British Arrows Greatest Hits bring welcome warmth via the Walker Art Center

British Arrows Greatest Hits bring welcome warmth via the Walker Art Center

“I thought they were going to be depressing,” my partner said with relief when our preview screening of the British Arrows Greatest Hits wrapped up.

Her concern wasn’t unfounded: the Arrows, formerly known as the British Television Advertising Awards, have had some harrowing years as the U.K. ad industry honors public service announcements designed to increase seatbelt usage, or inspire donations for cancer research, or reduce the prevalence of knife fights (an almost quaint aim from the perspective of the gun-crazy United States).

This year, though, the Arrows have reached into their archives for 80 minutes of nearly pure pleasure: a selection of funny and warm, or at worst wistful, clips from the awards’ multi-decade history. The Walker Art Center has long had a close relationship with the Arrows, teaching generations of globally-minded Minnesotans to make the annual screenings an Anglophilic holiday tradition.

With everything disrupted, this year the Arrows are going virtual, and the Walker’s Virtual Cinema is streaming the Greatest Hits from November 19 through January 4. At $12 per household it’s an easy choice to replace a night watching whatever Netflix coughs up for Christmas.

This isn’t the first year the Arrows have plumbed their vault; for the awards’ 30th anniversary in 2016, the presentation opened with a chronological presentation of past highlights, a few of which are reprised once again here. (You wouldn’t want to omit the iconic Cadbury gorilla.) This year, though, the calendar goes on shuffle as we zing back and forth across the years to enjoy some of the most creative, heart-warming, eye-popping ads to ever have been honored.

The resulting presentation hits all the pleasure centers that Arrows fans have learned to prime. There’s the comically reverent beer ad (a 2002 spot for Stella, natch), the special effects spectacular (a 2007 clip for Bravia that doused an entire housing complex in splashes of liquid color), the cute animal clip (remember #DancePonyDance, from 2013?), the historical pageant (a 2009 mini-film in which a boy carries a loaf of Hovis through the entire 20th century), and of course a John Lewis Christmas advert (this one from 2012, with an eye-moistening twist ending).

If you’re an Arrows regular, of course you’ll find that one of your favorites has been omitted (I’ll forever stan the PG Tips sock monkey), but you’ll also be reminded of a classic you’d forgotten (He-Man and Skeletor dancing dirty, anyone?). Warning: you’ll also be reminded that flash mobs used to be a thing.

The presentation concludes with a handful of ads made in recent months, during distancing compelled by the coronavirus pandemic. Needless to say they’re creative and charming, but the best of them has Snoop Dogg gyrating on a packed dance stage while he raps about the food delivery service Just Eat — a poignant reminder that what we’re bound to be most nostalgic for this holiday season is the ability to be together in real life.

Until we can do so safely, though, screens will have to suffice, and if anyone knows how to make good use of screen time, it’s the people who have to pay £1,000 a second for it.

Jay Gabler