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  • Writer's pictureTom Church

The greatest film about marketing you've never seen.

Marketing as a movie and TV genre in the fictional space usually leaves a bit to be desired when we are talking about the more offbeat section of entertainment. Yet its subject matter lends itself to the political sphere, and in the current uneasy climate, where there is just unrelenting grim news and our political classes seem determined to outdo one another in stupidity, political satire seems to fall short of the reality.

What on earth has got into these people? Our politicians of all parties seem to be incapable of living up to even the basic standard required in public life.

Indeed, were one to write it into a piece of entertainment, you could be accused of having your imagination running away with you.

At times like this, a good dose of political comedy is required!

This brings me to one of the greatest political satires ever made, and the role of marketing in its plotting. Conceived by Sir David Frost, who made his name with the Nixon interview, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is masterpiece of political and marketing satire because . . . it is as relevant today as it was when it was made, way back in 1969. And perhaps, with the rise of AI, social networks, and 24/7 media, it is even more so (notably with its emphasis on Participative Democracy at one point in the film).

Firstly, it has a cast that is absolutely golden - you would be hard pressed to find another film with such a line up of British comedy talent: Peter Cook stars as the brilliantly sinister Protagonist Michael Rimmer, a young man, gifted and manipulative and somehow devilishly-otherworldly, who never puts a foot wrong or even utters a slip of the tongue. Rimmer is introduced into a lacklustre, failing polling company, being run by Ferret, played by none other than Arthur Lowe who is prototyping his Captain Mainwaring role in Dad’s Army. In this case he’s more malicious, idle, and certainly seems to have his attention focused on the stunning Tanya, played by the jaw-dropping aesthetics of the enigmatic Valeria Leon, whose first appearance in the movie made my tea miss my mouth and convinced me that Michelangelo was no more than a mere halfwit on the subject of beauty. (On a side note, it is criminal how her name was left off the credits to this movie).

Peter Cooke’s Rimmer rapidly takes control of the business, demoting Ferret in a way that can only be sadistic and vindictive, and a sign of things to come. From there, Rimmer rebuilds its reputation, poaches Peter Niss, a rival pollster, played by the great Denholm Elliot, and swiftly moves into political forecasting, playing off the leader of the Conservative Party in opposition against the Labour Party Prime Minister. All the while he’s creeping up the rungs of power: Rimmer, perhaps without too much exaggeration, is the man Dominic Cummings wished to be.

The performance is magnificent, Cooke is an omnipotent lead with sharklike magnetism, and an unknown past that makes him more sinister still, and one which begs the question of whether Rimmer has concocted this whole plan from the very outset, even infiltrating the polling company from the very start (it’s notable how, when he reports his time and motion study back to the owner of the business, the elderly man has no recollection of hiring him!).

Despite being written in the late 1960s, the great power of this film is just how exactly relevant it is today with the West’s flirtation with populism. Perhaps, considering its writing line up of David Frost, John Cleese, and Peter Cooke, we shouldn’t be surprised.

And with David Frost the instigator, the knowledge of polling and marketing methods shines through in this movie: turning a tube of tasteless and hard ‘Humbug’ sweets into an erotic driven dynamo of an advert, to undermine a rival’s market research campaign by skewing the sample group (who knew there are so many Buddhists in Nuneaton!)

And all the characters have their own agency: Lowe’s Ferret sees his life increasingly spiral down as Rimmer ascends, leading him onto a path of lone-Wolf radicalisation. Rimmer’s beautiful trophy wife, increasingly ignored by him as he climbs the ladder, forms an attachment with Denholm Elliott’s character, Peter Niss, (Rimmer’s partner at the firm and for much of his early career his confidant). She is forced to make her choice too: does she leave him, or does she make her deal with the Devil when Rimmer looks to attain his ambition of becoming President of Great Britain?

Some reviewers in the past have said this film fails as a comedy, that it is a stint of woven-together sketches that isn’t quite coherent. But I would disagree: this isn’t a comedy film. It is a political satire and warning about populism and the power of marketing to influence vast groups of people. What would the writers have wondered, back in the late 1960s, had they perceived the antics of Cambridge Analytica and social media targeting and the Internet Research Bureau?

There is no doubt that a direct trail of humour can be traced from this movie all the way through to the 1990s and beyond. The New Statesman, with Rick Mayall, Spitting Image, How To Get A Head In Advertising, with Richard E Grant, and then Absolute Power with Stephen Fry and John Bird would be the inheritors of this, and for that reason it could be regarded as a trailblazer.

All marketing students and practitioners and citizens should watch this movie, for it is as refreshing today as when it was first made - and perhaps with an even more pertinent warning.

Oh! And if you have any recommendations of the slightly weird and wonderful movies made in the marketing realm, then do let me know! (Mad Men is NOT included!)


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