Film Review: How To Get Ahead In Advertising


Film poster

Acne and pimples and boils, oh my!

Written and directed by the brilliant Bruce Robinson, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, from 1989, could be a companion piece to the peerless Withnail and I. Imagine if Withnail had gone into the commercial world instead of being a thespian.

It stars Richard E Grant as Denis Dimbleby Bagley, an advertising doyen struggling to come up with ideas for a new spot cream. He has the wonderful house, the gorgeous wife, fine wines, and many friends, but he’s losing his mojo, and when he fails to even think of a tagline for the product, stress gets the better of him and he develops a boil on his neck. Worse still, it’s growing, and starting to talk to him…

Coming on like a Kafka styled nightmare, with the hilarity of Reginald Perrin, Robinson’s sharp nib makes swift work of the rise of consumerism, greed and even alludes to climate change, as Bagley’s tirades remain as true now, as then. The script is genius satire, hilarious with some chilling home truths. Grant brings his wild-eyed, frenetic pace to the role, an excellent physical comedian with the good looks of a classic matinee idol.


“I’m an expert on tits”, he sneers at a couple of men on a train, discussing the prurient nature of a drugs and sex scandal in a tabloid newspaper. “Tits and peanut butter”. He then dismantles the use of suggestive language deployed by hack writers, all to complete bafflement.

To his “cynical old anus” of a boss, Bristol, beautifully portrayed by Richard Wilson, who downplays his stress levels,  he becomes adversarial, insisting,”I’m the man who’s taken the stench out of everything except shit”.


His marriage, to the supportive but exasperated Julia (a superb Rachel Ward) is on increasingly slippery ground, too, as the boil’s grotesque personality takes over. It is effective a metaphor for narcisssist culture as you could wish for.

Suffice to say, it doesn’t end prettily. Bagley’s final rant mirrors Withnail’s, only instead of Shakespeare, it’s like a British take on Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

It’s a full English meltdown. “just ask Barbara Simmons”.


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