Michelle Rocher died yesterday, Valentine’s Day. I never met him but I wish I had. I would have liked to thank him for giving me, in a roundabout way, some of the best paid jobs I ever had as an actor.
In January 1982 I was just completing my four months run of Three Men in a Boat at the May Fair Theatre in London. My agent called me in for an audition for a Ferrero Rocher commercial. It was to be shot in Germany and spoken in German. ‘But I don’t speak German,’ I said. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ said the agent. ‘They’ll dub you.’ It was common practice at the time to use English actors in German TV commercials. A) German actors did not, apparently, like appearing in commercials. B) English actors were comparably cheaper. I went up for the audition, met the people and heard no more.
So it was a surprise when the agent rang over twelve months later and told me I had got the part. I was to fly out to Munich the following week. The money was good for three day’s work (two travelling, one filming) – and it was to be paid in cash (still Deutschmarks at the time). I arrived at the Kruse Film production office and, after a long wait, the director appeared to greet me. He was horrified. ‘But where is your moustache? And your hair is grey round the temples!’ I explained that when they had seen me in January 1982 I was doing a stage play for which I had grown a moustache and died my hair. I had been playing a character – and changed my looks. It was what actors did. The play had finished and I was back to my ‘normal looking’ self.
They found a stick-on moustache all right but had no way of getting rid of the grey. They tried boot polish. That didn’t work. So they got the make-up girl’s mascara and used that. I looked like Dirk Bogarde at the end of Death in Venice, but they declared themselves satisfied and I was sent off to my hotel to have another go at learning the German script.
We filmed in the Villa von Stuck, one of the best art nouveau/deco buildings in Munich. This was meant to be the home of The Baron (me) who was holding a party for his rich and glamorous friends, with the aid of his snooty butler played by the wonderful Patrick Newell, famous as Mother in The Avengers. The tag line of the commercial was him saying ‘Adel verplichtet’ (or ‘noblesse oblige’) and, if I had trouble with the German, Paddy was traumatised by it. He got there eventually, sweating profusely and made the director and client laugh. We were taken out for a splendid dinner at the end of the shoot and were given our pay. I arrived back home the next day, took the wad of notes out of my pocket and threw them in the air like confetti.
This one was also ‘dubbed’ into Italian. It was just as bad. But not as bad as the ad for Super Dickmanns that has been tacked on here by YouTube.
To my delight, I got a call to do another one a few months later in a Christmas setting. Then another – but Paddy was ill and had to be replaced. Then another: Paddy reappeared as the butler but had lost so much weight he no longer fitted the bill and had become a bag of nerves. So I had a succession of butlers after that – I would do one a year in various glamorous locations, topping off with a shoot in the Schwarzenburg Palace in Vienna. That was when I knew that, unknown to me, The Baron had become well known in Germany and Austria. Each time I arrived on set, no one took a blind bit of notice. When I emerged from make-up with the latest moustache and my hair dyed black, all the extras would start nudging each other. ‘Oh yes, everybody knows The Baron here,’ an English actor told me who was appearing as one of the guests at my latest party. ‘The Ferrero Rocher commercials are shown in every cinema.’ What most people don’t know is that, because of the continental success of The Baron and his butler (it was also dubbed into French and Italian) it inspired and English version – the widely ridiculed but entirely memorable Ambassador’s Reception: ‘Monsieur, with these Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us.’ Different scripts to ours and The Ambassador (my part) was played by a male model who couldn’t act. The last one I did for the German clients was filmed in Los Angeles in 1991. They wanted clear blue skies for a parachute drop. We were there for five days and it was foggy for the entire time. Before I left, they insisted I had my hair dyed – by then it had gone very pepper-and-salt and mascara could no longer cover it. That was all fine but having landed in Los Angeles in sticky heat, I immediately went for a swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool to freshen up. At breakfast the next morning the director (Tom Bussman) looked at me in a fury. ‘What the fuck has happened to your hair?’ he asked. ‘What do you mean?’ I replied. ‘What’s the matter with it?’ ‘What’s the matter with it is it’s gone green!’ The chlorine in the pool had reacted to the chemicals in the hair colouring – so they lost a morning while I went off to have the barnet recoloured. It was actually a most enjoyable shoot, especially with the smooth basso profundo Peter Cellier as my butler. The script, as usual, was crap and, though I never saw it, I assume the dubbing was as bad as usual. The following year my agent rang. ‘Bad news and good news,’ she said. ‘They’re doing another Ferrero Rocher.’ My heart leapt. My overdraft was going to be wiped out. ‘But they’re going with someone else. They think you’re terrific but they want to go with someone younger.’ Oh no! The end of the run. Bugger. ‘But the good news,’ said my agent, ‘is they’ve cast one of our clients as your replacement! Isn’t that terrific?’ She couldn’t hear my internal scream. The only bright side was that my replacement lasted one commercial – and then they dropped the entire campaign.
It had been a good run – and at least I didn’t have to eat any more golden balls. I loathed the taste of the bloody things and bits of nut kept sticking in my teeth. The only German I remembered from the nine or ten ads I did for Ferrero is ‘Kein Rocher? Das kann ich meine Gaste nicht zumuten’. Something like that. Oh – and of course ‘Adel verplichtet’.