Showing two fins to the namby-pamby quangos

Pity the poor goldfish. All it wants to do is swim aimlessly, before dying overnight. But now it finds itself evicted from its natural habitat by the BACC, carps Iain Murray

You would know that face anywhere. Even refracted through a vitreous globe, the features are unmistakable. The tumbling, pre-Raphaelite curls – a striking combination of Shirley Temple and Nicole Farhi – the cherubic grin; the youthful complexion; the limpid eyes. Yes, by jingo, it’s Trevor Beattie, variously described as guru, genius, and wunderkind, but undeniably creative director of TBWA.

And what is he doing, gazing through a goldfish bowl as the photographer snaps away? Why, he’s doing what he does best: he’s selling. Selling himself, his agency and his client McCain, maker of potato chip substitutes. (Accept no substitutes.)

Skilfully as ever, Beattie has turned a misfortune on its head and made of it an opportunity. And when that opportunity sank, he turned it, too, into a coup and, for extra solace, exacted a spoonful of revenge.

The television campaign for McCain depicts a series of life’s minor tragedies – an overflowing bath, a lost mobile phone ringing in vain, a park bench, paint still wet, awaiting an occupant – all of which are assuaged (and if you believe this, you’ll believe anything) by an oven chip. Now it so happens that Fate, who is not without a sense of humour, chose to pluck from her quiver a minor disaster and lob it into Beattie’s own goldfish bowl – or rather the bowl occupied by his pet goldfish, Frank. No one knows for sure how Frank came to meet his maker (the autopsy was inconclusive), but when Beattie arrived at his office, the fish was floating lifeless on the surface.

We will gloss over the affecting scene that ensued. Suffice to say goldfish and owner – the bonds that united them for five years broken – parted company, the one with a tear in its eye, the other with a fishy expression.

But Beattie is nothing if not a practical man and, obsequies duly observed, he resolved to immortalise Frank in the next McCain ad – a heaven-sent combination of dead fish, ersatz chip and another of life’s little setbacks. However, when the script was submitted to the Broadcasting Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), there was another setback. The ad, said the BACC, was unacceptable because the conventional bowl depicted was a distressing environment for a goldfish.

Even when Beattie summoned logic to his side, pointing out that the fish in the bowl was dead and therefore beyond the reach of distress as experienced by mortal creatures, the BACC would not budge. The bowl was unfitting for a piscine occupant, dead or alive. Very well, said Beattie, we shall suggest death. The revised script featured a newly vacated bowl, a fish-net on a table and the sound of a flushing lavatory.

At which the BACC pursed its lips still tighter. No good, it said: the sound of a lavatory flushing might upset children.

Bewildered, exasperated, and bloody furious, Beattie decided to expose the stupidity and stubbornness of the regulator to the outside world. It made an entertaining story, but that, of course, is all it made. Quangos are as immune to ridicule as they are to reason. Regulators tend by nature to be obtuse and inflexible. Rules and regulations, often drawn up with the best of intentions, emerge, when filtered through the bureaucratic mind, as refined drivel. Regardless of whether a bowl is, or is not, a satisfactory environment in which to keep a goldfish united with its soul, it is nevertheless a pictorial convention, a kind of visual short-form. Just as desert islands are about three yards across and have a single palm tree, and dogs eat long bones with a ball joint at each end, goldfish live in bowls. Everyone knows that and no harm is done. But try telling it to a quango.

Yet, if nothing else, the tale of Frank the fish shows Beattie’s unerring ability to grasp the zeitgeist. Just as his tacky creation of FCUK, on behalf of a chain of haberdashers, caught the mood and gave thousands of brutish New Brits the opportunity to spit in the face of petty bourgeois morality, his goldfish motif is strikingly contemporary.

Only last week, the Liberal Democrat conference voted to stop goldfish being offered as prizes at fairgrounds. Just a few weeks earlier, fish concern was again in evidence when a diner at a Devon restaurant complained about live goldfish being kept as a gimmick in see-through cisterns in the lavatories. An RSPCA inspector said the fish probably suffered distress during flushing, but no physical harm.

The restaurant’s owner, Paul Da-Costa-Greaves says most customers enjoy the spectacle. He has an answer for those who don’t: “One lady wasn’t happy. She said the fish looked distressed. I said: ‘They’re a lot happier than that John Dory you’ve just eaten’.”

But the final gasp and slowly rising bubble must go to Trish, Britain’s longest-living goldfish, who earlier this year passed away peacefully at his home in Yorkshire at the remarkable age of 43.

His legacy deserved to be more enduring, since his life was one long defiance of bureaucratic bone-headedness and liberal-left sentimentality. For not only did he live out his phenomenally long life in a goldfish bowl, he was also won at a fairground. Trish lies buried in a yogurt carton at the bottom of his owner’s garden. I suppose a fitting epitaph would be “FCUK You”.

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