She’s starred in a whole host of popular shows, from Crossroads to Corrie, but decades on Nell Brennan is most remembered for making porridge sexy.
Making a burly, bearded shopkeeper blush with a little bit of cheeky flirting – and her timeless line “What kind of businessman are you, Willie Baxter?” – means Nell is still recognised almost 50 years after the advert was first screened.
She said: “I was in the shops buying a light bulb not so long ago, and a man turned round to me and said, ‘Are you the Scott’s Porage girl?’ At the time, it didn’t feel like a big job, yet it’s what I’m most recognised for.
“People say I put the ‘sex’ into porridge. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it’s not a bad claim to fame!”
So when BBC Scotland ran through the best Scottish TV ads on Hogmanay, Nell was not amused to see her Scott’s advert excluded.
“I’m not blowing my own trumpet but it was definitely one of the most iconic adverts of all time,” she said. “I just don’t know why it wasn’t on there.”
Nell, 76, who stays in Glasgow, first turned to drama in her 20s, after a man she met in the pub said she would make a good actress.
Then known as Helen Marie Therese Brennan, she signed up for a diploma in dramatic art at the city’s prestigious RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In 1973, after spotting a casting for a TV commercial, Nell auditioned – and was amazed to get the part. Little did she know that the 40-second ad would lead to her lucky break – and one of her most prolific jobs.
“I went along to the audition without thinking about it,” she recalled. “It seemed to go really well. I sensed I was a good fit and was delighted to get the job.”
Produced by RSA Films and directed by Peter Webb, Nell would star in a series of three ads for Scott’s Porage Oats.
“We filmed one in a studio at Regent’s Park. The other two were outdoors in Yorkshire – not in Scotland,” said Nell.
“They sprinkled salt on the roofs of houses as it had to look frosty, but it was the middle of summer.”
In the studio commercial, Nell plays Mrs Munro who comes into the shop with two young children and asks shopkeeper Willie Baxter for some Scott’s Porage Oats.He tells her he has a cheaper version this week, but she replies: “Were you not brought up on Scott’s Porage? And you’re a fine figure of a man? So it was good enough for you but not my little ones? What kind of a businessman are you, Willie Baxter?”
It’s this cheeky line, in her dulcet Scottish tones, that Nell has found people repeating back to her as the years have rolled on.
“It’s my voice people remember,” she said. “Willie Baxter had red hair and a red beard but the director felt he didn’t have enough beard.
“Amazingly, by chance, there were two hillwalkers nearby, one with a red beard, and he was persuaded to have some of his beard cut off – and glued on to that of Willie Baxter, to make his thicker.
“It was a right laugh. Even when I was living in London back in the day, people would stop me and say, ‘I remember you from something, you sound familiar, what have you done?’
Nell’s fleeting stint on TV spurred her on to more small-screen success.
She appeared in Coronation Street, playing nurse Sister McKinley, one of the medical staff who treated Albert Tatlock when he was gassed in his kitchen.
She starred in 11 episodes of Crossroads, as well as ITV Sunday Night Theatre, The Borderers, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Z Cars, Hazell, Angels and Taggart.
Her career stretched into radio, too, with parts in Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Senior Partner, and Joke By Joke.
She also co-wrote Know Your Place and with Andrew Palmer co-devised Radio 2 show Pull The Other One, hosted by David Frost, and featuring Ken Dodd, Leslie Crowther and Frank Carson as regulars. Nell even branched out into composing music as well as stand-up comedy under the name Nelly Bean. She paints and writes poetry as well.
But, just like Glaswegian Game Of Thrones actor Rory McCann, who was a muscular Scott’s Porage Oats boy in the late ’90s, her appearances in the cheeky ads which are synonymous with Scottish culture turned out to be her biggest break.
“That ad was less than a minute long but it turned out to be ultra-famous,” said Nell. “It was so well known Benny Hill even did a spoof on it.
“I’ve done many bits and bobs over the years but this seems to be my real peak.
“It’s nice to have something that people know you for, and I can’t think of anything better than something as iconic in Scotland as Scott’s.”
What kind of a businessman are you, Willie Baxter?
In the advert Nell Brennan plays Mrs Munro who comes into a shop with two young children and asks shopkeeper Willie Baxter for some Scott’s Porage Oats.
He tells her he has a cheaper version this week, but she replies: “Were you not brought up on Scott’s Porage? And you’re a fine figure of a man. What kind of a businessman are you, Willie Baxter?”
Often better than the programmes they interrupt, the best TV adverts have stickability and Scotland has produced some of the best.
Forget It’s A Wonderful Life, for many Scots, Christmas on-screen means Raymond Briggs’ famous, magical snowman stealing a boy’s can of Irn-Bru, before dropping him from a great height.
An office worker gives up his stressful job and heads back to sunny, leafy Scotland for a pint with his mates, to the Caledonia soundtrack. Stirs the national pride in any Scot.
“All that way just to pick up a chicken?” While Hamish thinks his wife is choosing the right bird, she’s living it up on a hen night. Great play on words.
Famous Grouse (1987)
Just Gilbert the Grouse against a white background and some music. Simple and sassy and no matter what is thrown at him, unruffled he remains.
Who could forget this classic featuring the chin-heads? A “band” of upside-down chins mime the Something So Real soundtrack. Weird but definitely one that stuck in your head all day long.
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