I did slightly better than that, but it was pretty menial jobs I used to do. I went to CDP, which was one of the most creative agencies, and I was a copywriter there. And then in the basement of that agency, it was the beginnings of TV commercials. So we experimented in the basement. Everybody could do something. They could work the camera or they could work the sound, because I’d written it I was the only one who couldn’t do anything, really.
…the Heineken has the desired effect on your rowers, if not on your boat. Stop, stop. We’re going round in circles. And they said, you better say “action”. So I said “action”. And then I walked forward and I went, “ooh”. And suddenly, I was a film director. Stories are about people connecting, and your job is to connect to the audience, if you’re in the business of communication, in order for you to, you know, ultimately try and sell them something. What stories do is to give you a sort of familiarity of what’s gone before. I’m going to say goodbye. No, don’t say goodbye. It sounds so permanent. It’s only for a very short time. My favourite commercial I did was Brief Encounter.
Look after yourself. I will. Brief Encounter was like just a pastiche of David Lean’s film, really. It became a very, very, you know, very good way to communicate to people. Because the familiarity of what had gone before, they knew that situation. Especially handy for people who aren’t used to being on their own. Everything you have to say in a very brief period of time, 30, 45 seconds, you’ve got an hour and a half of backstory working on your side, which is the great benefit of anything that is familiar, like an old movie. Both are equally irresistible.
All of art borrows from everywhere else because it’s the way in which you… it’s the fast channel into someone’s brain, really. In fact, if you try one, you’ll have to try the other. If you are in the business of communicating, which advertising absolutely is, is that I’m not going to talk to you about something that you don’t have some kind of touchstone, you don’t have some kind of… some relevance in your mind or life or whatever that you don’t understand.
If you suddenly touch on something that you already know, that is familiar, whether it be a film, whether it be a TV series, whether it be a sketch from Monty Python or whatever, the familiarity of it actually helps you understand what we’re trying to do because the set of rules are there from the very beginning. So that’s why everybody borrows. We only had a very brief period of time in the commercial break in those days. I know now it’s even more difficult. So our stuff had to be as good as the programmes, if not better. CDP’s commercial for Hovis, which is the little boy pushing the old bike up the hill, which Geoffrey Seymour wrote at CDP.
Last stop on round will be old Ma Peggoty’s place. It came at a time in CDP when we were borrowing from our own work. And the music is very beautiful, and the music we’d used originally in a Birds Eye pie commercial.
That music is what makes it, really. wheat germ in that loaf,” he’d say. “Get it inside you, boy, and you’ll be going up that hill as fast as you come down.” Ideas are paramount, but they can just stay there on the… as a stodgy thing on the paper unless it is given life with how it’s shot, how it’s acted. The music is hugely important in those things. Just thinking about England. England. The rolling hills, and the tea shop in Huntercombe Bassett where I had apple pie and St. Ivel cream. St. Ivel cream? Yes. I can’t help thinking about that thick, fresh St. Ivel cream pouring slowly over that apple pie. Put her about, chief. We’re going home.
Every second has to count. Every second matters. We came out of a world where we were used to polishing every single little moment so that everything worked. There was no time when the film wasn’t actually communicating.
The best films at the moment that tell stories in contemporary commercials for me are the John Lewis commercials.
They are sensationally brilliant, and they are very similar to the kind of things that we did in CDP years ago, which is really weird. They have their beginning, middle, and end. There is a thing that, in screenplays, they say, that you always have to have a really fantastic beginning, very good second act, and a very good third act conclusion. In a film, they don’t necessarily have to be in that order. In commercials they do because you don’t have time to mess around.
So the simpler the better. The more complicated commercials are and the more overwritten they are, the more likely they’re not going to work. I got very lucky, that’s for sure. I was lucky to get a job as a copywriter in an agency. I was lucky to stumble into doing commercials at CDP. I was lucky that David Puttnam was around to offer me a job writing a screenplay, so I got into film industry. Yeah, an enormous amount of luck actually. But on top of that, boy did I work hard!
Director, writer and producer Sir Alan Parker began his career in advertising as a copywriter before graduating to writing and directing commercials. In the late ’60s he was one of a small group of British directors who revolutionised world advertising. In 1980 he received the D&AD Gold President’s Award.
His feature films – including Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, Evita, Fame and Angela’s Ashes – have won nineteen BAFTA awards, ten Golden Globes and ten Oscars. He was founding chairman of the UK Film Council and chairman of the BFI. Sir Alan received his CBE in 1995 for services to the British film industry, and a knighthood in 2002.
Here, Sir Alan tells us about his career and how stories have played a role throughout. What can advertising learn from the big screen, and how can we create iconic stories in just a few seconds?
To see more of Sir Alan’s early work in advertising, take a look at the video in ‘See Also’ below.
Two Minute Task
While you’re watching the interview, think about the following:
  • Sir Alan believes that in a short-form commercial, a narrative needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end, in that order. Do you agree? Can you think of any examples that challenge this linear narrative?
  • This interview explores the notion that familiarity, borrowing and pastiche are a “fast channel to people’s brains”. How do you feel about commercial messaging borrowing from or referencing other art forms?
This article is from the free online

Storytelling in Advertising

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education