Ask a French non-cyclist to name a cycling hill and they’d come up with one of the mighty mountain passes in the Tour: Mont Ventoux, Iseran, Alpe d’Huez, Galibier, Aubisque, Tourmalet… places associated with great feats of endurance and determination.
Try it in England and, after a lot of umming and ahing, they’d suggest that cobbled lane in the old Hovis advert. And then, most probably, parp the music from it.
Gold Hill, in the centre of Shaftesbury, is that very hill. The sepia-sodden advert was first screened in 1973, and was voted the best UK television commercial of all time, in a poll that was voted the most meaningless poll of all time in another poll. The ad was repeated briefly in May 2006 as part of a retrospective ad campaign, a retrospective ad campaign that may well be repeated as part of a retrospective of retrospective ad campaigns.
The original film, entitled Bike Round, sees a baker’s delivery boy pushing his bike up the cobbled street of some pre-Great-War village for his final call of the day. He clatters his way back down to the baker’s, and is rewarded with slabs of Hovis. Accompanying it is a brass-band arrangement of the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and a voiceover, clearly of the boy, who is now an old man.
Many people assume the ad was set in Yorkshire, partly because of the brass band, partly because of a subsequent lampoon in a novelty single by south Yorkshire comedian Andy Capstick. (His spoof was in 1981, which shows how enduring the original was.) But the narrator’s accent in the film is definitely West Country, not West Riding.
A widely-known piece of trivia is that the director of the advert was Ridley Scott, who went on to find fame directing Bladerunner, Alien, and Thelma and Louise. Less well known is that the actor playing the boy, Carl Barlow, got the job from the three on the final shortlist because the second refused to have a pudding-basin haircut, and the third couldn’t ride a bike.
But if you can ride a bike then you can re-enact the advert, independently of your hairstyle. You’ll soon find out that Master Barlow showed a fair bit of skill in staying upright while shuddering down the cobbles on that ancient rod-brake machine.
Gold Hill runs south from the town centre’s main street, a place reassuringly equipped with cottagey pubs named after ceremonial headgear. You’ll see it signposted, a narrow cobbled pedestrian alley running down to the right of the town hall. A few metres down it opens out into a miniature cobbled square. There’s a cafe, where you can sit outside and watch tourists not quite knowing what to do next, and a rather unappetising Hovis-loaf monument the size of an office desk. Gold Hill curves its stony, traffic-free, way down to the right, bordered by the old Abbey walls on the right, and thatched cottages on the left. The topmost building is an art gallery.
Walk your bike down the footpath on the right, and turn round to re-enact the celebrated commercial.
Intone the first two pentatonic phrases of that Largo, in the dusky manner of a trombone. Wheel your bike up, stopping for breath every few seconds. Your self-narrated voiceover ideally will have a hint of yokel; if not, then the Archers, or even the Wurzels, will do: “Last stop on round would be old Ma Peggotty’s place,” you reminisce, about an epoch so distant that definite articles had not yet fully evolved. “’Twas like taking bread to the top of the world!”
Make as if to deliver your bread to the unseen crone of the advert. Now you can turn round, remount your machine, and rattle back down the cobbles, splaying out both legs out occasionally if you dare. “’Twas a grand ride back though,” you continue, twasly.
As if to reconstruct the feeling of a camera crew, the tourists sitting outside the cafe at the top of the hill will probably be taking pictures of you. And perhaps pointing at you and sniggering.
For the final scenelet, you really need to be in a bakery. There are a couple in the centre, though one of the pubs will do just as well. Carry on with your oral history, as if dictated to some dutiful grandson doing a school project: “And aaafterward, I knew baker would ’ave kettle on and doorsteps of ‘ot ’Ovis ready. ‘There’s wholemeal in Hovis,’ he’d say. ‘Get it inside you, lad, does you good, that. One day you’ll go up that hill as faaast as you come dewn!’”
If you are with a partner, ruffle their hair as you say this last, in the manner of Bill Maynard, the mendacious baker in the original.
Then your quaintly Hardyesque rurolect gives way to a 1973-style Voice of Authority, obviously a chap with a pipe who went to public school. “Hoe-vis,” you say, mindful of your elocution lessons. “It’s ez good for yew todayyy, ez it’s warlways beeyan”.
Gold Hill is surprisingly tricky to photograph well, as it has thoughtlessly been designed to run south into the midday sun. If you want the cottages bathed in warm ochre light, your best bet is probably mid-afternoon in November or February, when you’ll also get the steamy-breathed winter crispness of the original advert.