The television advertisement shows a young man carrying a tray filled with mugs of tea through a large, open-plan office. He stumbles and falls, and with an almighty crash the tray of tea hits the floor, mugs flying in all directions. Tea is spilt everywhere; a trickle from one cup runs through a crack in the floor, takes a circuitous route through under floor ducts, runs down a wall, before dripping into a closed cupboard in which the Tetley tea folk lie sleeping. The Tetley tea stirs them from their slumbers, the cupboard doors open and they step out into bright light, revived.
The advertisement has its antecedents in English legends: King Arthur and his knights lying sleeping in Camelot hill, waiting for the moment when they will again ride forth; Francis Drake, sleeping in his cabin until the sounding of his drum calls him once again into action. The Tetley tea folk are figures that offer reassurance and security.
Their appearance on television in 1973 coincided with years of industrial strife and national instability; the economy staggered from one crisis to the next, 1974 was to see two general elections. The Tetley folk in those teenage years seemed to do more than sell tea; they were North Country working-class figures who related to each other with constant warmth and friendship. They spoke of shop floor camaraderie; of people with secure jobs, of successive generations working for the same firm.
The Tetley tea folk spoke of a society that was passing, maybe was already gone, by the time the folk appeared. Perhaps the surprise was that characters evoking the old industrial society lasted as long as they did, remaining on television screens for nearly thirty years. Why revive them now? Advertising campaigns involving national television don’t come cheaply; particular ones that involve cartoon animation as well as actors.
Presumably the good people at Tetley have figured that the reappearance of the folk will strike a nostalgic chord with those who recall them from four decades ago; there will be a sub-conscious association between the cartoon figures and the irrepressible optimism of adolescent years, and an association between happy times and drinking Tetley tea.
But perhaps the Tetley advertisement will work at a deeper level. The Tetley tea folk in the 1970s suggested a non-confrontational world of consensus; a stable, ordered and cheerful society. Of course the 1970s were nothing of the sort, they were probably the period of greatest social and political instability since the Second World War, yet the little cartoon folk evoked cheerful thoughts.
Maybe the Tetley folk are needed in a year where British politics have required the first coalition government since the war; where soldiers are dying in unwinnable wars; where the cost of the banking crisis has borne heavily upon working people; where the cost of recovering from the financial crisis will be paid in cuts to the most vulnerable. If there is nothing else to bring a bit of cheer, the there are at least the Tetley folk and a nice cup of tea.