How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) poster

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)


UK. 1989.


Director/Screenplay – Bruce Robinson, Producer – David Wimbury, Photography – Peter Hannan, Music – David Dundas, Animation – Hibbert Ralph Animation, Makeup Effects – Peter Frampton, Prosthetics – Daniel Parker & Nik Williams, Production Design – Michael Pickwoad. Production Company – HandMade Films


Richard E. Grant (Dennis Bagley), Rachel Ward (Julia Bagley), Richard Wilson (John Bristol), Rachel Fielding (Penny), John Shrapnel (Psychiatrist)


Advertising executive Dennis Bagley is being driven crazy by his inability to come up with ideas for a pimple cream campaign. As he starts to mentally crack, he scathingly repudiates the advertising industry for its soullessness. At the same time, a boil develops on his shoulder. As it grows larger, the boil starts talking to Dennis, although hides itself whenever others are around, causing his wife and colleagues to think he is going crazy. The pimple, which represents Dennis’s greedy, most ruthless side, then forcibly emerges, reducing Dennis’s head to a pimple on his shoulder and taking its place.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising sets in with a scabrous brilliance. It is a black comedy conducted with the savage cruelty that only the British manage in a way that genuinely hurts. The first half is a scathingly brilliant jab into the underbelly of the advertising industry – an easy target one may think, but director/writer Bruce Robinson of the cult Withnail and I (1987) fame has clearly spent some time in the advertising industry and fires barbs at his target with an unerring precision.

The film also features Richard E. Grant, also from Withnail, in a full flight of the hysteric dementia he perfected on that films. In lesser films, Grant comes out either as a prissy fop or merely wimpish – his best parts are, like here, those which allow him to take centre stage and launch forth with full sarcastic bite. The scenes with he savaging a Greenie dinner party guest as being ‘a closet meat eater’ or an hysterical metaphoric rant about the advertising industry – “I’m a drug pusher” – to a train carriage full of uptight types who take the scene at face value prove positively hysterical.

In the latter half, the film launches off into a variant on the Beast Within theme familiar to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde et al – although it is sort of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde if one can imagine Jekyll as a comedy straight man and Hyde as an amoral capitalist. There ar undeniable similarities to the bizarrely torrid Japanese-American film The Manster (1959). The Dr Jekyll story is a slight jump of tracks from the wonderfully black, hysteric savagery of the advertising industry satire that takes up the first half but soon builds with its own equal hilarity.

Richard E. Grant and talking boil in How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Richard E. Grant and talking boil

There are all the deadpan reactions to the news of a talking boil by the people around Richard E. Grant – Grant to psychologist: “I’m not interested in what it [the boil] has to say … if it wants to join in it can pay its own bill.” One scene with the good Grant trapped as the boil pleading with a woman that the evil Grant is dancing with (thinking that she is his wife Rachel Ward) and trying to tell her of the evil boil’s plans to impregnate her only to have it misinterpreted as a torrent of obscenities is hilarious.

British-born director Bruce Robinson started as an actor, wroe the screenplay for the award-winning The Killing Fields (1984) and made his directorial debut with the cult film Withnail and I (1987). He has also made the serial killer thriller Jennifer Eight (1992) and the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary (2011). In genre material, Robinson also wrote the screenplay for the Neil Jordan clairvoyance thriller In Dreams (1999).

Trailer here

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