If you know a remote farm in Lincolnshire where Mrs. Buckley lives, then you certainly know that every July peas grow there.
Even so, you may be surprised to learn that the infamous recording session Orson Welles stormed out of in the mid-Sixties actually resulted in some finished commercials which aired on television.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about – or for that matter you are unfamiliar with a certain fjord in Norway, or a little place in the American far west – let me bring you up to speed.
Some time around 1965, Orson Welles was recruited by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to perform the narration for a series of television commercials. Their client was Findus, a frozen foods company based in Sweden.
Despite the fact that Welles was a massive international star, having already changed entertainment history at least twice – first with his controversial radio drama The War of the Worlds and again with the groundbreaking film Citizen Kane – Findus absurdly requested that Welles should record an audition tape in order to get the gig.
That’s just idiotic if you’ll forgive me by saying so.
What made the request even sillier was the fact that Welles had a booming voice that was easily recognized everywhere. It is still unmistakable to this day, several decades after his passing in 1985. As voice overs go, he was by far and away the best.
Welles was so incensed by the audition request that he reportedly took payment in advance, then made the agency chase him all over Europe to record it. He stood them up in three countries along the way, under protest, before he finally sat down with their microphone in Vienna.
Perhaps the best account of the event comes from Jonathan Lynn, the British actor and filmmaker best known for directing My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards.
Long before that notoriety, Lynn did some acting for a television special Welles was creating for CBS in 1969 called Orson’s Bag. In a chapter from his memoir, Lynn recounted Welles telling him a story about the hassle of the audition one day after their shooting had wrapped.1British actor-director Jonathan Lynn recalls Orson’s Bag, Wellesnet, 22 Aug 2016
“One night he told us about his voice over for Findus frozen peas,” Lynn wrote, then went on to quote Welles.
“An ad agency called and asked me to do a voice over. I said I would. Then they said would I please come in and audition. ‘Audition?’ I said. ‘Surely to God there’s someone in your little agency who knows what my voice sounds like?’
“Well, they said they knew my voice but it was for the client. So I went in. I wanted the money, I was trying to finish Chimes At Midnight. … Well, they asked me to go to some little basement studio in Wardour Street to record it. I demanded payment in advance.
“After I’d gotten the cheque I told them ‘I can’t come to Wardour Street next week, I have to be in Paris.’ I told them to bring their little tape recorder and meet me at the Georges Cinq Hotel next Wednesday at 11 am. So they flew over to Paris, came to the hotel at eleven – and were told that I had checked out the day before.” He chortled happily.
“I left them a message telling them to call me at the Gritti Palace in Venice. They did, and I told them to meet me there on Friday. When they got there I was gone – they found a message telling them to come to Vienna.” Now he was laughing uproariously. “I made them chase me all around Europe with their shitty little tape recorder for ten days. They were sorry they made me audition.”
After the chase had concluded and he got the part, Findus and the Thompson agency eventually succeeded in producing a number of television ads with Orson Welles doing the voice overs. Though their relationship spanned several years, it became an increasingly bigger thorn in his side.
Despite being regarded today as one of the great directors of all time, Welles went through more than a couple rough periods after having worn out his welcome with Hollywood and its financiers. Even Citizen Kane lost money the box office and didn’t begin to attain the status it holds today until more than a decade after its release. As he told Lynn, he needed the money from jobs like these commercials to fund film projects like Chimes At Midnight and later The Other Side of the Wind2The Inside Story of Orson Welles’s Last Movie, Vanity Fair, 4 May 2018 because the studios wouldn’t touch him.
Even the television special Orson’s Bag became a money pit. Lynn recalled to comedian Gilbert Gottfried 3Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, episode 223, 2 Sept 2018 in 2018, “He spent all of CBS’s money and he hadn’t anywhere near finished it. And then, like with all his other projects, he hustled around trying to make some money from his commercials.”
But as Welles regaled Lynn with the story of his cat-and-mouse game not long after it had happened, neither he nor Lynn could have known at the time that we’d be talking about it half a century later. It was amusing to Welles for wholly different reasons than it is for us.
Though nothing is more important than the simple act of people getting together, as the Findus recording sessions progressed, they devolved into teeth-pulling matches between Welles and the staff in studio. Those working on the sessions had also grown irritated by the entire ordeal. As the tape recorder ran, Welles constantly went to battle with the copywriters and producers. At some point, someone – presumably a recording engineer or agency rep – compiled a tape of some of Welles’s outbursts and took it home.
The Right Reading
On this tape of outtakes, Orson Welles is no happier than anyone else would be doing a job he doesn’t want to do. His understated contempt and palatable lament are remarkable, and they’re the real reasons why we’re still talking about these frozen food commercials so many decades later.
The tape of infamous outtakes seems to have been pulled not from his audition recording, but from one of the subsequent production sessions. Regardless, the hilarious five-minute bootleg has far outlived the Findus commercials for which they were recorded.
Welles is disgruntled throughout. At times, he keeps his cool and offers borderline constructive criticism, such as stating that the script is “full of things that are only correct because they’re grammatical, but they’re tough on the ear.” Other times, he simply doesn’t temper his agitation, declaring, “I’ve spent twenty times more for you people than any other commercial I’ve ever made. You are such pests. In the depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?”
Welles’s on-again-off-again personal assistant Bob Kensinger retrospectively sympathized with his former boss in an indispensable 2015 interview with KCRW radio, in which he often refers to Welles in the present tense, “I don’t think he intentionally means to be mean. He just gets impatient, because he’s been in every situation imaginable and he’s done everything so many times, that he’s just baffled when people can’t get it right. You know, how hard is it to write copy for some frozen peas?” 4The Organist: Orson on Wonderland, episode 51, 25 Sept 2015
Kensinger continued, “I think he just got frustrated because he was so smart and he’s living in kind of a mediocre world.”
“He hated doing commercials, but he loved getting the checks.”
The 20th century was littered with tapes of embarrassing outtakes and outbursts, and the ease of sharing such spectacles in the 21st century has only increased the number that we end up seeing and hearing. Christian Bale, Bill O’Reilly, Britney Spears, Michael Richards, and Paula Abdul all come to mind.
But what makes this particular audio recording for Findus so enduring and discussed is Orson Welles himself, a perfectionist with a perfect voice who simply can’t muster the mediocrity to deliver a performance that’s “good enough.”
You’d think that because he’s just doing it for the money, he would phone it in and get it over with. But he can’t. Welles fights and slugs his way through it, editing copy on the fly, insisting “the right reading for this is the one I’m giving it,” and taunting the staff with jabs like “get me a jury and show me how you can say ‘in July’ and I’ll go down on you.”
Welles’s deep, soothing, magical voice remains consistently immaculate throughout the entire recording. Even when he spits out phrases like “this is a lot of shit” at the personnel, and muses to himself “fish fingers, Norway,“ with complete disdain and disgust, he never fails to deliver it all in a voice that’s so unmistakably captivating it seems worth the abuse.
About halfway through the tape, we hear Welles speak a single word to himself, exhausted, but in that same enchanting voice. It’s an unforgettable moment of self reflection that many have since adopted into their own vocabulary in challenging situations…
A Half Second Later
The professional recording process in the mid-Sixties was tedious compared with what amateurs can accomplish today on portable devices. Before nonlinear editing existed, the voice had to be recorded in real time to fit the film. The timing couldn’t be as easily changed after the fact, nor could the length of pauses.
You can hear in the outtakes that Welles and the producers are actually watching the film while they’re recording his voice. “I’m looking at a big dish of peas.” They’re trying to get it all to sync up. A producer says to Welles, “I’d start half a second later… if you can make it almost when that shot disappears…” This type of production process must have been nerve wracking. We really don’t know what they were up against.
Without further ado, let’s have a listen. This is the five-minute reel of outtakes.
Rolled It Around
Everyone has their own story about how they happened to hear this recording for the first time. For many, it came into their lives long before the advent of the World Wide Web, and it came in the form of a cassette tape. It may have been just a few minutes on a mix tape with other gems such as Col. Sanders’s commercial outtakes, prank calls by a guy calling himself Mark Knopfler, or that beautiful drunken train wreck of an entire concert by Hank Williams, Jr., that lasted only 21 minutes.
Perhaps you got the tape from someone you knew. Your friend. But however it arrived, it certainly made the rounds. It was subversive and it went viral long before the word had the meaning it has today.
Whether as an inside joke among those familiar with it, or as an inspiration for comedy, the tape has bubbled up into mainstream entertainment again and again. It was celebrated in a phenomenal impersonation by John Candy on SCTV6YouTube video: Liberace’s Musical Tribute to the Holidays, SCTV season 4, cycle 2, episode 94, 18 Dec 1981 while Welles was still alive. Will Ferrell’s Welles-based character on The Spoils of Babylon is also worth seeing 7YouTube video: Will Ferrell as Eric Jonrosh, The Spoils of Babylon, 2014. And the tape has been referenced in animated series including Pinky and the Brain, The Critic, and Futurama8YouTube audio: Maurice LaMarche as Orson Welles, Futurama, season 6, episode 11, 26 Aug 2010.
The event even has its own Wikipedia page and the incident goes by the simple name Frozen Peas.
The Finished Findus Commercials
Well, enough talk. There’s too much directing around here. Let’s take a look at some of the completed Findus frozen peas commercials. These videos come from the catalog of a British organization called the History of Advertising Trust, where hundreds of vintage commercials have been archived. (As of this writing, the Wikipedia page states, “It is … not known whether film copies of the final advertisements exist in the BFI National Archive.” Perhaps BFI should call the Trust to get a copy.)
Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, the films cannot be shown conveniently within this article, so they must be linked to the Advertising Trust website. But when you click on one below, it will open in a new window, so you can watch it and then close that window without losing your place here.
Crumb Crisp Coating
One of the more memorable sticking points for Welles was the line “Findus freeze the cod at sea and then add a crumb crisp coating.” He remarks, “That’s tough,” and it is recommended to remove the word “crumb.” This and other moments must have resulted in a copywriter’s nightmare, in which the crafted words have been simply edited on the spot by the narrator and producers.
In these completed versions of the commercials, we hear that the “crumb crisp coating” line has morphed completely into a couple variations.
In the first spot we’ll see, dated 1969 in the archive, we hear that the phrase “crumb crisp coating” which has been changed to “crisp, golden coating.” We get to hear him say “fish fingers” in context and with slightly less contempt in his tone.
Video: Findus Fish Fingers
The text of the next spot from 1968 sounds like it is right off the same familiar pages. “We know an island off the Swedish coast where Mrs. Lundin gets cod straight from the sea. … Thick fish cuts coated in crisp, bubbling batter, well seasoned.”
Video: Findus Cod Portions
More fish and crumbs are afoot in another 1968 spot as Welles recites, “Only Findus give you portions of four of the fish you like best. Crumbed and ready to fry.”
Video: Findus Fish Portions