On a mission with Watt

by Mort Bryer

It was late on a raw, chilly, damp November day in 1978 that I was sitting next to Roger Watkins in the back seat of one of those wonderful London cabs, creeping up a narrow street somewhere in the bowels of London, already late for appointments with a several clients, including one at the Beeb.  The cab inched along in the usual heavy traffic in central London. A 90 year old, with a walker and a bad case of bunions, could have made better time.

Roger and I were working on gathering ad support for Variety’s first U.K. section, which was to run in the Anni issue. We had come up with the idea during a previous stopover I had made in London after attending the now defunct Mifed market in Milan in October. At that time we had popped into a local emporium for the traditional cup of tea. (Frankly speaking, in those ancient times, I avoided British java, which seemed to me a brew obtained from dipping one coffee bean, tied on a string, into some hot water, with the added taste of an old sock dipped in for flavoring.) Anyhow, while slurping my chai (black, by the way), I whined to Roger about going back to the States and in a matter of a few weeks, trying to put a Canadian section together

That’s when the idea of maybe doing a section dedicated to the U.K. arose. We both got rather enthusiastic (it was never difficult to get Roger enthused about challenging new projects), and we fired a message off to Syd, who promptly gave us a green light. So I returned to 46th Street, and after a few weeks once again headed back to Blighty, to help Roger in organizing the U.K. special.

Roger stacked the appointments with advertisers, about ten or more face to face calls a day, covering companies from all the fields the paper included in its broad spectrum: TV, legit, film, live entertainment, music, talent, a virtual cornucopia of show biz. Roger, indefatigable as always, had us whirling around London like dervishes, from early in the morning until about 6 p.m. for five days in a row. My derriere was dragging. I was ready to hoist a white flag and plead for quarter, but Roger drove on, eternally fresh as the proverbial daisy. In the evenings, I would withdraw to the Dorchester Hotel exhausted.

At one point, we went to a rather old theatre to meet with a legit type. The theatre’s elevator would have come in handy as a coffin and creaked as it slowly but unsurely went up to the second floor. There we met with the producer of “The Mousetrap”, the oldest-running play in London, and still going strong. The producer was an old codger, about the age I’m at now, and quickly gave us a negative re taking an ad. In desperation – for it seemed to me that an ad from him would somehow be essential in representing the British stage — I went jingo and unashamedly waved a metaphorical Union Jack in front of him and appealed to “the special relationship”, between our two great countries. And it worked. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I think we finally ended up with a big quarter of a page ad from him.

I still remember during another appointment, when Roger was trying to convince a prospective customer to take an ad for the issue. We were talking to the head of a large, important company. After the usual schmoozing, and Roger telling a few anecdotes to the client, as was his wont, and after the client finally, reluctantly, started considering taking a quarter page ad, Roger, all smiles and ingratiating cheerfulness, would say, “A quarter of a page? No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. After all, you don’t want to advertise your poverty, do you? A company as important as yours cannot be represented by anything less than a full page!” And I believe he got the page.

But I must confess, working with Roger was working! I mean, you couldn’t tire the man. It seemed that he could cheerfully go on and on forever.  No wonder the Brits built an empire when they had tons of people like Watt. I must confess, at that time I silently thought — we still had a few days more to go on the ad whirligig of this particular mission – that the next time I’d let the London office handle future British sections.

The high point for me on this trip was an invite to a Thanksgiving party received by courtesy of an American record company. I believe it was in honor of Dolly Parton. The company organized a superb turkey dinner, buffet style, with all the trimmings, at the London Holiday Inn. It was a nice gesture, I thought, and after getting a good eyeful of Ms. Parton, we hit the chowline. And, of course, the bar, using my old line “Barman, save yourself some work, give me a double!”

My standard gag about Watt is; “If they made tires as tough as Roger, they’d last forever.” Quite a chap, Mr. Watkins. As for me, phew, my aching back, I want to go home!

The British section was a great success, and a number of ads were also sold after my trip by a new salesman who had just been hired, John Willis, who subsequently became a powerhouse salesman for the sheet, handling all the Scandi territories. That first issue was followed by a number of other UK sections in the coming years, in which the chaps in London did all the work. Syd was happy with the results, and invited me up to the poopdeck, opened his famous drawer, and hit me with a dram of firewater.