For tea enthusiasts throughout the UK, the tagline “That’s better. That’s Tetley” has long been associated with the delicious taste of Tetley Tea. Tetley’s tea heritage has been producing delicious cuppas for over 180 years! This tea also evokes the memory of the Tetley Tea Folk, a whimsical crew of characters that represent the tea brand.
Since 1973, animated versions of the Tea Folk — including Gaffer, Sydney, Tina, Gordon, and Maurice — have been appearing in Tetley advertisements. However, after 28 years of loyal service, the Tea Folk made their last ad campaign appearance in 2001.
The abrupt absence of the Tea Folk massively impacted the Tetley Tea brand. Tea sales declined less than a year after their campaign ended. Fans also mailed their complaints to Tetley. Over 10,000 of these inquiries reportedly asked where the Tea Folk were and when they would return.
The decision to ax the Tea Folk was quickly reversed by Tetley. In 2010, Gaffer, Sydney, and the rest of the crew made a delightful comeback to audiences that joyfully welcomed their return. The Tea Folk comeback is a wonderful example of the impact that beloved brand mascots have on consumers and how consumers can keep these characters, and their legacies, thriving through the decades.
Learning to Animate the Original Tea Folk Campaigns
Who better understands the Tea Folk than the animators that worked on the brand’s original campaigns? I spoke with animator and illustrator Richard Ollive. Ollive spent 15 years of his career animating the Tea Folk and looks back at the job with fond memories.
A graduate of the Chelsea School of Art, Ollive discovered he had a talent for animation when he was nearly 30 years old. He began painting backgrounds and quickly found himself employed full-time at Dragon Animation. Ollive learned everything about the craft of animation from Sergio Simonetti, the gifted animator that also ran the studio. He spent the first 10 years of his career animating through what are now considered old school animation techniques. Animation was done through hand drawing on paper, hand tracing and painting on cell, and shooting against watercolored backgrounds frame by frame on a rostrum camera.
Ollive recalls that in 1986 or 1987, he was head-hunted to replace Tony Cattaneo at the animation studio Wyatt Cattaneo. This was the studio that animated and produced the Tetley Tea Folk commercials. Cattaneo was the studio director and had plans to retire at the time.
The plan was for Ollive to act as an understudy and understand how to retain Cattaneo’s clients when he had gone. Some of these clients included Ribena’s Ribenaberries, Country Life Butter’s The Buttermen, and the Tetley Tea Folk.
“I sat at a desk next to Tony’s and worked closely with him for the next two years,” Ollive says, reflecting on the immense presence of Tony and his partner Ron Wyatt.
“Tony was a giant within the industry. He had a quite spectacular gift in that everything he drew or animated had enormous charm and was in itself an expression of his personality. Ron was an elegant, tougher, equally charming man. He was probably one of the best animation directors you could meet, so the two of them were a very formidable partnership. I learned an enormous amount from them both.”
Cloth Caps and Carpet Slippers: the Tea Folk’s Humble Look
In 1990, Tetley announced the launch of new round tea bags. The launch was a huge deal for the brand, and for Ollive who took over animating the Tea Folk from Cattaneo.
One aspect of animating the Tea Folk that Ollive always enjoyed were the outfits. The original creators of the Tea Folk, copywriter John McGill Lewis and art director Peter Rigby, had given the male characters distinct looks. They wore cloth caps on their heads and carpet slippers. It made the Tea Folk instantly recognizable as factory workers.
“The cloth caps showed they were good old-fashioned, down to earth working men,” Ollive explains. “Their carpet slippers showed they enjoyed the comforts of domestic life. Their blue overalls showed they were factory workers that made tea bags by hand, and their pristine white coats demonstrated the cleanliness of their working practices.”
Gaffer, however, would always be dressed a bit differently. Instead of the workers’ overalls, Gaffer wore a tie and waistcoat. This indicted he was the leader, or boss, of the Tea Folk!
Changes for the Tea Folk
As societal life began to change in the United Kingdom, changes came for the Tea Folk — and life at Wyatt Cattaneo.
Tetley shifted Tea Folk development in the 1990s to be less about the characters as a workforce and more about the cast of individual characters. Each member of the Tea Folk, including Maurice, Tina, Gordon, Gaffer, Sydney, Archie, and Clarence, had their own personality. The animation also moved toward a more Disney-esque style. Ollive describes this as a “massive relief” as he had expertly been tutored in this animation style by Simonetti.
Following Tony Cattaneo’s footsteps. Ron Wyatt decided to retire in 1993, That same year Wyatt Cattaneo closed its doors.
Ollive then opened Richard Ollive Animation for business. His studios were in Golden Square, situated between Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street. He continued animating for the Tetley Tea Folk and Ribena’s Ribenaberries, keeping up with the changes in production methods and expanding his activities as an illustrator. Ollive took over all artwork associated with the Tetley Tea Folk. This included designs for tea towels, story books, and children’s puzzles. He even did designs for a fairground teacup ride and Tetley bus sides.
Occasionally, Ollive found ways to introduce a certain “autobiographical” element into his Tetley ads. The house in the ‘Lovely Day’ Tetley ad is actually inspired by a real home.
“In the ‘Lovely Day’ ad, for example, Maurice comes down the front garden path of the Tetley House and leaps into the air above the front gate,” Ollive says. “I painted the house, front garden, and gate of the terraced house where I lived as a child with my grandparents!”
Tea Folk “Retirement” and Comeback
By 1997 and 1998, Ollive had begun making Tea Folk commercials in Australia. Upon news of the Tea Folk’s “retirement,” he continued to make Australian versions of the UK advertisements for another two or three years.
The popularity of CGI swiftly changed the advertising animation landscape. The Ribenaberries were converted to CGI and ad animation became intermittent at best. By 2009, Ollive was old enough to retire and discovered that he probably already had retired without realizing it.
Due to growing demands from fans to bring back the Tea Folk, Tetley relaunched the characters in 2010.
Ollive was able to animate five new ads. The new commercials were treated as live-action films with animation added in. While he was no longer the director, Ollive was thrilled to see the Tea Folk return.
“They came back exactly as I had last been drawing them,” he says.
The Joy of Animating the Tea Folk
Since his Tea Folk animation days, Ollive has retired again and moved to the country to be near his grandchildren. Ollive shares the story of his diagnosis with terminal cancer, and unexpected remission, on his website. At the time of writing this, he is also receiving his second COVID-19 vaccination shot. He is in good health and good spirits, particularly when reflecting upon his work for the Tetley Tea Folk.
“When people I met for the first time asked what I did for a living, they seemed thrilled enough that I was an animator. When they discovered I drew the Tetley Tea Folk, it was like being a celebrity,” Ollive laughs. “I think, at that time, the Tea Folk and other advertising characters really were stars of a kind, so their glitter rubbed off on me!”
“The Tetley Tea Folk genuinely were an icon of the working class — which was my background, too,” Ollive says. “I can’t tell you how proud I was to have this work. If there was or is a pleasanter way of earning a living than making TV commercials in the 1980s and 1990s I’d love to know what it would be!”