The Life & Career of Leonard Rossiter
Rose Launch; Secco Launch:
Directed by Alan Parker
"...suffused with herbs and spices from four continents..."
the greatest advertising campaigns in British television history, the
ads saw a perfect pairing of leading actor and actress, performing
30-second masterpieces of comedy. Leonard played the pretentious oaf,
personified, against Joan Collins’ prim, straight-laced
Melissa. All ten commercials revolved around the old music-hall trick
the bungling fool always finding a way to, inadvertently of course,
his drink over the girl, and never realising he had done it.
During the mid-1970s the Italian drinks manufacturer Martini was busy marketing their product, specifically aimed at the younger generation. Their adverts featured trendy, wealthy, twenty-somethings on private beaches, private yachts, and basically enjoying a lifestyle not accessible to the vast majority of their audience. Cinzano decided to make a humorous spoof on these commercials. Sean Connery and Woody Allen were pencilled in to be the stars, but when top British film director Alan Parker was brought in to direct the first three, the scripts were quickly discarded. (It is interesting to note, however, that the success of the Cinzano adverts actually resulted in an increase in the sales of Martini, as people were so engrossed in the commercials, they forgot what product the stars were advertising and, as Martini was the market leader, it was assumed this was the product being promoted). It was Parker and art director Ron Collins who cast Leonard and Joan, via the Collett, Dickenson, Pearse & Partners advertising agency, a company with a reputation for using celebrities. The company had previously used Leonard Rossiter for a Parker Pens' commercial in 1977, in which he played a traffic warden. “I remember going round to Leonard's house," Parker recalls, "and we agreed the scripts were absolute rubbish. So Leonard said 'What I'd like to do is the old music-hall joke', and we said 'What's that?', so he picked up his cup of tea as we were sitting there in his living room, and he looked at his watch, turning the cup over. And we said 'Yeah, that'll be a good joke, especially if it happens to be Joan Collins you're spilling it on!' “.
The first commercial, promoting the launch of the first of the Cinzano family of vermouth aperitifs, Cinzano Bianco, was broadcast during 1978, and was an instant success. Alan Parker directed the next two commercials, launching Cinzano Rose and Cinzano Secco, with art direction again by Ron Collins. Leonard choreographed his every move and had much involvement in the scripts and gags. By the end of 1979, the ads had become firm favourites with the viewing public, who never tired of seeing them over and over again. Joan Collins remembers: "When ITV went on strike viewers wrote in complaining not about the lack of programmes but about not being able to see Joan and Leonard!". But the best was yet to come.
The two actors were reported to be paid £30,000 each for the series of commercials. Hugh Hudson stepped in to direct the next two ads, possibly the most memorable of the ten that were made - Airliner and Ski Lodge. Airliner saw the two actors on board an aircraft and, after a near-miss for Melissa when Leonard crosses his legs, sending his seat table flying, she finally gets her soaking when he accidentally hits her seat recline button while she is about to sip her Cinzano. Ski Lodge has an Alpine setting in which the bungling buffoon blusters his way through the bar to Melissa, sending two skiers with legs already in plaster into fits of agony.
Within twelve months two more classics were made, directed by Paul Weiland: Roller Disco and Balcony (in the latter, pictured right, Leonard laments Melissa's absence, little knowing that the Cinzano pouring from the bottle over his hotel balcony is raining down on a bikini-clad Melissa on the balcony below). These had such popular appeal that in 1981 there was talk of a feature film. Of course, this would have had to involve some kind of relationship between Leonard and Melissa, whereas the commercials portrayed no relationship whatsoever - he merely wanted her to think he was 'in the in-crowd'. As Leonard himself said in an interview with the Sunday Mirror: "If the scripts for the film that we make together were to be 10% funny and 90% romantic, it would deny the expectations of the audience. It is the fact that we are so disparate that makes us interesting and intriguing. In the film, if the girl were a scrubber it wouldn't work. And it wouldn't work if I were upper-crust."
So the idea for a film was scrapped, and the British public were instead treated to Mime, the eighth Cinzano commercial, this time under the direction of Peter Levelle. In 1983, Cinzano's manufacturers decided to focus on a global promotional strategy, rather than country-specific, and so the UK adverts ended - but not before two final gems graced our screens. In 1982, Tiger's Head (pictured below) saw Leonard jump with fright after placing his foot into the mouth of a tiger-skin's head hearth rug, jerking his cold collation, as usual, down Melissa's cleavage. They were entertaining three Japanese businessmen at the time and, thinking the unusual deposit was some kind of formal greeting - and not wanting to offend their hosts - the visitors promptly followed suit, jumping in the air and throwing their Cinzanos over Melissa's bosom. The final commercial, made in 1983, was called Dragoon, and took place at a high society fancy dress ball. Leonard mistakes someone else for Melissa. When she does arrive, he tells her she has a double, and promptly disposes two shakes of his drink down her cleavage. These last two adverts were directed by Terry Lovelock: "There was great respect between them", Terry recalls. "They worked together wonderfully well, and it was a very successful campaign." Off-screen, it has to be said that there was at least some friction between the two actors. Leonard's tendency to 'take charge' in a production no doubt caused some conflicts between himself and his leading lady. In a 1984 TV interview, Leonard is asked how he got on with Joan. He replies: "We got on very well.. Well, not very well. We got on quite well."
As if to cement the Cinzano commercials in the British television Hall of Fame, the British viewers voted the ads Favourite Commercial in the TVTimes Top Ten Awards for 1983, and Leonard himself won an award for Best Actor In A Commercial. For a storyline which was basically the same in every commercial, with only the situations changing from one ad to the next, the Cinzano ads were one of the greatest - and most successful - television promotional campaigns of all time. As director Alan Parker says: "It worked. Boy did it work. There was a period of time when the commercials were far and away the most interesting thing you could see that evening on television. They were infinitely more entertaining than any of the programmes in those days."
The commercials remembered:
"The Cinzano commercials, in which Leonard so relentlessly poured Vermouth all over Joan Collins, were little comic classics in their own right. They were witty, memorable vignettes, the running gag being beautifully timed... Commercials often make actors popular, but there is no doubt that the Cinzano commercials actually enhanced Leonard's reputation as an actor. The accident-prone lounge lizard, a self-satisfied bore, inevitably with such constant exposure (ten advertisements over a five year period) became one of Leonard's most famous characters. He made the clumsy buffoon's phoney bonhomie, and ridiculous pretensions to a sophistication he so singularly lacked, very funny. Trying to impress us with his worldliness and his knowledge of wines and foreign languages, he invariably confirmed, in every word and gesture, his ignorance, boorishness and ineptness." - Robert Tanitch.
The actors remembered:
"People always ask me 'Did Joan object?' [to getting drenched in Cinzano], and I'd say 'Why should she object, she's getting paid?!! No, no no. We got on very well.. well, not very well. We got on quite well." - Leonard Rossiter, Sunday Sunday, ITV,1984.
"In 1978 I made two
tongue-in-cheek commercials for Cinzano with the incredibly skilled
Rossiter. They were so successful that we made two or three each year
1983. Leonard was such a brilliant comedian that when rehearsing with
my main problem was to stop shrieking with laughter! His comedy timing
ws superb, wacky, iconoclastic, and slightly different on every take -
the true sign of a marvellous actor. I played a glamorous
to Leonard's buffoon..."
"I have to admit I'd never heard of Leonard Rossiter until my agent called me and said 'Would you like to do a commercial with Leonard Rossiter?' I was in America at the time doing Dynasty, and I said 'Who's Leonard Rossiter?' It was terribly ignorant of me."
"The first time we rehearsed I was a little bit in awe of him because I thought he was a genius comic, as well as a very good actor. He was a bit shy of me, and I was a bit shy of him." "I never found him demanding to anyone, other than himself."
"I was asked to do one television commercial for Cinzano, which was one of three. I asked who was doing the other two, and they said possibly Joanna Lumley, possibly Felicity Kendall, but I did the first one. When we'd finished there was a huddle in the corner, all the bigwigs whispering. Finally they came over and said 'Would you like to do two more?'. And they ran for six years!"
"He always had a spin on the end of his line, so that it would be just that bit different from the take before, so that he would make me laugh." - Joan Collins.
"Leonard was a great, close friend. He said to me once: "What's it like getting this 'Schhh... You Know Who'? How do you live with it? What's it really like?" And I said "It's like... a mortgage, education for three children, a home for my ex-wife, a home for my parents and a home for me. That's what it's actually like. And if you're not very careful, it might happen to you one day."" - William Franklyn, actor. Starred in Schweppes' 1970s ad campaign.
"Leonard Rossiter, from the theatre - difficult. He felt he was 'the main man', the artist of the two. He used to choreograph himself. I know the previous director had some trouble with this, so I had to spend some time with him, just to diffuse what I thought might be some awkward situations. And there was. He'd say "I'm doing this movement, and that movement" and "It'd be nice for the camera to see this and see that". And I said, "Well, I'm going to cut to your foot going in the tiger-skin head on the floor", and he said "Oh, but they won't be able to see what I'm doing with the rest of me". Joan was thoroughly professional, she got the idea straight away. She was very intelligent and absolutely unpretentious...Leonard used to refer to her as 'The Prop'." - Terry Lovelock, director, Tiger's Head and Dragoon commercials.
"When the client reluctantly fired us on orders from World Headquarters because they wanted a worldwide advertising campaign, Leonard invited the creators of the most recent productions to Tante Claire, generally regarded as London's finest restaurant, for lunch. An unprecedented act of great generosity." - John Salmon, chairman, Collett, Dickenson, Pearse and Partners advertising agency.
Alan Parker profile
Top 100 British Commercials
. . . .
To TV: 1970s
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Text (c) Paul Fisher
Pictures (c) their respective owners.