THE MILK TRAY MAN
by The Chocolate Dictionary
Conceived as a very English take on the James Bond character the Milk Tray Man, who embodied elements of courtly love from a long lost age, went from being an ironic figure of fun to an iconic action hero in just one generation. In the series of TV ads that ran on British TV from 1968 to 2000, he battled sharks, raging torrents and avalanches etc. to bring his lady a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray.
It wasn’t just these brave acts that made him such a hero to women, or such a legend to men. Nor were they the only reason why his exploits were carved into the British psyche. It was also because he wore a black polo-neck sweater. Such a garment, with his physique, endowed him with effortless cool and magnetism.
These days, any man performing acts of derring-do while dressed in black, especially where chocolates are involved, is dubbed a Milk Tray Man. These latter-day Milk Tray Men have helped keep the memory alive long after the ads were discontinued. They include the personnel of a UK security company, advertising themselves as “not quite the Milk Tray advert or 007 but close”; a Lancashire-based catering company adopting the Milk Tray Man tag to emphasise ttheir impeccable service; the actors Richard Armitage and Matthew Macfadyen because of their adrenaline-filled roles in the BBC spy drama Spooks; and a host of wannabe action men, skiers, divers and rock climbers.
Former brigade commander Major General Julian Thompson recounted a Milk Tray stunt a few years after the end of the Falklands conflict. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, was attending an exercise involving the Special Boat Service, who had been tasked with storming a practice ‘enemy’ ship. The exercise, having passed off with great success, culminated in one black-clad operative stepping forward, unzipping a wetsuit still dripping with water, and presenting the Prime Minister with a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. So touched was Thatcher with the gesture, she insisted on keeping the chocolates for herself despite attempts by an aide to take them off her.
Some have said that the Milk Tray Man is but a modern version of the Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli in George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man. When one compares their exploits there are certainly some interesting similarities:
- The Milk Tray ads featured a daredevil action hero who risked life and limb to deliver a box of chocolates to his lady (mysteriously unknown to viewers). In Arms and the Man Bluntschli risks certain death at the hands of his enemies when he seeks refuge in a young lady’s bedchamber.
- In the ads, the box was often delivered surreptitiously, under cover of darkness. In Arms and the Man Bluntschli enters the lady’s house at night, by climbing through an upstairs window.
- In the ads, the Milk Tray Man leaves behind a calling card, suggesting a future connection between the them. In the play, Blunschli first appears as a stranger, then as an admirer, and finally as a suitor, with chocolates being the catalyst that keeps the chemistry going. “To my last hour I shall remember those three chocolate creams”, was his famous valedictory.
Others say the idea for the Milk Tray Man came from Hitchcock’s 1955 movie To Catch a Thief, in which Cary Grant plays a retired cat burglar prowling the French Riviera in the company of beautiful women. Again, interesting similarities with the ads can be found:
- For much of the movie, Cary Grant is dressed in black (black tie or night camouflage).
- He often puts himself in danger for a lady’s sake: speeding down dangerous roads or scampering across rooftops, for example.
- Although Cary Grant is not specifically promoting chocolates, the sensibility of the movie – the luxury, the glamour, the sumptuous surroundings, etc. – is very much in the style of a chocolate advert.
- This romantic, thrill-seeking, seductive “viceroy of suave” was a ready-made template for the Milk Tray Man in Black. All Cary Grant needed was a suggestive tagline…
We can also find Milk Tray Man elements in Jane Austen’s hero Mr Darcy. In the novel, Elizabeth acknowledges Darcy’s goodness when she says he is “the most generous of his sex”. In the movie version of Pride and Prejudice starring Matthew Mcfadyen and Keira Knightley, Darcy if often dressed in black, and in one scene he bursts into Elizabeth’s bedroom, at night, to deliver an important missive. And the description Mr Darcy – a bit sulky is, presciently, an anagram of “Cadbury’s Milk Tray”.
The Darcy / Milk Tray Man connection is reinforced by the interest shown in him by retailers, publishers and other media. In 2008 freshfiction.com ran a competition, the prize for which was a signed copy of Gwyn Cready’s time-travelling romance Seducing Mr Darcy, plus a box of Pride and Prejudice themed truffles from Dos chocolatier in New York. The box contained specially designed centres including the “Fitzwilliam Darcy” (a Dark Cognac Truffle), the “Lizzy Bennett” (a Rose Truffle), and the “Flip Allison” (a Salty-Sweet Caramel). Flip being the protaganist in Seducing Mr Darcy. In 2012, the High Street retailer M&S brought out a chocolate assortment called Exceptional Characters containing, among others, two Pride & Prejudice themed truffles: the Mr Darcy and the Lizzie Bennett. Then, significantly, the voiceovers for M&S’s 2012 Christmas ads were done by none other than Mr Darcy himself, creamy-voiced Matthew Macfadyen.
It can even be said that the man who set the template for them all, is the one who made his mark three hundred years before Fudge Dreams, Hazelnut Crunches and Orange Crèmes etc. were even invented. This is Shakespeare’s “star crossed lover” Romeo who, in a pattern familiar to us all:
- Risked his life for a lady’s sake.
- Trespassed dangerously onto the property of his enemy.
- Defied injury to climb trees and high walls to reach his lady’s bedchamber.
- Did all this under cover of night.
- Was no stranger to grand romantic gestures.
The first actor to play the Milk Tray Man, and the one most closely identified with the role, was the Australian former soldier Gary Myers, chosen for his chiselled looks and resemblance to Bond supremo Sean Connery. Interestingly, Myers shared the same theatrical agent (Scotty’s, in London’s “Bond” Street) as fellow Australian George Lazenby, who played 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Although Lazenby never played the Milk Tray Man, many people believe he actually did. This is because he was so close to the spirit of the Milk Tray Man. Not only was Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service filmed in Switzerland, the spiritual home of milk chocolate; not only did the Swiss locations allow Lazenby to demonstrate his prowess on skis, just like the Milk Tray Man in the ‘avalanche’ and ‘cable car’ ads; but Lazenby actually did act in a TV ad for chocolate – only it wasn’t for Cadbury’s Milk Tray, but Fry’s Chocolate Cream.
Is it significant that Timothy Dalton, who played 007 in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, was inspired to become an actor after taking part in a school production of Arms and the Man? Maybe, after seeing all the ads, he thought he could bring a Milk Tray element to the Bond role?
The ads are remembered with considerable fondness, but try finding out more about the Milk Tray Man and the results are at best confusing or, at worst, contradictory. Wikipedia states there were nineteen ads in total, with the man-in-black being played by six different actors. In fact there were twenty ads – though even that figure is disputed – with the role being played by seven different actors. Yahoo records the actor Ross Champion starred in eleven ads, whereas he didn’t feature in any of them. There are internet forums claiming Brummie biker ace Arthur Browning acted as a stuntman in one of the ads, riding a trial bike across rough terrain before jumping over a ravine to deliver the box of chocolates. Yet none of the Milk Tray ads ever featured a motor bike stunt.
Research by The Chocolate Dictionary reveals there were twenty ads in total. Each mini-adventure is documented here, with the year or decade in which it was shown, the name of the actor who played the Milk Tray Man, and any trivia that may be of interest to fans of the ads.
THE NIGHT TRAIN
Year or decade when first shown: 1968 Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: He leaps from a bridge onto a speeding train and clambers dangerously along the roof. He finds his way to the lady’s sleeping compartment where, taking advantage of her absence, leaves a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray and his enigmatic calling card. Next we see him jumping onto the side of the track and disappearing into the night.
Trivia: The original ads were created by art director Norman Icke of Leo Burnett, an agency known for its use of strong masculine archetypes (Leo Burnett also created the Malboro Man ads). The copywriter was Bob Stanners, Norman Icke’s creative partner, and the one who came up with the famous “And all because the Lady loves Cadbury’s Milk Tray” tagline. The enigmatic calling card, featuring the silhouette of a man in black posing James Bond-style, is the one feature that remains constant throughout the series, except for the last one where it appears the lady was already expecting the Milk Tray Man’s visit. The theme music, composed by Cliff Adams, was called The Night Rider, variations of which are heard in most of the subsequent adverts. This ad was filmed on a now closed section of the Meon Valley Railway in Hampshire, between Alton and Farringdon. The moving train onto which the Milk Tray Man jumped was a British Rail diesel locomotive with two carriages. Irish hunk Martin Grace was the stuntman who did the leaping.
THE HELICOPTER DROP Year or decade when first shown: 1960s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: Driving a speeding sports car, the Milk Tray Man stands up and grabs the skids of a helicopter overhead, before being transported to the lady’s island house. Once there, he drops down and delivers the chocolates to her bedroom, then takes a speedboat from a nearby jetty to make his dashing getaway.
Trivia: The stunts were also performed by Martin Grace, recognised at the time to be one of the best stuntmen in the business. Famously, he stood in for Roger Moore’s 007 in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy.
THE DOCKSIDE ENTRY
Year or decade when first shown: 1960s
Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: The action takes place at night, as it does in most of the ads. The Milk Tray Man leaps onto the top of a passing goods truck, and outwits the security guard to get into a dock. There he grabs a nearby crane to swing onto a ship before sneaking into the lady’s cabin, and leaving the box of chocolates on her bedside table.
Trivia: Another one in which Martin Grace was the stuntman.
THE MOAT SWIM Year or decade when first shown: 1960s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: Our irrespressible action figure leaps onto a passing truck from a cliff above, then jumps from the truck into a moat, before swimming to a castle where he secretly delivers the chocolates to the lady’s bedroom.
Trivia: Not until the last few ads was ‘the lady’ actually seen. Up until then all viewers got was a glimpse of her elegant hand and lacy cuff, as she caressed the Milk Tray Box appreciatively. In one of the ads the hand belonged to Oliver Reed’s wife, Irish beauty and freelance model Kate Byrne.
THE E-TYPE JAG Year or decade when first shown: 1970s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: He daringly drives an E-Type Jag at high speed through a heavy thunderstorm, leaps across a wooden bridge that is just about to collapse into a churning torrent below, then makes his way stealthily into the house where, in typical Milk Tray Man fashion, he leaves the chocolates in the lady’s bedroom.
THE MUSEUM THIEF Year or decade when first shown: 1970s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: He enters a museum through a skylight, takes the box of Milk Tray that is exhibited there as a valuable art object, then delivers it to the lady’s bedroom, in a house we do not see, before making his escape along a narrow, high up ledge.
Trvia: This ad is believed to be a tribute to the original Mission Impossible series that was very popular at the time.
THE AVALANCHE Year or decade when first shown: 1974 Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: The Milk Tray Man is skiing very fast down a mountainside thickly covered in snow. A sudden bang triggers off an avalanche. He skis even faster to escape the crashing snow, flies over a cliff then skis off to the lady’s hideaway, where he leaves the box of Milk Tray.
Trivia: By the mid-1970s the Milk tray ads had become so popular Waddingtons brought out the Man in Black board game. In this, players could become the Milk Tray Man himself and compete against opponents, overcoming landslides, avalanches and floods etc., to deliver the chocolates safely. In the year 2000 the Avalanche advert was selected to represent all the early Milk Tray ads for the Sunday Times and Channel 4, 100 Greatest TV Ads survey, where it came 48th. A similar survey in 2005, ITV’s Best Ever Ads, saw the ads rise to 11th position, demonstrating how much momentum they still have. The voiceovers to the Milk Tray ads were mostly anonymous and unknown. But in this one and in two others, it was supplied by none other than the rich, creamy tones of Peter Wyngarde, an actor so camp his friends called him Petunia Winegum. Famous for playing the womanizing spy in the series Jason King, his delicious voice was once described as “chocolate for your ears”.
THE MAFIA YACHT Year or decade when first shown: 1978 Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: He zooms across the waves in a speedboat, knocks out a fuel jetty guarded by dark suited mobsters, which then goes up in flames, before swimming over to the Mafia boss’s luxury yacht, where he climbs on board unnoticed, and secretly leaves the chocolates in the lady’s cabin.
THE CABLE CAR DROP Year or decade when first shown: 1981 Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: Lighting a flare to guide his way in the dark, the Milk Tray Man skis down a mountainside and grabs onto a passing cable car. When the cable car is struck by lightening and stalls, he drops into the ravine below and skis to the lady’s chalet, where he delivers the little box of Milk Tray, as always, “All because the lady loves Cadbury’s Milk Tray”.
Trivia: It was this ad that caused all the confusion over whether it was George Lazenby, who played 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or Gary Myers, who played the Milk Tray Man.
THE CLIFF DIVE Year or decade when first shown: 1980s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: The intrepid and determined Milk Tray Man dives off a high cliff into the sea then swims through shark-infested waters to a schooner anchored in a bay. He climbs aboard, prowls around below deck, leaves the chocolates in the lady’s cabin (on her bedside table, as usual), then makes his way back up top from where, memorably, he dives into the sea with a dagger clenched between his teeth. Sharks are seen swimming menacingly nearby.
Trivia: Probably the best liked and most iconic of the Milk Tray ads, it was filmed in the Blue Grotto, on the island of Gozo, near Malta. The dive was performed by veteran stuntman and best “height faller” in the business, Alf Joint, who unfortunately broke his shoulder in the process. Alf also doubled for Sean Connery’s 007 in Goldfinger and, in the movie redolent with Milk Tray associations, did the stunts for George Lazenby’s 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This ad was another of Peter Wyngarde’s creamy voiceovers.
THE LONE WOLF Year or decade when first shown: 1980s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: The Milk Tray Man is seen running through steep woodland, being chased by a wolf, though he displays no hint of fear. He swings across a rope-bridge to escape the wolf’s snarling teeth, then makes his way to the lady’s house where he leaves the chocolates, not in her bedroom, but in her sitting room. Catching sight of a roaring log fire he knows it won’t be long before she’s back, so the Milk Tray Man makes his getaway by jumping into a deep river, and swimming off into the distance.
Trivia: Peter Wyngarde did the voiceover to this one too.
THE DESERT CASTLE Year or decade when first shown: 1980s Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: In a nod to the Turkish Delight ads being shown at the time, where the action took place in the Arabian desert (though in all likelihood, probably shot on Formby sands), in this ad the Milk Tray Man is a lone horseman galloping towards a desert castle. The fort is being attacked by a band of raiders but he uses this as cover to enter unnoticed. Once in, he hurries down the stone corridors to find the lady’s bedroom, where he leaves the box of Milk Tray on her huge bed. He then uses a rope to escape over the walls, removes his Arab disguise, and gallops away into the far yonder.
THE WATERFALL Year or decade when first shown: 1984 Actor: Gary Myers
Summary: The man-in-black drives a speedboat, still one of his favourite modes of transport it would seem, over a collossal, foaming waterfall. After ditching the boat, he swims across to an impressive mountainside schloss. After depositing the little purple box of chocolates, as he has done on so many occasions before, in so many different locations, he takes to the boat again, opens up the throttle and speeds away across the lake.
Trivia: This was the last one in which Gary Myers played the Milk Tray Man. The schloss in this advert was the neo-romantic Neuschwanstein castle, built in the second half of the nineteenth century by King Ludwig 11 of Bavaria.
THE SKYSCRAPER Year or decade when first shown: 1987 Actor: James Coombes
Summary: The Milk Tray Man is on a building site in downtown Los Angeles, atop a half-finished skyscraper. In his hand is a remote control device. He presses a button and a nearby crane swings towards him. When it gets close enough, he steps onto the large hook, presses another button, gets taken over the building site and then drops neatly into the apartment of the lady, where leaves the box of Milk Tray.
Trivia: This ad is remembered for its hint of erotic frisson. Not surprising considering it was directed by Adrian Lyne, who went on to make movies such as 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, all known for their portrayal of sexually charged characters. It is also remembered for the extra touch of irony that came from having James Coombes play the role. For Coombes onced played a bigoted French politician, who dies after eating a poisoned chocolate, in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot called The Chocolate Box. James Coombes said he never received any free samples for doing the Milk Tray ad, and (soiler alert!) the box used during filming didn’t even have any chocolates in it anyway.
THE STOWAWAY Year or decade when first shown: 1989 Actor: Ged Allen
Summary: The, by now, unstoppable Milk Tray Man stows away in the undercarriage compartment of a private jet, on its way to an exclusive Caribbean island. En route he sneaks into the passenger compartment, leaves a box of chocolates for the lady, then jumps into the sea before the plane comes into land.
Trivia: Like Gary Myers before him, Allen used to be a male model. He got regular work wearing polo-neck sweaters for fashion catalogues, and it was probably this that made him such an obvious choice for the Milk Tray Man role. The stuntman was Wayne Michaels, who once doubled for Pierce Brosnan’s 007, and is famous for jumping off the 220m high dam in the opening sequence of Goldeneye; a jump that was voted the best movie stunt of all time.
THE TROPICAL STORM Year or decade when first shown: 1992 Actor: Graham Rogers
Summary: The Milk Tray Man is seen flying a helicopter through a tropical storm, when it’s struck by lightning. But he’s a very skilled piloy, and manages to control the machine long enough to be able to deliver his precious cargo – a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray – to the lady, who lives in a remote hilltop plantation house. The jump-cut camera shots reveal her illuminated in between flashes of lightning, dancing in a white, see-through dress.
Trivia: Graham Rogers was another Milk Tray Man who used to be a model. He once graced the pages of British catalogue retailer Freemans before being whisked off to the sunnier and more interesting setting of the Jamaican jungle. Evidently an actor with the classic touch, he also appeared in one of the famous Turkish Delight ads as the dashing sheik who falls for beautiful desert maiden. The belief is that this ad, filmed in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, was a tribute to 007 creator Ian Fleming, whose own plantation house (Goldeneye) was located in the same area. This is the first Milk Tray ad in which we see more of ‘the lady’ than her elegant hand.
THE WHITE SWEATER Year or decade when first shown: 1993 Actor: Jonathan Cake
Summary: After delivering the box of Milk Tray, the man-in-black returns to his own apartment which, as an emphasis of his masculine credentials, is full of phallic-shaped sporting equipment. Waiting for him there is her gift to him – not a black polo-neck, but a white sweater. A hint, perhaps, that it’s time for him to soften his action-hero image.
Trivia: One of the many roles smouldering Shakepearean actor Jonathan Cake went on to play after filming this ad was the caddish Jack Favell in a TV adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. In the Cake version, there was an echo of the Milk Tray Man’s relationship with the unknown ‘lady’ of the ads, when it was intimated that Favell was having a secret affair with the (unknown) first Mrs de Winter.
THE FELINE PREDATOR Year or decade when first shown: 1997 Actor: Mark Keller
Summary: A feline predator is seen padding through some patio doors before moving towards a staircase. Upstairs the intruder slips into a room where, on a double bed, lies the bait: a box of Milk Tray. Now revealed as a brunette in black evening dress, the feline intruder reaches for the box. “Hello Tiger,” purrs a voice from the shadows. It’s him, the updated Milk Tray Man, her captor, whom she sees when she turns round. He closes the bedroom door. Unafraid, she dips her manicured fingers into the chocolates and pops one into her mouth. He watches her with anticipation, waiting for the moment to pounce. Or maybe waiting for her to pounce.
THE THEATRE Year or decade when first shown: 2000 Actors: Ben Porter and Sienna Guillory
Summary: Ditching his trademark black polo-neck in favour of a black jacket and white shirt the Milk Tray Man uses his wits instead of death-defying stunts to get to ‘the lady’. Faced with tight security at a glitzy film premiere, he dupes the doormen by shouting a “Scream if you love Tom Jones” diversion to get himself in. Once inside he finds his way to the starlet’s dressing room. There he puts down the box of chocolates and, just as he’s about to leave behind his famous calling card, she spots him, likes what she sees, and purrs, “Where do you think you’re going?”
Trivia: In a radical reworking of the formula, this was the first Milk Tray ad in which the lady had an active role, and only the second in which any of the actors had a speaking part.
THE NICE PACKET Year or decade when first shown: 2000 Actors: Ben Porter and Jemma Kidd
Summary: As in the previous ad, and in keeping with his softer image, the Milk Tray Man is back in a suit as he calmly walks through an open French window, into a comfortably furnished house. It would seem the lady was expecting him for, just as he’s about to hand her the chocolates, she calmly turns around, smiles, and says knowingly “Nice packet”.
Trivia: This was the last Milk Tray Man ad in the series and, although there have been rumours of a new mini-adventure being filmed, nothing more has come to pass.
In the end the Milk Tray Man didn’t go out with a bang but with a whisper. No longer considered relevant in an age when women are quite capable of buying a box of chocolates for themselves thank you very much, or buying them for each other, his tough heroics were first softened up with some added romanticism, then finally washed away in a complete role reversal when the lady started doing the chasing. With the original Bond concept now null and void, “Love with a lighter touch” became the new tagline and the Milk Tray Man vanished from our screens forever.
In a Guardian article, social commentator Toby Young wondered who on earth was spreading the lie that “girls are less interested in muscular alpha males than they are in Sensitive New Age Guys”. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before women were missing both the Milk Tray Man’s dash, and his fondness for grand romantic gestures. Many wished he’d never been taken away. Former “It girl” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson wrote that any woman would be impressed if a man dived off a cliff, then swam out to a yacht to bring her a box of chocolates. “If a man abseiled into my bedroom,” she confessed, “I’d give him more than a Milk Tray. I’d jump on him!”
Even Julie Birchall, in her own words a “hardcore feminist”, railed against a dearly loved icon being cruelly terminated by “puritan regression”. There were a lot of things a man might do to make her angry, she fumed, but going out of his way to bring her chocolates, then leaving as quietly as he had come in, was not one of them.
So what became of the “James Bond of confectionery”, who had been such an inspiration, such a British institution? Did he take up a second career as a security guard as some have suggested? Isn’t that what spies and special forces do when they find themselves surplus to requirements? Or did he, as others have indicated, take a leaf out of the Black Magic Man’s career plan, and become a lounge bar crooner, schmoozing his way through Caribbean cruises and upmarket retirement homes?
Unsurprisingly, given the paucity of information about his whereabouts, conspiracy theories have flourished. There’s the one that has him being bumped off by a hit-woman from Weight Watchers, after decades of futile dieting, and constant temptation from the Milk Tray assortment, had left her totally frustrated. Another, slightly more believable theory, has him being thrown from a castle wall by a jealous Lord, returning early one night to find a black polo-neck sweater, and his wife’s lacy white blouse, strewn across the bedroom floor.
Perhaps Kraft, the new owners of Cadbury, will apply the Sherlock Holmes treatment and bring the Milk Tray Man back to life. No longer a James Bond manqué, he’ll emerge new and invigorated. He’ll be transformed into a Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer character, able to deliver chocolates to even more improbable and out-of-reach locations: a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a safe house in Switzerland so secret not even the CIA know of its existence. Or – and this really would be the updated version – after skillfully evading satellite surveillance, and high-tech security systems à la Enemy of the State, we’d finally see him eating Milk Tray with his lady. Preferably, the two of them would be together in a huge bed, blissfully enjoying the sweet assortment – oh, just an intimation of course – post-coitally.
Do you know more about these ads? Please email me at: chocolateboat [@ sign, no gaps] gmail.com if you have anything you’d like to add or subtract.