“Smashing Ralph” – Ray Wilkins…the tv advertising star

You know when you’ve been Tango’d!

A lot’s been written about Ray Wilkins the footballer, tv pundit, coach and football manager but today, sadly the day of Ray’s memorial service, we pay tribute to Ray Wilkins the tv advertising star of the early 1990s.

Ray had a good sense of humour and the initial idea of the ad campaign amused him, hence him agreeing to do the voiceovers. Dave Bartram’s been a friend since 1982 and he recently told me the story behind Ray’s work on the Tango soft drinks commercials from the early 1990s.

MP – How did the Tango ads come about Dave? Who were you working with at the time?

DB – 1991 was the first one – ‘Orange Man’ aka Slap. I was a freelance production assistant in those days. Matt Forest at Limelight was the Director. Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury and Partners (HHCL) were the ad agency and they had won the Tango ad campaign commission from Britvic. At the time Tango was a back of the shelf, little known drink that Britvic wanted to promote as competition to Coca Cola, but they only had a tiny fraction of a traditional Coca Cola advertising and promotion budget.

Trevor Robinson and Al Young were the creative team who wrote the scripts. Tango wanted to attract a reputation – shake up the industry and be irreverent (as did the creative). The first Orange theme idea was originally to feature an orange genie. That changed at the casting stage, when the creatives saw Peter Jeeves’ audition, his walk was perfect for the part of the sumo wrestler type character Orange Man that later appeared in the ads.

The second idea was the Morecambe and Wise type slaps on the cheeks. The slaps got more and more exaggerated as the campaign progressed. The original voiceovers were American sports type commentators. Britvic wanted the ad to be more British, so Hugh Dennis and Ray Wilkins were used to record the voiceovers for the parts of Ralph and Tony, who act as commentators in the ads. Sid Waddell, the darts commentator, was also used for some ads. Ray worked as a co-commentator on Channel 4’s early 1990s Serie A ‘Football Italia’ Sunday broadcasts. He was ideal for the adverts.

I first met Ray at a recording studio in Soho. He was a really down to earth guy – and rather non-plussed at having been chosen for a very out of the ordinary TV commercial that included the use of a lot of colloquialisms. That was not so common in that era, and it really stood out. The adverts rapidly got a lot of attention.TV advertising was typically very different than it is now at that time and regional accents were relatively unusual. Either Trevor or Al suggested using Ray. I called Ray and checked him out. He seemed ideal and we arranged two voiceover sessions. The other tag line used at the end of the ads was “you know when you’ve been tango’d!” and that was spoken by the musician and singer Gil Scott-Heron (and coincidentally the son of the early 1950s Celtic player Gil Heron) who had played live at the Jazz Café in Camden the night before. The creatives thought his deep voice would work well, so I rang his agent. He agreed to do it and we went into the studio. After we were finished we got him a limo to take him to the gig he was playing that night. The campaign, using Gil’s voice at the end, ran for 10 years.

As the campaign progressed the ideas/concepts became darker, exaggerated and more shocking. When kids started copying the cheek slapping in the launch ad, one child suffered damaged eardrums, and so Rupert Howell at the agency pulled the ads voluntarily as the risk of injury to more children was too great. Britvic loved the shock tactics as it got great free word of mouth publicity and drink sales had sky rocketed due to the ads.

The ads became gradually darker and darker and included the exploding pensioner ad. As Tango sales had increased so much they then launched new flavours – Lemon, Apple, Blackcurrant as well as Orange. I worked on those campaigns too. All of the ideas were very original – they were gorilla marketing type ideas before people really invented that term. For example we left empty Still Tango bottles on site at festivals like Glastonbury to attract interest, before the drink itself had actually launched and gone on sale. We also priced Still Tango at different points in different supermarkets, to further confuse people. We had people sitting on upturned crates on Oxford Street selling Tango as if it were illicit goods. It attracted a lot of attention. We did have some problems with bottle tops that didn’t fit properly and the contents went off and made people ill. The Tango product was all set up, it had diversified into flavours other than orange and the ads had served their purpose – so eventually it was time to stop.

A very young James Corden was in one of the final ads. He was relatively unknown at that time – I think he had had a part as a caretaker in Hollyoaks. I was involved with casting him. Jeff Stark was the Director on the Corden advert. The advert was banned after only 4 days! Following some complaints from viewers, the BACC (British Advertising Copy Clearance) deemed that we were encouraging viewers to inflict mental torture on fat people! Luckily, I’d come in around £35,000 under budget on the production, so, after the James Corden ad was halted, we used the unspent money to produce a replacement Megaphone ad (starring Jim Hosking, an agency employee) to run in the tv schedule slots that had already been bought for the James Corden ad.

The “you know when you’ve been Tango’d!” campaign lasted about 10 years from start to finish. People really connected with it. When they launched hardly anyone knew the product and it became a really good seller, with sales more than doubling in less than 5 years, hence the introduction of other flavours

MP – What other ad campaigns did you work on Dave?

DB – Quite a few others – the Maxell cassette tape ads with misheard lyrics won an award – a Cannes Gold Lion, the highest tv advertising award. People enjoyed them and the music used reminded people of Desmond Decker (The Israelites) and the Skids (Into the Valley) many years after those singles had originally been a hit.

I also worked on HHCL’s ads for Danepak bacon (the ad with nudists), R.Whites lemonade (the ones with different fridge door endings, featuring various surprise celebrities) Robinson’s Fruit Juice (‘Who Killed Bob Holness?’), the AA (4th emergency service), Guinness Ireland, plus irreverent ads for Pot Noodle & Martini.

MP – I recall you also did some music video work?

DB – Yes, I did an early promo video for some friends who were in a local Leicester band called The Janitors who had just signed to Mark Riley’s Manchester label In Tape (Riley was an early member of The Fall). I was studying at Leicester Poly and used the art studio there. That was around 1985/6. Gaye Bykers on Acid were another Leicester band – also signed to the In Tape label. This was the very early days of MTV and if a band had a video it tended to get shown. There was typically no real crew – just me plus a technician and the band. For GBOA we broke into a burned out cinema. It was shown on Whistle Test. We had a £50 budget and Michael Jackson’s video with a £500,000 budget was the competition in a phone-in vote. Of course, we were the runners up! Crazy Head’s “Baby Turpentine” was another video I shot at Leicester Poly and in their rehearsal studio. You can see how the style used in the music promos later influenced the approach to some of the tv adverts, especially the Pot Noodle one.

After directing the pop videos I went into production on tv commercials. Later I became a music supervisor working with ad agencies, pitching ideas for music tracks, negotiating terms with publishers & record labels, sorting out the licensing and the artist clearances. I went from music to advertising, then back to music again when I worked for BMG Publishing as Head of Sync. I left BMG to set up my own music consultancy, 10 years ago now – Band and Brand Association.

I’d like to thank Dave for giving me the background story to the adverts. For more information on the Tango ads featuring Ray Wilkins check out the links below:


Last, but of course not least, farewell to Ray. He was a great player but also a wonderful, warm hearted person with a super sense of humour.

Martin Percival

2 thoughts on ““Smashing Ralph” – Ray Wilkins…the tv advertising star

  1. In case anyone wants to sample some Gil Scott-Heron I can thoroughly recommend ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and ‘Johannesburg’.

  2. Superb Martin, many thanks for doing that. Please pass on my thanks and best to Dave.
    God Bless Ray…

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