In 1983, BT were promoting the usefulness of their Yellow Pages - already very, very familiar from the catchy 'Let Your Fingers Do The Walking' ads of the 1970s. Unlike the slender volume popped annually through your front door nowadays, the 1983 Yellow Pages was a substantial tome, at least an inch thick. There was of course no Internet. If you needed the services of a tradesman or supplier, and didn't already know of someone through personal recommendation, a directory was really the only place to look. And Yellow Pages was the directory of choice. So much so, that I was always puzzled as to why BT needed to devise expensive TV advertisements for it. For it had no effective competition. There was something called Thomson's Local Directory (still available, I think, though I haven't got a copy) but I never found it much use. Yellow Pages was the thing to consult.
I suppose that if you weren't (as I had become) a householder with jobs needing done, and tradespeople to find, then you wouldn't normally bother with a classified directory. However, BT wanted us all to be aware that Yellow Pages wasn't only for looking up plumbers. It could help with other things.
Such as finding rare books. And that's what the J R Hartley ad is about. There must have been more than one version of it, because the still pictures out there on the Internet show some variation in the actors' clothing, but this is the main thrust.
A dear old gentleman, who is clearly keen on angling, is asking about a book called Fly Fishing at various bookshops. The author is a certain J R Hartley. But he meets with no success...
He comes home, tired and dejected, clearly despairing of ever finding a copy of this obscure treatise on fishing. His home is comfortably old-fashioned. He must be a widower of some years, and has kept it as it was when his wife was alive. His daughter lives with him. She looks up from her sewing as he comes into the parlour.
She says, 'No luck, Dad?' and he sadly shakes his head. She clearly feels for him. They have a wonderful father-daughter bond - so close it makes you cry. But then she has an inspiration, and picks up Yellow Pages. In a voice meant to instill fresh hope in her father, she tells him that Yellow Pages might just have the answer. He looks at the list of specialist bookshops.
Yes! There's a shop he's not heard of before. He puts his jacket back on to make the call. (He's of the generation that treated telephone calls as unusual and very formal occasions)
Do they have Fly Fishing by J R Hartley? Oh joy! They have a copy!
Wonderful! Can he reserve it, and drop in later to pay for it? Yes! They'll put it aside for him. The name? (He tells them his name slowly and carefully, so that there can be no mistake) 'J...R...Hartley...'
Afterwards he reflects on the happy outcome with profound satisfaction.
So this lovely old man was not only a keen angler, he had actually written the book he was looking for. That's the unexpected twist in the ad. He was hunting for his own life's work, a labour of great love and distilled personal experience, published long ago and out of print for many, many years. His failure to locate even a single copy had been a dreadful disappointment. But now he will see a copy of his cherished book once more. And if you haven't yourself got a bursting heart by the end of the ad, and eyes brimming with tears, then you have no soul at all. It got to me like that.
It got to me because it was so easy to identify with the characters. True, at the time (1983) my younger brother was still around and would be for another twelve years; and I had just got married at thirty-one; and Dad was still only sixty-three and very active, with no signs whatever of imminent mortality. But it was nevertheless easy to imagine a different world in which there would be only Dad and myself, both of us rather older. If it ever worked out that Mum died first, then, who knows, I might end up looking after him - just like that Good Daughter in the ad. And perhaps we would have a similar bond. I ached to be like her.
Actually, I would do more. I wouldn't just point my father towards Yellow Pages, I'd do some detective work myself, find a copy of the book, and present it to him.
Although this ad touched my heart, I ought to make it clear that (a) Dad wasn't the slightest bit interested in fishing; and (b) he never wrote a book for me to track down. Sigh.
The ad was justly famous and highly-regarded. There was a curious spin-off. Someone wrote a book called Fly Fishing under the pseudonym of J R Hartley, and I saw it in bookshops. So far as I could judge, it was about angling - but I couldn't of course tell whether it was written with genuine knowledge or was merely a spoof.
I haven't seen it on sale for a very long time, and ironically it may now be as rare and hard to procure as the 'real' Fly Fishing by the 'real' J R Hartley!
A final footnote. Looking back, don't the eighties seem like foreign territory? I know it was thirty years ago, but that's not really a huge span of time. And yet it seems that the only 'modern' device in the TV home of the Hartley father and daughter was the landline telephone. Who nowadays would 'phone around', assisted by Yellow Pages or not? Well, I wouldn't. I'd just go straight onto the Internet and see what AbeBooks or Amazon or eBay might have. Or Google 'Fly Fishing' and/or 'J R Hartley' and contemplate the search results.
If you do that now, you're going to get up this post in your list of search results. Sorry.
But at least you will find this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._Hartley.