The notorious recordings of Orson Welles not giving a damn while promoting faux-champagne and frozen peas.
It can’t have been easy being Orson Welles. Having directed the film often quoted as the greatest ever made at the age of twenty-six, everything must have felt like a downward slide afterwards. He would go on to make several other great films – better films, some of us might say – but his habit of starting projects and then moving on, leaving them unfinished (often through necessity as finances ran out), or tinkering with edits incessantly before leaving it incomplete – and a general reputation for being difficult inevitably left him with a bad reputation in Hollywood – finding backers for his movies proved ever more difficult and he would increasingly work as an actor for other, lesser directors as time went on. While Welles was notoriously precious about his directorial project, he was extraordinarily unfussy when it came to acting and presenting work.
Welles was much in demand for voice-overs, on documentaries or varying quality, and commercials. While some of his commercials – notably the ones he did for Carlsberg – became iconic advertisements of their time, they were clearly a waste of a great talent; however, they paid the bills and helped finance projects that no one else wanted to back. Quite how Welles himself felt about having gone from Citizen Kane to hawking frozen peas is unknown, but I think that we can take a guess by listening to the notorious recording tapes, where he berates and belittles the director, sound engineer, the scriptwriter and just about anyone else involved. These ads – numbering between three and seven – were recorded for Findus in the UK during 1970 by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.
In the 1970s, Welles was the on-screen promoter of Paul Masson – an American sparkling wine manufacturer that dubiously called its product ‘champagne’ despite the regional protections attached to that name. He advertised the drink for two years and they saw a one-third increase in sales during his stint. It was probably worth the effort, therefore, to put up with the odd time when Welles turned up to the set having apparently sampled a little too much of the product. The outtakes for one of these ads are among the great celebrity drunk moments, yet he still somehow got through it in the end.
Welles died in 1985, leaving behind a handful of exceptional films and the sense that this was a career unfulfilled – that there was so much more that he could have done. All things considered, he probably had every right to be bad-tempered and drunk when forced to do projects that were clearly beneath him, and we should take these infamous outtakes as examples of someone treating the work with the contempt it deserved rather than insults to his memory.
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