The British are coming! The British are coming! Every December for, oh, 30 or so years, that mantra has marked an invasion of sorts–not of English raiders, Beatles, or New Wave rockers–but of visitors coming to see the annual edition of the British Television Advertising Awards (BTAA). Last year alone, nearly 17,000 people sampled top-notch creativity from across the pond.
With fitting British understatement, let me say: December is a “busy” month for those of us working the Visitor Services desk. When this annual winter ritual began in 1986, we arranged for two screenings; this year, there are 67–that’s 21,105 seats to fill–and we expect, as usual, that they’ll all sell out.
The Visitor Services staff of 25 is an amazing bunch–our numbers include an international array of painters, dancers, computer geeks, poets, cinephiles, technophobes, singers, graphic designers, equestrians, bikers, seamstresses, foodies, bargain hunters, environmentalists, academics, volunteers, photographers, avid readers, designers, and world travelers–yet these evenings of incredible advertising test our fortitude and adaptability on an hourly basis. First, we have to help our eager guests, thousands of them, who are sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes maniacally, set on acquiring a ticket or the best seats in the house. We’ve seen tickets for sale on eBay and Craigslist (don’t get any ideas). But for some, those methods aren’t good enough. One wannabe attendee, facing a sold-out screening, asked if we’d checked the obituaries to see if a ticket holder had died. (None had.)
Then there’s the sheer volume of screenings. With a collective 4,355-minute span of commercials to oversee, staff members devise various ways to pass the time between shows. (The commercials are, of course, fantastic, but perhaps only when seen for the first dozen times.) For example, longtime employee John Valko took to drawing the cartoon Garfield, and has logged in thousands of renditions for our entertainment. Our ushers have been known to sing along with the jingles and, in one case, learn every step in a Transformers-like dance to perform along with one of the car ads. Additionally, given how many times we see the screenings, themes tend to permeate our non-Walker lives, haunting us even as we sleep. Max Wirsing, a three-year Brits veteran, reported a nightmare in which he was attacked by bouncing balls, a direct reinterpretation of last year’s top ad for Sony Bravia that featured literally thousands of colorful rubber orbs cascading down an incredibly steep San Francisco street.
Finally, there’s the “ Brits 5,” perhaps the most lasting memory of the British Television Advertising Awards for many of us on the front line. This refers to the five pounds a Visitor Services associate is bound to gain during the run of this popular series. Thanks to a seemingly endless supply of Pizza Luce delicacies–including the crowd-pleasing Pizza Athena and the vegetarian Rustler–the Brits Trough is a calorie-rich tradition (and therefore impossible to forget, hard to lose).
Despite all this, the British Television Advertising Awards are a cherished favorite, marking the end of yet another holiday season with an enormous batch of satisfied Walker visitors, many of whom have come for the very first time to take in monumental acts of creativity in 30-, 60-, and 90-second increments. For the smiling faces leaving the theater and the laughter that comes with the program, we’ll endure our bad dreams and pizza guts, emboldened by the knowledge that it only comes around once a year.