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Art in Strange Places

Consuming nostalgia: the 1973 “Bike Ride” Hovis television advertisement

Jeremy Price

Abstracts

The 1973 Hovis television advertisement, directed by Ridley Scott, commonly referred to as “Boy on the Bike” or “Bike Ride”, is one of Britain’s most well-known. The advert presents a bread delivery boy struggling to push a heavily laden baker’s bike up a steep cobblestoned hill to deliver a basketful of large, traditional loaves to “Old Ma Peggoty’s place”, the last stop on the round, before freewheeling back down to the bakery, where, we are told, a hot drink and thick slices of warm, freshly baked bread are awaiting him. The voiceover is the delivery boy, now an elderly man, nostalgically reminiscing over his younger years.

Describing the continuing remembrance of the advert, Ridley Scott declared in 2019: “I remember the filming process like it was yesterday, and its success represents the power of the advert. It taught me that when you combine the appropriate music and the appropriate film, you have lift-off.” The music he is referring to is a short extract from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, recorded for the advert by Ashington Colliery Brass Band.

“Bike Ride” creates a nostalgic evocation of the stereotypical, English working class. Yet, simultaneously, “Bike Ride” also provides images of stereotypical, idealised English rural village life, exemplified by the filming location of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset. This article will explore the functioning of these nostalgic representations of a bygone golden era.

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Introduction

1The 1973 “Bike Ride” Hovis advertisement produced by Collett Dickenson Pearce advertising agency (henceforth CDP) has regularly been voted one of Britain’s favourites. In a 2018 Marketing Week and YouGov Omnibus poll, it was elected Best Advert of the 1970s. A 2019 Kantar survey deemed it “the most iconic” and “heart-warming” since the beginning of British television advertising. Observers have noted that viewers regularly confuse the location and accent. Many remember it in a northern place with Yorkshire accent whereas it was in fact filmed in the South West of England—in Shaftesbury, Dorset—with a West Country accent. This article will analyse the historical, cultural and symbolic implications of “Bike Ride”, the reasons for its enduring popularity and for the confusion regarding place and accent.

Detailed description of the advert

2The advert focuses on a bread delivery boy with a home-cut, “pudding-basin” hairstyle, suggestive of poverty and self-reliance. He is warmly clad, wearing a woollen scarf, mittens and a flat cap. The boy has dismounted to push his heavy traditional baker’s bike up the steep cobbled incline, its wicker basket full of large artisan loaves, symbolising the arduous nature of the bread round which culminates at the top of the hill, at the last stop, “Old Ma Peggoty’s” shop and stall. As the boy struggles uphill past a thatched cottage, a man wearing a flat cap emerges from one of the houses and limps downhill, setting about his daily business. There is contrasting symmetry here, the man carrying a different burden, perhaps a war injury or a work-related accident. Having finished his delivery, the boy freewheels back down to the bakery, kicking his legs out to each side in apparent exhilaration at the steep downhill ride. Meanwhile, a woman wearing a white apron and a long black shawl over her head and shoulders enters another cottage.

3British character actor Bill Maynard plays the role of the baker. Maynard was a familiar face (and voice) on 1970s television, appearing in several popular comedy films and programmes from the 50s to the 80s in roles involving regional accents. He is particularly remembered for his lead role as the eponymous stereotypical Yorkshireman in the comedy series Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt, his presence in “Bike Ride” thus contributing to the northern atmosphere. The baker helps the boy warm up after the cold bike ride, preparing a hot breakfast of tea (“baker’d have kettle on”) and thick (“doorstep”) slices of freshly baked Hovis with butter and jam. The narrative voice is the boy, now become an elderly man, reminiscing over his youth:

Voiceover]:
Last stop on t’round would be Old Ma Peggoty’s place.
T’was like taking bread to top of the world.
It was a grand ride back though. I knew baker’d have kettle on and doorsteps of hot Hovis ready.
“There’s 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.”
[Advertising hook]:
Hovis still has many times more wheat germ than ordinary bread. It’s as good for you today as it’s always been.

Inviting nostalgia: grain of voice, soft-focus camera technique, and sepia tone

  • 1 Onedin Line land scenes were filmed in Devon (a West-Country county bordering Dorset) following the (...)

4The voice of the boy as elderly man is that of actor Howard Lang, familiar to 1970s television viewers for his portrayal of the “old sea dog” character Captain William Baines who spoke with thick-grained West Country accent in The Onedin Line (1971-1980), one of the most popular BBC series of the 1970s. The presence of Lang’s voice in both “Bike Ride” and The Onedin Line establishes a parallel between the transition from cart to motor car, on the one hand, and the transition from sail to steam, on the other.1 His voice in the advert and in the series thus play off each other, transporting us back in time, evoking nostalgia for a “long-lost” past. Similarly to the well-known Mr Kipling adverts, “Bike Ride” employs a rich, thick grain of voice suggesting good food and abundance. Lang’s voice is round and mature, “thicker” with eating, accumulated knowledge and life experience. As Marie-Pascale Huglo points out:

  • 2 My translation from the original French: “La voix est un corps sonore qui voyage dans le temps et d (...)

The voice is a sound body that travels in time and space. The “transports” of the voice are not only spiritual, emotional or impulsive movements, they are also telephone handsets, television screens, loudspeakers, radios: the “environments” of the voice are becoming diversified and are multiplying with the media and different forms of telecommunication…2. (Huglo 7)

5Ridley Scott’s use of grainy, soft-focus filming technique in the advert creates a visual effect which parallels the rich grain of voice, reinforcing the sense of hazy memories, suggestive of the 8mm home films popular in Britain from the 1930s until the 1970s, before the advent of VHS. Home film and slide projections provided a focal point for middle-class family gatherings, older members recollecting and commenting for the rest of the family. This “memorial” practice was a 20th-century evolution of older, traditional storytelling forms, the projector screen becoming an alternative focal point to fireside stories and reminiscences, a potential signifier of the safety and comfort of “hearth and home”. In “Bike Ride”, viewers are invited to share the “gaze” of the narrator’s mind’s eye, seeing and remembering childhood, encouraging viewers to participate in a Proustian moment of comforting memories, at once visual, sensory (cold bike ride, hot bread), auditory (brass band), and olfactory (tea, freshly baked bread, butter and jam).

6The images, narrative strategy, and rich, warm voiceover, reinforced by the plaintive brass band accompaniment, invite nostalgia for the English country village but also, paradoxically, for the stereotypical northern English working-class of the interwar period, familiar from the writings of George Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier) and Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy), the imagery of Jarrow Crusade photos, L. S. Lowry paintings, and Humphrey Jennings’ films. The flat caps and shawl in “Bike Ride” are perhaps the most immediate signifiers of working-class identity. The use of dark reddish-brown hues, meanwhile, reinforces the sentimentalism, imitating the sepia tone prevalent in photographs from the late 1800s to the 1930s. A sepia-coloured print version of “Bike Ride” was also published, featuring a postcard view over Gold Hill and the countryside beyond, based on a photograph of the delivery boy at the top of the hill (CDP 1973). Steve Spittle describes this as the “static depiction of a historical moment” (Spittle 126), confirming the historical nature of the postcard image at the heart of “Bike Ride”. The publication, in 1993, of a series of intentionally sepia-coloured Hovis print adverts confirms the intention to perpetuate this image:

Twenty years later, in 1993, a series of Hovis print adverts purveyed nostalgia through sepia­coloured images and old-fashioned, colloquial language. The tone is familiar, conversational; the “story” is always narrated from the point of view of an old(er) person, looking back to his or her youth. In the series of advertisements, the text is printed in “handwriting”, to the right-hand side of the picture, like an entry in a diary, or the jottings that accompany photographs in an old family album. Each advertisement takes as its title or heading a set phrase which is open to more than one interpretation. (Odber de Baubeta 104)

7Scott was possibly inspired by Alan Parker who created a 1971 CDP Hovis print advert entitled “Make Hovis your daily bread” which imitated the dark reddish tones of sepia photography through an ochre varnish effect (CDP 1971):

This showed an apparently toothless old man in a collarless shirt and hand-knitted Fair Isle vest sitting at a carpenter’s bench surrounded by wood shavings; on one knee was balanced a newspaper, on the other a pile of sandwiches on an open Hovis wrapper. In the background hung a kettle; to the right stood a paraffin heater. The scene was photographed as if overlaid with a thin layer of ochre varnish. (Newland 206)

8Raphael Samuel contends that “Bike Ride” “helped make soft-focus nostalgia a leitmotiv of TV commercials”, sepia being used to “sentimentalise the image” while exemplifying a type of retro advertising in which the past is used “to humanise the present and substitute a personal for a corporate image” (Samuel 93). The artisan theme in Parker’s print is similar to that in “Bike Ride” both containing the advertising hook: “Hovis still has many times more wheat germ than ordinary bread. It’s as good for you today as it’s always been”. The same line appears in a 1972 Hovis television advert (CDP 1972), also directed by Ridley Scott, which focusses on a young boy walking up a steep cobbled hill with his mother returning home from the shops while a bread delivery boy, in a supporting role, freewheels down the hill.

“The good old days”? Before the internal combustion engine

9The cobblestones and handcart in “Bike Ride” suggest a slower pace, a simpler, more picturesque way of life before the motor car and road network transformed British landscapes and lifestyles in the 1950s and 1960s, as described in nostalgic terms in Tony Aldous’s Goodbye Britain? (1975):

The physical fabric of Britain—how it looks, feels, and even sounds—has changed dramatically in the two decades 1954-74. This change has probably been greater overall than all the changes of the preceding twenty centuries. Yet we have become so accustomed, even if not inured, to the present scale and pace of change that we are in danger of losing sight of what is involved. (Aldous 9)

10“Bike Ride” clearly sets out to suggest an imagined golden era before post-war “decline” and the break-up of close-knit working-class communities and extended family kinship networks. The advert extols working-class values: family, community, hard work, pride, generosity, and warmth. The northern working class is represented as an organic community facing the daily Sisyphean “uphill” struggle of life with stoicism and good humour.

11Hovis mass-produced and plastic-packaged sliced bread is represented as being “authentic” and natural, as good as the real thing (traditional, unpackaged artisan loaves), as good as the food available at Ma Peggotty’s outdoor stall: fresh vegetables and farm milk (represented by the churn), and artisan cider (symbolised by the stoneware flagons). The rhetoric plays on the brand name, coined from the Latin hominis vis (“strength of man”), suggesting “the staff of life”. This carries biblical associations, signifying arduous effort and daily bread—the shared communion of the bread of life with its magical and miraculous associations. Hovis claims to participate in the continuity of a popular history—regardless of the trials and tribulations that may lie ahead Hovis will remain a firm, unchanging, dependable “staff”. Its consumption is portrayed as providing physical and moral sustenance, a potential psychological “comfort food” capable of assuaging fears and misgivings.

12Smoke curling into the air from the cottage chimneys participates in the contrast between welcoming warmth of “home and hearth” and the delivery boy’s cold, early morning toil. The churn echoes this contrast with its reference to the early morning toil of dairy farmers and milkmen. The shawl of the elderly lady points to living and working in cold and damp through imagery similar to Mitchell and Kenyon “factory-gate” footage of female workers streaming out of northern cotton mills at the end of their shift, clad in shawls, aprons and clogs (The Lost World Of Mitchell And Kenyon), or the well-known photographs of Ghandi visiting shawl clad mill workers in Darwen, Lancashire, in 1931.

Symbolic gold: wheat and the golden sunlight effect

13The sunshine on the sandstone cottages and the yellow light reflected in the windows evoke the symbolic gold of the nourishing wheat, absent yet present, suggested metonymically in the glimpse of fields lying beyond and below the town. This is a continuation of the Hovis yellow colour scheme and golden heart logo prominent in earlier adverts. Heart of Gold (CDP 1967) depicts a housewife in her kitchen with the voiceover: “Mrs Palmer has a heart of gold. She keeps it in her bread bin. Little golden heart of the wheat”. “Wheat Field” (CDP 1970), contains the orchestral version of the Largo, with melody played on English horn. It depicts farm labourers reaping wheat and stacking sheaves by hand, bathed in golden sunlight—the imagery reminiscent of 19th-century naturalist harvest paintings. The pronunciation is slow and deliberate, in West Country accent, claiming Hovis is pursuing better, slower traditions from the past:

  • 3 During the 1950s and 1960s British folk revival, rural accents were collected and recorded, and als (...)

Before machines took over, bread was always made with flour ground by stones. Who better than Hovis to uphold the tradition.
Hovis stoneground is made with one hundred per cent wholemeal flour. (CDP 1970) 3

14“Bike Ride” visually translates the notion of a “golden era” before the internal combustion engine, and the accelerating rate of change of modern life, notably through the yellow/golden lighting effect which Scott considers essential to the desired effect of the advert:

When I went there in the morning it was flat as hell, so it didn’t look very good. So I’d finished by around about four o’clock. We were starting to put things back into the trucks and the sun came out and I raced back saying “put it all back down, get it all out, I’m gonna reshoot it”. It was perfect ‘cos the hill was down that like that and the sun was kind of setting back like this, it was kind of marvellous. (Boy on the Bike—Hovis Advert’s 2019 Restoration, BFI)

Pastoral: filming location and “Hardy country”

15The scriptwriters of “Bike Ride” chose Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset, from illustrated books of scenic English landscapes, being unable to find an appropriately cobbled, working-class hill with rural backdrop during a three-week reconnaissance tour of the north of England (Everett 7). Gold Hill appeared in John Schlesinger’s 1967 film adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd, strengthening its potential as a signifier of the idyllic English village with scenic country landscape. Shaftesbury and its surrounding Dorset landscape are prominent in Hardy’s “Wessex novels”:

The natural picturesqueness and singularity of the town still remain; but strange to say these qualities, which were noted by many writers in ages when scenic beauty is said to have been unappreciated, are passed over in this, and one of the queerest and quaintest spots in England stands virtually unvisited to-day. It has a unique position on the summit of a steep and imposing scarp, rising on the north, south, and west sides of the borough out of the deep alluvial Vale of Blackmoor, the view from the Castle Green over three counties of verdant pasture—South, Mid, and Nether Wessex—being as sudden a surprise to the unexpectant traveller’s eyes as the medicinal air is to his lungs. Impossible to a railway, it can best be reached on foot, next best by light vehicles; and it is hardly accessible to these but by a sort of isthmus on the north-east, that connects it with the high chalk table-land on that side. Such is, and such was, the now world-forgotten Shaston or Palladour. (Hardy Jude the Obscure, 235-36)

  • 4 The suffix “-ton” is from the Old English for “farmstead”, while Palladour is from the Brythonic Ca (...)
  • 5 OED bury, n.: “A manor-house, or large farm; a specialization of the Old English burh, byrig ‘an en (...)

16Hardy employs the older names, “Shaston” and “Palladour”, which have Anglo-Saxon and Celtic etymologies, respectively.4 Shaston is attested to and still in use today by locals, while “Palladour” was used to refer to the town in 19th-century poetry and literature. It remains unconfirmed whether the historic Celtic place name Caer Vynnydd y Paladr corresponds to present-day Shaftesbury. Nonetheless, Hardy’s references to Shaftesbury (itself containing the Old English -bury5 suffix) suggest the idea of an ageless, inaccessible, and unchanging England. Shaftesbury overlooks Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s “Vale of the Little Dairies” in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a pastoral landscape of hedges, woodland and fields through which the Dorset Stour runs. Far From the Madding Crowd contains references to English traditional folksongs, including the singing of “The Seeds of Love” (Chapter 23) during the evening sheep “shearing-supper”, a form of harvest festival and celebration of plenty:

Poorgrass, thus assured, trilled forth a flickering yet commendable piece of sentiment, the tune of which consisted of the key-note and another, the latter being the sound chiefly dwelt upon. This was so successful that he rashly plunged into a second in the same breath, after a few false starts:--
I sow’-ed th’-e .....
I sow’-ed .....
I sow’-ed th’-e seeds’ of’ love’,
I-it was’ all’ i’-in the’-e spring’,
I-in A’-pril’, Ma’-ay, a’-nd sun’-ny’ June’,
When sma’-all bi’-irds they’ do’ sing.
(Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd, 178)

  • 6 British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor defined survivals as follows: “These are processes, cus (...)

17“The Seeds of Love” conjures up simple rural and pastoral imagery—springtime, birdsong, farming, seed-sowing, sheep-shearing, milking and collecting honey—that Virginia Boyes terms the “imagined village” (Boyes), a construct developed during the early 20th-century English folk revival in reaction to concerns about the negative impact of urbanisation, mechanisation and industrialisation. Cecil Sharp’s “discovery” of “The Seeds of Love”, sung by gardener John England, led him to spearhead a movement to “rescue” the last remnants of a disappearing peasant culture in accordance with the Tylorian survivals concept6 to which Sharp subscribed. Charles Harper provides a description of this imaginary land of “milk and honey”—a biblical reference to the plenty of the “promised land” (Exodus 3:8) which “Bike Ride” attempts to tap into—in The Hardy Country: Literary Landmarks of the Wessex Novels (1904):

Dorsetshire, the centre of the “Hardy Country,” the home of the Wessex Novels, is a land literally flowing with milk and honey: a land of great dairies, of flowers and bees, of rural industries, where rustic ways and speech and habits of thought live long, and the kindlier virtues are not forgotten in such stress of life as prevails in towns: a land desirable for its own sweet self, where you may see the beehives in cottage gardens and therefrom deduce that honey of which I have spoken, and where that flow of milk is no figure of speech. You may indeed hear the swish of it in the milking pails at almost every turn of every lane. Thatch survives in every village, as nowhere else, and here quaint towns maintain their quaintness at all odds, while elsewhere foolish folk seek to be—as they phrase it—“up to date.” It is good, you think, who explore these parts, to be out of date and reckless of all the tiresome worries of modernity. (Harper v)

18In addition to this representation as promised land or “Garden of Eden”, Wessex is also considered as a mythical place of national origin, the kingdom which spread out to form England. Interestingly, decolonisation and devolution in the second half of the 20th century have led some to suggest, facetiously, that Britain is being deconstructed back to the kingdom of origin:

So is it to be first the British Empire going; then the UK; then Britain itself? [...] will the long story of English expansion end where many believe it began, with Alfred the Great’s kingdom, no longer called Wessex but the Home Counties? (Marr 4)

Places of refuge: rural idyll, “Merrie England” and traditional working class?

19Gold Hill’s biblical, historical, literary and cinematographic associations thus provide a potential cultural marker and place of escape into the imaginary rural idyll of a bygone “Merrie England” at a time of looming uncertainties in 1970s Britain—“Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh independence movements, Common Market divisions, oil crisis, relative economic decline, unemployment, industrial unrest, hooliganism, etc. There is a paradoxical incongruity in the advert’s attempt to evoke, simultaneously, rural idyll and the traditional northern urban working class. This paradox reveals the constructed artificiality of the advert, revealing deeper cultural and ideological assumptions and connotations.

20In the early 1970s, Hovis commissioned CDP to create a series of adverts. Geoffrey Seymour, advertising copywriter and deputy creative director for CDP, conceived the idea of a boy riding a bicycle on a cobbled, northern, mining hill in a rural setting. He penned the line “As good for you today as it’s always been”, establishing an imaginary link between past and present, framing the act of buying and eating sliced Hovis as a comforting, nostalgic journey of consumption. Seymour also wrote the first two adverts of the campaign, “Seaside” (1972) and “Northern” (1972), both featuring early 20th-century northern locations and working-class accents before “Bike Ride”, the third advertisement of the campaign. Two members of the CDP creative team, David Brown and Ronnie Turner, were assigned the task of producing the adverts and Ridley Scott was given the job of filming:

[Geoff Seymour] came up with this concept and perhaps it’s because I’m from South Shields, I think he thought I’d understand the mining mentality in the colliery towns. While I wasn’t from mining stock I’d seen enough of it and so it was kind of in my bones and I knew what I was looking for. (Rogers)

21“Northern” (1972) and “Bike Ride” use the same narrative strategy—an elderly man reminiscing over his youth accompanied by the Dvořák Largo played by the Ashington Colliery band. “Northern” focuses on a young boy walking up a steep cobbled hill with his mother on their way home from the shops, whilst a bread delivery boy cycles downhill. It uses a “Geordie” accent, adding regional identity and “authenticity”, while the advertising hook reverts to received pronunciation:

[Narrative voiceover]:
We walked down to the shops me mam and me.
Just after the war and it was real butter for tea.
I got some liquorice, the first I ever had.
And mam bought some kippers to take home for dad.
It tasted so good that tea after the war.
Real butter, real bread, we all asked for more.

[Advertising hook]:
Hovis still has many times more wheatgerm than ordinary bread. It’s as good for you today as it’s always been. Make Hovis your daily bread.

22Subsequent Hovis television and print adverts attempt to perpetuate this fictionalised working-class North, with multiple television re-screenings of “Bike Ride” and a series of adverts based on the same idea. Some re-screenings featured different regional accents—a 1986 version used a Yorkshire accent, one possible explanation for the confusion of place and accent in reception of the 1973 advert.

  • 7 “Four Yorkshiremen” features the Monty Python team as four successful capitalist businessmen harkin (...)

23The Two Ronnies parodied “Bike Ride” in 1978, Ronnie Barker inching his way up Gold Hill, to a broad Yorkshire voiceover: “Grandad allus used to say t’were a bloody long way to go for a loaf o’ bread”. In 1981 Yorkshireman Tony Capstick released the single “Capstick Comes Home” with Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band playing the Largo. The single reached number three in the charts, Capstick appearing on Top of the Pops on 26 March, his comic hyperbole clearly drawing on the text of the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch:7

Ey, I’ll never forget that first day at t’ pit. Me and me father worked a 72-hour shift and then we walked home 43 miles through t’snow in us bare feet, huddled inside us clothes made out o’old sacks. Eventually, we trudged over t’ hill and we could see t’ streetlight twinkling in our village. Me father smiled down at me through icicles hanging off his nose. (Capstick and Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band)

24But there is a twist to the Capstick parody which contradicts the rose-tinted idyll of “Bike Ride” through the evocation of the poverty, alcoholism, family violence and disease which blighted working-class lives during the interwar period:

Ey, me father went crackers. He reached out and gently pulled me mam towards him by t’throat. “You big, idle, useless, ugly wart,” he said. “You great, spawny-eyed, parrot-faced wazzock.” He had a way with words, me father. He’d been to college, you know. “Any road,” he says. “You’ve been out playing bingo all afternoon, instead of getting some proper snap ready for me ‘n’ this lad,” he explained to me poor, little, purple-faced mam. […] We’d lots o’ things in them days they ‘aven’t got today—rickets, diptheria, Hitler and my, we did look well goin’ to school wi’ no backside in us trousers an’ all us little ‘eads painted purple because we ‘ad ringworm. They don’t know they’re born today!!! (Capstick and Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band)

25The two parodies thus lampoon the attempt by Hovis to sell more bread through an advertisement that seeks to associate their product with a utopian reconstruction which carefully omits the harsher realities of the period.

Soundtrack of nostalgia: brass bands, Largo and “Goin’ Home”

26Seymour borrowed the Largo from Frank Cvitanovich’s The Charlton Boys, a 1968 documentary on World Cup-winning brothers Bobby and Jackie who were born and raised in Ashington. The colliery band give an emotional rendition of the Largo during a panoramic shot which pans around the stark landscape of Ashington pit, the camera turning to what is described in the documentary as the only alternative to mining—the football pitch immediately adjacent to the mine. The rendition expresses working-class hardship and pride. As the music ends Cissie Charlton (the boys’ mother), reminisces over family albums, stopping at a photo of her grandfather, recalling he would go directly from a 12-hour shift to play Saturday afternoon football for Ashington:

Oh, this is my grandfather Milburn, oh yes. He used to do a 12-hour shift at the pit, then come out and play straightaway, and play football on a Saturday afternoon and he was so strong he was nicknamed “the old horse”. (The Charlton Boys)

27The sequence reinforces the idea of the grit and determination but also the profound humanity and stoicism of North East miners who have built lives and families despite their inhospitable environment. The Ashington Largo borrows the plaintive melody, initially intended for English horn, from the second Largo movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony which he composed in 1893, during a three-year exile as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. In 1922, William Arms Fisher, one of Dvořák’s American students, published “Goin’ Home”, a vocal arrangement of the Largo which he describes as follows:

The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvořák’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black man as it sings in his “spirituals.” Deeper still, it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words, “Goin’ home, goin’ home,” is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual, accords with the genesis of the symphony. (Fisher and Dvořák 3)

28“Goin’ Home” became a popular spiritual in the United States, many believing it to be of African American origin. It became more widely known after being performed by African American Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral train, as photographed by Ed Clark for Life Magazine in 1945. The following extract illustrates the main themes:

Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin’ to fear no more.
Mother’s there ‘spectin’ me,
Father’s waitin’ too;
Lots o’ folk gather’d there,
All the friends I knew […] (Fisher and Dvořák 4-5)

29The Largo and the song have become popular funeral pieces, corresponding to Michael Beckerman’s view that the Largo was influenced by Hiawatha’s metaphorical journey home and Minnehaha’s funeral in “The Song of Hiawatha” (Longfellow):

The movement begins with a series of seven chords moving from E major to Db major (ex. la), and the primary material, with the famous English horn solo, employs the language of the classic pastoral […]. Consonant lines describing a narrow range over an extended drone have been associated with the purity and perfection of nature since the late sixteenth century. (Beckerman 40)

30“Goin’ Home” was further popularised by Paul Robeson’s Carnegie Hall version, recorded live in 1958 (Robeson 1959). Robeson lived in Britain in the 20s and 30s and supported the working-class cause, singing with striking Welsh miners during a 1926 hunger march, portraying a Black sailor working in a Welsh mine in The Proud Valley (1940), and performing for the 1957 and 1958 Eisteddfods. At the latter, held at a disused Ebbw Vale colliery to highlight the economic and social consequences of pit closures, he shared a platform with Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh Labour politician and champion of the miners. “Goin’ Home” and the Largo thus became staple pieces of British brass band repertoires, holding added cultural significance for colliery bands.

  • 8 The Full Monty opens with an extract from the upbeat 1970s promotional film, Sheffield: A City on t (...)

31There is a material connection, and parallel, in the latter half of the 20th century, between the perceived decline of brass bands and the decline of British industry and of the communities which had developed around mines and factories. Several late 20th century films such as The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996) are built around this premise.8 In Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination, Dave Russell argues that Stan Barstow’s novel, A Kind of Loving (1960), adapted for the cinema in 1962, played a central role in the rediscovery of the North during this period, recording and reinforcing “the brass band’s trajectory of decline, placing it firmly in the ‘old North’ that was being unpicked in the post-war period” (Russell 227). He suggests that from the 1970s to the 1990s, the brass band served as a “locational cue” associated with the idea of the decline of northern industry and working-class communities, and that “Bike Ride” provided a “definitive moment”:

[Brass] Bands struggled to find a new image from the 1950s and 1960s but still often found themselves associated more firmly in the public mind with a set of traditional northern stereotypes. The use of a brass band playing Dvořák’s New World Symphony as soundtrack for an exaggeratedly “northern” Hovis commercial in the 1970s was a definitive moment here. (Russell 227)

32Coronation Street (1960-), the long running ITV series which portrays northern working-class life, also contains cobbled streets, terraced houses and a brass band theme tune. Hovis adverts appeared on ITV, “Bike Ride” appearing during the mid-episode commercial break. The theme tune frames each episode, at beginning and end, but also before and after the advertising break, contributing to the nostalgic effect. The title Coronation Street referred to the 1953 working-class street coronation parties, the circular symbolism of the golden crown providing a visual allegory for the idealised stereotype of closely knit, traditional, working-class communities while emphasising national unity and patriotism associated with the monarch.

Conclusion

33“Bike Ride” contains a multitude of signifiers and associations converging on the notion of a symbolic return home: by way of the consumption of an imagined past composed of rural idyll and a fictionalised northern working class, and mourning their demise. “Bike Ride” thus seems to correspond to a general tendency of the human mind to seek refuge, particularly in times of crisis, in imaginary better times in the past, fitting in with Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the innocent, naive gaze of the other that fascinates us in nostalgia is in the last analysis always the gaze of a child” (Žižek 43).

34The commodification in “Bike Ride” is a harbinger of the heritage industry which developed in the late 20th century. The Largo is now sometimes referred to as “Hovis Music”, and a museum has opened at the top of Gold Hill—renamed “Hovis Hill”—fronted by a kitsch giant plastic bread-loaf “monument” doubling as a money box:

National heritage involves the extraction of history—of the idea of historical significance and potential—from a denigrated everyday life and its restaging or display in certain sanctioned sites, events, images and conceptions. In this process history is redefined as “the historical”, and it becomes the object of a similarly transformed and generalised public attention. (Wright 65)

35In Retrotyping and the Marketing of Nostalgia, Pickering and Keightley argue that it is the metaphorical “top of the world” in “Bike Ride”, which points to the idea of a better time and place in an imagined rural English past:

The predominant sense of its resolutely backward reference is that symbolically “the top of the world” is to be found in the bucolic depths of the English past, in a more stable and secure time where all the retrotyping markers are in place: bicycle, boyhood, bread, happily combined with careless exercise, caring elders, carefree times. (Pickering and Keightley 155)

  • 9 “down-home.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. Accessed 2 February 2024: “of, relati (...)

36There is temporal and geographical distance here. Carl Barlow’s downhill ride offers a visual translation of the “trip down memory lane”. “Bike Ride” takes us back down homewards to a simple, down-to-earth place of homely baking, in an imaginary far north (Yorkshire or the North East), or far south west (Dorset), leading us back in time to an imaginary place of “folk survivals” and rural idyll, distant from the modernity of London and the big cities; a British equivalent of the American “down-home” analysed by Jean-Charles Khalifa (Khalifa).9

37The Hovis adverts we have considered fit in with the increasing demand, in the late 60s and 70s, for regional representations, facilitated by technological advances which made it easier to film and record outside London. In film and television this required generic northern settings which Alan Plater has described as “an ill-defined, generalised lump of the good Earth called ‘The North’” (Colls 73).

  • 10 e.g. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Sillitoe 1958); A Taste of Honey (Delaney 1961); This Sport (...)

38The absence of Fordist signifiers meanwhile—factories, workers, and urban areas—avoids contradicting the desired image of an idealised past, omitting the darker side of interwar working-class life, as well as the developing tensions generated by the affluent society, consumerism, and mass culture after 1950.10 “Bike Ride” thus borrows selective and exclusively positive images from a repertoire of stereotypes:

The moments of brotherhood and “communitas” are necessarily limited moments of “framed liminality”, moments of “anti-structure” in which celebration and taboo-breaking are planned for, in stark contrast to the careful budgeting, time management and concern for reputation and respectability in routine everyday life. It is the representations of these liminal moments which provide a rich repertoire of images. (Featherstone 106)

39Interestingly, Mike Featherstone identifies two key “liminal moments” in the representation of this idealised rural scene: the dense nostalgic images of “Bike Ride” convey the idea of the “salt of the earth”, an exalted and exalting rural simplicity, the baker exemplifying the heroic, early morning task of feeding the people through the transformation of wheat, yeast, salt and water into bread with its Biblical connotations of bountiful harvest and miracle of the loaves. Advertising, a key facilitating mechanism for the consumer society, encourages nostalgic consumption to counter such feelings, providing selective, semi-fictional counter-narratives of “good old days” and “golden bygone eras”. “Bike Ride” is thus a prominent example of more widespread processes in British advertising, and in contemporary society in general, in an era of increasing mass production of processed foods and their subsequent sale in increasingly large supermarkets.

40In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams argues that beyond the “good old days” being used as “a stick to beat the present” (Williams 1975, 12), one of the reasons for nostalgic representations of the past is that individuals and groups can only assimilate a specific rate of change. He insists on the cyclical nature of nostalgia, many writers looking back to “good old days” which, he claims, “always seem to be just disappearing within their own lifetime” (Dibb 1979). Tracing back through these cycles of nostalgia, the logical source, he contends, is an imaginary “Garden of Eden” (Williams 1975, 12). Raphael Samuel agrees with this notion of shifting idealised “symbolic space”, but refines it by observing the constant forward shifting of nostalgia from one period to another:

In the early days of the discovery of old photographs it was the Victorian which seemed to be picturesque. But, as in other fields of contemporary resurrectionism, the earlier past has been overlain by a more recent one, and there has been a persistent updating of the notion of period. Ever since the Hovis advertisements of the 1970s, filmed in the cobbled streets of Shaftesbury though pretending to be Yorkshire, and following the fortunes of a 1920s delivery round, the inter-war years have been as plausible a period setting as high Victorian England. More recently, in the vogue for Picture Post photography of the austerity years, the 1940s and 1950s have moved easily into this symbolic space. Factory girls in their scarves, workmen on their bicycles have become as familiar figures as the fisherman in his sou’wester, or the harvesters and gleaners with their arms full of sheaves.” (Samuel 360)

41Williams further argues we need to analyse television within the “general flow: of the organisation, the methods and the values within and through which particular programmes occur” (Williams 2013, 33). “Bike Ride” clearly reflects the increasing sophistication of television advertising as part of the mass media, mass consumer society, and burgeoning heritage industry. The advert was part of a series produced by CDP—some of which became as well known as the television programmes they accompanied. “Bike Ride’s” lasting influence is demonstrated by regular re-screenings and the British Film Institute’s restoration and remastering of the advert in 2019. The Ashington Colliery band re-recorded the Largo for the occasion, some members of the band being descendants of those who recorded the original, illustrating the Hovis advertising rhetoric of family, community and historical continuity.

42The Hovis television advertising campaign furthermore illustrates the emergence of a group of middle and working-class advertisers and filmmakers who revolutionised British advertising and film-making in the 1970s and 1980s, in the same way that middle and working-class musicians revolutionised British popular music in the 1960s. But “Bike Ride” also commodifies and re-appropriates a soundbite of classical music for the commercial purpose of selling bread. Do such processes imply a “flattening out” of culture, as Theodor W. Adorno argues, depriving it of its context, artistic depth, meaning and subversive or critical possibilities, or does it merely build other, equally valid cultural and artistic performances? What are the implications, if, as John Storey suggests, it is perhaps no longer possible “to hear the second movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, without conjuring up an image of Hovis bread” (Storey 65).

43“Bike Ride” is artful, in its juxtaposition of sound and image, but is it art, or does it, on the contrary, participate in the exploitation and flattening of art, in its lasting appropriation and détournement of a soundbite of classical music? While there is perhaps no clear answer to this, David Puttnam raises another, perhaps more important question, regarding the legacy of his generation of filmmakers and their participation in a system which encouraged mass consumption of industrial goods regardless of their impact on society:

All of us were responsible for giving the world a good kick in the arse. We’ve entertained it, we’ve sharpened it up, but the irony is that probably our greatest quality may have also been our greatest defect. We were not well educated. We made a virtue of not being well, or even, certainly, over educated. But the interesting thing was the bit that was missing from our education, if you like, was the lethal bit. The bit that we never really understood. What a human being is, what makes them tick, what are their rights, what are their entitlements, you know. We have been responsible for selling and shoving down people’s throats, one way or another, products which have been quite evidentially very, very bad for them. If you look fifty years from now, I think people will wonder where our brains were. We were selling cars that were dangerous, we were selling cigarettes that were dangerous, we were selling loads and loads of products which in one form or another defied people’s rights as citizens and that’s the only part of our legacy that bothers me, and will go on bothering me, I think, for the rest…, for years to come. (The Men from the Agency)

44Advertising may seem a strange place to find art. There is art in “Bike Ride”—in the combination of the Dvořák Largo and the images filmed by Ridley Scott—which clearly sets out to elicit emotional responses, notably nostalgia, with the objective of selling larger quantities of Hovis by influencing television viewers, in part subliminally, to buy and consume bread which is not in fact the traditional artisan loaf it purports to be. This is the desired impact of “successful” advertising, the “lift-off” that Ridley Scott refers to, “the power and the punch” which he recognises in “Bike Ride”, obtained, he claims, by combining “the appropriate music with the appropriate picture”. But there is manipulation at play in such use of art in advertising, through a pervasive rhetoric of image and music which, as Puttnam points out, may have harmful consequences, not only for individual consumers but also for society in general, in some instances going so far, he argues, as to defy citizens’ rights.

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Notes

1 Onedin Line land scenes were filmed in Devon (a West-Country county bordering Dorset) following the fortunes of a fictitious Liverpool shipping company at the end of the 19th century, the central theme being the replacement of sail by steel-hulled steamships. Lang’s character repeatedly laments the loss of sail, nostalgically illustrated in the audio-visual splendour of the protracted opening and closing sequences with dramatic aerial footage of the “tall” wooden sail ships, accompanied by an extract from the crescendo section of “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia”, from Aram Khachaturian’s 1954 composition for the Soviet ballet Spartacus. The effect is at once heroic, tragic and nostalgic.

2 My translation from the original French: “La voix est un corps sonore qui voyage dans le temps et dans l’espace. Les ‘transports’ de la voix ne sont pas seulement des élans spirituels, émotifs ou pulsionnels, ils sont aussi des combinés téléphoniques, des écrans télévisuels, des haut-parleurs, des radios : les ‘milieux’ de la voix se diversifient et se multiplient avec les médias et les formes de télécommunication…”.

3 During the 1950s and 1960s British folk revival, rural accents were collected and recorded, and also broadcast by the BBC. There is an interesting comparison for “Wheat Field” in the 1956 recording of rural Dorset farm worker Syd Hodder describing manual harvesting and building a “rick” (Hodder and Ellis).

4 The suffix “-ton” is from the Old English for “farmstead”, while Palladour is from the Brythonic Caer Vynnydd y Paladr (“The Hillfort of the Spears”).

5 OED bury, n.: “A manor-house, or large farm; a specialization of the Old English burh, byrig ‘an enclosed or fortified place’ which still survives in many local names.”

6 British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor defined survivals as follows: “These are processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved” (Tylor 15).

7 “Four Yorkshiremen” features the Monty Python team as four successful capitalist businessmen harking back nostalgically to their tough upbringing and engaging in one-upmanship through competing hyperbolic memories of Yorkshire childhoods.

8 The Full Monty opens with an extract from the upbeat 1970s promotional film, Sheffield: A City on the Move, ironically echoing Harold Wilson’s commitment to revitalise and relaunch British industry as expressed in his “White heat of technology” speech, at the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, in 1963. The cut to the next scene suggests the comic failure of the project, with the three main characters of the film breaking into a disused factory to steal girders only to be surprised by the factory brass band, still in operation, and using the factory as a place to rehearse. Similarly, Brassed Off follows the ill-fortunes of a coal pit brass band at a time when many pits were being closed down.

9 “down-home.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. Accessed 2 February 2024: “of, relating to, or having qualities (such as informality and simplicity) associated with rural or small-town people especially of the Southern U.S. (e.g. down-home country cooking).”

10 e.g. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Sillitoe 1958); A Taste of Honey (Delaney 1961); This Sporting Life (Storey 1960); A Kestrel for a Knave, (Hines 1967)

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References

Electronic reference

Jeremy Price, Consuming nostalgia: the 1973 “Bike Ride” Hovis television advertisementMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 17 May 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/58075; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.58075

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About the author

Jeremy Price

Maître de conférences
Université de Poitiers (MIMMOC EA 3812)
jeremy.price@univ-poitiers.fr

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