Holiday favorite British Arrows dodge the pandemic on both side of the Atlantic

Ad for Cadbury's Dairy Milk
An ad for Cadbury's Dairy Milk features a gorilla drumming to the Phil Collins song "In the Air Tonight." It's one of the TV commercials featured in the virtual British Arrows 2020 show being streamed by the Walker Art Center.
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

One treasured, if offbeat, the Twin Cities’ holiday tradition has had a major and speedy revamp this year. The Walker Art Center would typically be gearing up for dozens of screenings of the year's most creative British TV commercials.

But the coronavirus pandemic has delivered a double hit to fans of the Arrow Awards — it's not only closed theaters, but it put the annual competition on hold altogether.

So what to do? They kept calm and carried on.

Even so, months later, Clare Donald is a little miffed.

"We bought dresses, for goodness sake," she said from London recently. "We were so ready."

Donald co-chairs the British Arrows with her colleague Jani Guest. They were a week out from the gala award ceremony in London last March when COVID-19 shut down the United Kingdom. That caused a problem on both sides of the pond. 

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"All the judging was done," Donald said. "We know who has won. But we haven't been able to share that with anyone. So, all of the winners are as yet uninformed and so that was what we couldn't then share with Walker."

Which Guest describes as, in a major understatement: "a shame."

"Because the Walker brings 30,000 very excited people to the show every year," she said. 

Minnesota's appreciation for more than an hour of back-to-back commercials appears to be unique. There are a few other U.S. museums that show the British Arrows, but you can count the screenings on one hand. 

The Walker offered 95 last year.  

Rather than disappoint those legions of fans, Guest said a “best-of” reel offered online seemed like a no-brainer.

"And we just thought — wouldn't it be great to give everyone a lovely walk through over an hour or so film?" she said. 

And, digging into a 40-year archive, that's what they have done. 

Longtime fans will recognize many favorites. There's the world-weary drum-playing gorilla-pitching chocolate. There's the plaid-clad fellow wrestling grizzly bears for their salmon, and from 2007 there is the high-rise housing complex getting a brightly hued redecoration through paint explosions timed to music.

As often happens with the Arrows the product being advertised isn’t immediately obvious. The exploding paint was for a color TV.

These are ads that took the top prizes in their year; there are some, which have not yet been shown at the Walker because they're from before the onset of the Minneapolis screenings. There’s one from 1976 starring PBS staple Penelope Keith.

"Well girls," she says in a diamond-edged accent, speaking to the final class at a school for young ladies. "Your final and most important lesson: how to spend daddy's lovely money. Checkbooks open, girls! Pens at the ready!"  

It's funny, and cringingly dated, but Donald said it's got some history to it.

"That was directed by Alan Parker," she said, “who then went on to direct 'Midnight Express,' 'Mississippi Burning' and so on. There's a real heritage of British advertising directors who go on to direct feature films." 

The 2020 British Arrows reel came together in short order. The London team chose the ads, but the Walker put the 77-minute show together. It includes a selection of commercials made during the lockdown in the U.K., which was much stricter than in the United States. Some of the ads are literally kitchen table projects, but you can’t tell, except in one case where they want viewers to know.

Donald said there is one staple of the British Arrows absent this year — the brutally effective public service announcements graphically showing the effects of issues such as domestic violence, the refugee crisis and not wearing seatbelts.

"It's been commented on before that sometimes British advertising is quite shocking compared with a lot of what you have in the states. So, I think given the grimness of the times we are in, there was definitely a focus on the more uplifting work," she said.

And whose heart is not lifted at least slightly hearing Eartha Kitt singing as a young man swims through a series of backyard swimming pools in a jeans ad from 1993? 

The Walker points out that going virtual opens up the 2020 British Arrows to people who couldn't physically get to it in years past.

Links that are good for a month are on sale on the Walker Art Center's website.