In November, one of Britain’s great filmmakers died. A multi-award-winning commercials director still in the peak of his career, and co-founder of production company Rattling Stick, Ringan Ledwidge was just 50 years old when cancer took him. Though few outside the advertising industry know his name, many will know the stories he brought to life.
Many of Ledwidge’s commercials were made for cinema rather than TV and were substantially longer than the common 30 or 60 seconds. Levi’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (2007), showing Levi’s changing fashions through the decades in a love-in-the-afternoon scenario, for example, ran at 90 seconds. His opulent 2013 spot for Bailey’s ‘Nutcracker’, featuring principal dancers from the Royal Ballet, ran at two minutes. The full length version of Logitech’s ‘Ivan Cobenk’ (2010), starring Kevin Bacon, runs at three minutes. He frequently worked with cinematographers, production designers and actors from the world of feature films, including John Mathieson and Harris Savides.
Ledwidge’s cinematic film for Hovis, ‘Go on Lad’ (2008), ranked him alongside Ridley Scott, whose own Hovis ‘Bike’ commercial of 1973 is a landmark in advertising history. A 122-second film following a young boy’s journey through 122 years of British history from Hovis’s launch in 1886 to the eve of the millennium, ‘Go on Lad’ is an epic historical drama documenting seismic social and political change of the kind that Bernardo Bertolucci offered in his magnum opus 1900 (1976). Except that what Bertolucci accomplished in 317 minutes of screen time, Ledwidge delivered in just over two minutes.
Many, however, consider his two-minute ‘Three Little Pigs’ (2012) for The Guardian his greatest achievement in narrative structure. Through the public reaction to the pigs’ brutal killing of a wolf, Ledwidge examines the way new facts emerge in the social media age.
Ledwidge’s affection for his screen characters in these complex narratives is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in his acclaimed work for Audi, ‘Clown Proof’ (2017). Despite being the ‘bad boys’ of the script, the clowns are nonetheless utterly loveable as they engage in their dangerous antics to the soundtrack of Faultline’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’.
While he may be best remembered for these longer narratives, Ledwidge was a deft artisan in the distinctly different craft of the punchy 30-second commercial. His spots for Tomcat Dead Mouse Theatre (2015) are fine examples. He packs an emotionally charged story into his shocking 30-second film ‘Crash’ for the Department of Education (2004), an abrupt visceral representation of the worst consequences of drunk driving. His idents for Radio 6, such as ‘First Dance’ (2003), and Radio 1, with ‘Police’ (2000), further evidence his skill in shorter lengths.
Ledwidge’s choice of scripts expressed his personality. His first love was football. He directed more than a few expertly crafted sports commercials with the help of his long-term editor Rich Orrick, such as his four-minute film for Nike, ‘Winner Stays On’ (2014), Nike Jordan’s ‘Airborne’ (2012) and Adidas’s ‘Last Man Standing’ (2006). Another Adidas commercial, ‘Road to Lisbon’ (2004), nods to caper classic The Italian Job (1969): the two-minute film sees footballers driving to Lisbon on their scooters, stopping off to practice in forests and lay-bys along the way.
But of all his works in the sports genre, the clip that achieved most industry acclaim was the moving 90-second ode to the overlooked ‘After Hours Athlete’ for Puma (2010).
Ledwidge was a romantic. He chose stories that celebrate the simple naivety of love. ‘Rewind City’ for Orange (2009), ‘The Other Half’ (2012) for John Lewis, ‘Susan Glenn’ (2012) for Lynx/Axe are examples, several of them using a reverse narrative structure inherent to the nostalgia of romance. In ‘Getting Dressed’ for Lynx/Axe (2004), a couple move through the city to the soundtrack of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, picking up their abandoned clothes where they’d left them, before ending up, back where they started, at the supermarket. In Ledwidge’s love stories, true love comes good in the end.
In Guinness’s ‘Rain’ (2001), Ledwidge explores the playful tensions of romantic love; in his early music video for Red Snapper’s ‘Image of You’ (1998), the confusion of self that it can evoke. Feature film references to the French New Wave abound in his inversions of love stories for Stella Artois’ ‘Tunnel’ (2009), and ‘Crying Jean’ (2011) starring Adrien Brody.
Ledwidge’s passion for music expressed itself in music videos. Award-winning videos such as Travis’s ‘Turn’ (1999) are among the 200 of his videos collected by the BFI National Archive. Music also dominates his commercials and fuelled his life. His spot for Coca-Cola, ‘Wish’ (2005), echoes Baillie Walsh’s video for Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ of 1991.
His later short film accompanying Massive Attack ft Young Fathers’ ‘Voodoo in My Blood’ (2016), starring Rosamund Pike, demonstrates Ledwidge’s ability to narrate entirely through music, performance, film style and SFX without dialogue. It also shows the impact seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had on him when Ledwidge was six years old.
His film for Elbow’s ‘One Day like This’ (2008) takes my breath away, the more so because it was not commissioned as a music video. Ledwidge shot the film off his own back, cut it together and then sent it to Universal to see if there was any music it would work with. The friend offered up Elbow so, together with his editor Rich Orrick, he re-cut the rushes to fit.
In his earlier career, Ledwidge celebrated the childish silliness in all of us. His spot for Britvic Drench mineral water, ‘Brains’ (2008), featured Thunderbirds’ Brains dancing to the 90s dance track ‘Rhythm Is a Dancer’. His music video for Whale & Bus 95’s ‘Crying at Airports’ (1999) parodied a 1970s world synchronised swimming competition. Gomez’s ‘Bring It On’ (1999) mined the 1970s Central Office of Information public safety films with crash zooms, stilted performance and desaturated colour. The ironic was a recurring theme, as shown in spots like Nike’s ‘Hot Dog’ (2005) and ‘Weetabix’s ‘Jockey’ (2009), which revived the 1990s strapline “Someone’s had their Weetabix.”
As he got older, Ledwidge’s optimism in humanity grew alongside his engagement with bigger themes in social and political history. Sainsbury’s ‘Christmas Is for Sharing’ (2014) encapsulates that trajectory. Made in collaboration with the British Legion, it narrates the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 – a personal story for Ledwidge, whose great uncle, the Irish war poet Francis Ledwidge, was killed during the First World War.
Faith in the positive spirit of humanity drives his cinematic epic ‘Commencement’ for Bank of America (2020), narrated by Viola Davis. His commercial for Audi, ‘Duel’ (2016), was aired during the first presidential election debate and centres the audience’s minds on what’s worth fighting for.
For much of the last decade Ledwidge was based in California, where Rattling Stick had opened an office. He was born in Canterbury in 1971, studied graphic design at Ravensbourne before spending several years in the Middle East as a photojournalist. Both disciplines can be seen to have influenced his work through his attention to detail and anthropological sensitivity to people and their personal worlds. The single feature film that he directed, Gone (2006), is infused with that sensitivity.
By 2021, Ledwidge had mastered more film and television genres than most film directors manage in much longer careers. It’s often thought that advertising restrains the creativity of directors. But for Ledwidge it offered freedom. His death leaves a gaping hole among his family, friends and the wider industry. But for those who didn’t know him personally, this hole is plugged by the legacy he left behind: a rich, entertaining and uplifting body of work.
Emily Caston is Professor of Screen Industries at the University of West London. She was Ledwidge’s executive producer at The End where she produced his music videos for Travis, Whale, Gomez and Red Snapper at the end of the 1990s.