I am thinking of getting a blue plaque for our house, inscribed, ‘Here, in 1983, J R Hartley searched in the Yellow Pages for a copy of Fly Fishing by J R Hartley.’ Last weekend, when the BBC’s six o'clock news bulletin announced that Yellow Pages will soon be no more, they mentioned the J R Hartley ad.
I am sitting now in J R Hartley’s chair. I still live in that house, which a location man from an advertising agency happened to drive past in the summer of 1983.
I was standing on the front steps when he stopped. ‘A TV commercial? Come in!’ I cried, practically lassoing him into the hall. Into that hall, poor old J R Hartley would stagger, exhausted from walking round bookshops, so his daughter would say, ‘Dad, why not try the Yellow Pages?’
A neat little saga, just 30 seconds long, firmly wedged in the last century.
I loved the whole adventure: meeting the famous director Bob Brooks and the actor Norman Lumsden (a veteran opera singer) playing JRH, and having the house transformed with Victorian whatnots, antimacassars, cache-pots, jardinières – and wall-mounted glass cases containing prize trout.
The shoot happened on the hottest day of the year. The producer, John Cigarini, strolled in at midday in shades and T-shirt, ignoring me (an elephantine hausfrau, eight months pregnant), and startled the nanny and children by placing his trainers on the kitchen table, seizing our phone and dictating a long Sunday Times classified ad: ‘1969 Mercedes convertible for sale – whitewall tyres, stereo system’ etc. The cheek! He then went outside, fell into his open-top Merc and snoozed all afternoon while his crew toiled on.
Later he sent me a snapshot of himself riding a pushbike: ‘This explains why I had to sell my car: I was being done for drunk driving.’ But to everyone’s surprise, J R Hartley was the hit commercial of the decade, spawning many comic sketches and cartoons, and turning Norman Lumsden into a minor celebrity. And in December 1991 a spoof book called Fly Fishing by J R Hartley - actually by Michael Russell - topped the Sunday Times bestseller list. You can still see the ad - on YouTube, along with a parody by Fry and Laurie.