Re-living the Past through Advertising

The advert discussed in this essay can be found here


Over the course of the summer you may have seen a particular advert on your television screen. Advertising the Great Western Railway (the trade name of the First Greater Western Limited franchise), it presents the opportunities offered by the West Country countryside through the familiar characters of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.[1] The four children and their dog are depicted in what appears to be 1930s England complete with pickled eggs, ginger beer and leather satchels. Apart from the transport, everything around them stems from the previous century, with each location being depicted in a sentimentalised and nostalgic way. adam&eveDDB, the company behind the campaign, describe how they adopted the ‘quintessentially British quintet… to reignite people’s love of rail travel’ and recall ideas around the golden age of steam.[2] Produced as a mini episode of the Famous Five’s activities the commercial does just that; showcasing the GWR railways as a source of adventure and escape into the great British countryside.

What is most interesting about this advertising campaign, however, is that it follows the methods employed by the same company almost one hundred years ago. During the poster boom of the 1920s and 1930s, the GWR produced a number of brightly coloured and aesthetically pleasing posters which were based around nostalgic and idealised themes (Fig.1).  As in the current campaign, these posters harked back to an era of simplicity and evoked a sense of nostalgia for a safer and easier past. They presented the West Country as a space holding core British values and promoted the idea of travel aboard a GWR steam train as a means of accessing this way of life.

So why do the GWR keep pursuing these ideas of nostalgia within their poster campaigns? And, perhaps more significantly, what do these similarities tell us about our connection to the past? In this essay, I will explore these questions, identifying some of the key similarities between the GWR’s interwar posters and their present-day television commercials, and considering the reasons behind these connections.



(Figure 1) Leonard Cusden, Cornwall, (1935), Great Western Railway Lithographic Poster, Double Royal, Science Museum Group Collection online Ó, The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Accessed 14 August 2019.

In order to evoke the nostalgia of a past generation, both campaigns feature out-dated imagery presented in sepia-tinted colour schemes. In the current campaign Julian, George, Dick and Anne are depicted in clothes from the 1930s, a significant contrast to the hoodies and jeans worn by children today. Take Juilan’s outfit for example. His crisp white shirt and knitted tank top are accompanied by a smart red tie done up in a Windsor knot, while on his feet knee-high socks accompany some very sensible brown shoes. Although contradictory to the transport shown in these adverts (the trains depicted resemble the current BR class 800 model used by the GWR) these clothes are in keeping with the handheld suitcases carried by the children, and with the paper map they use to find their way across the country. This dichotomy presents the nostalgic ideas desired by the company, relating their services to those of the past.

A similar use of past fashions can be seen in the interwar posters. Whilst companies such as the London Underground were noted for the inclusion of the latest art-deco clothing in their poster designs, the GWR’s fashions appeared to be behind the times.[3] Characters of ‘locals’ were signified through traditional clothing of flat caps, waistcoats and patched trousers  (Fig. 2) and these separated the figures from the modern world. This separation was reenforced by the absence of modern technologies and objects within the posters, as modern inventions such as cars, mechanised industry or street lamps were notably absent from the works. Again such ideas linked the GWR’s services to those of the past, and this allowed the company to capitalise on its identity as the country’s oldest (and thus most dependable) rail service.

The use of landscape in both campaigns is also significant. The television commercials are filled with scenes of trains hurtling through West Country countryside and this offers a stark contrast to the modern urban world. Even when cities are included they are depicted through their oldest buildings and monuments. The characters run through the famous Roman baths when visiting the city of Bath, they visit the New Theatre in Cardiff (opened in 1906), and they stand outside the cathedral when visiting Exeter. Such imagery portrays Britain as a picturesque, green and pleasant land, appealing to idealised versions of the country.   A similar approach can be found in the company’s interwar poster campaigns. Often printed in a landscape format (a departure from the traditional ‘portrait’ poster), the works featured topographical images of the British countryside, including familiar landmarks to locate the works. As in the commercials, these landscapes were depicted through large open countryside and used imagery of bridges, streams, cottages and meadows to evoke the idyllic reputation of the countryside.



(Figure 2), Historic Totnes, (1933), Great Western Railway Lithographic Poster, Quad Royal, Science Museum Group Collection online Ó, The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Accessed 14 August 2019.

The presentation of the West Country in such a positive light is hardly surprising. Both the current GWR campaign and that of the interwar posters were produced in collaboration with the sites the adverts portray, and were therefore intended to promote these locations in the most desirable way. The  head of GWR marketing Amanda Burns described this. Burns stated that in 2017 the company worked with local tourist boards to ‘promote some of the best destinations England’s got to offer’.[4] This explains the inclusion of notable sites within the commercials such as the iconic London Bridge cliff in South Devon. Similarly in the 1920s, local authorities were used to help organise and fund the poster campaigns. Key tourists sites such as Torquay and Brixham worked closely with the GWR’s publicity committee, creating posters which depicted topographic scenes of their towns. For example, in 1926 Brixham Town Council’s Publicity Committee contributed £62 of the £124 needed for the production of a poster depicting the towns coastal bay.[5] This contribution gave the Town Council the opportunity to select which artist or painting to use for the poster (in this case Gyrth Russell), as well as the text included in the work.

The involvement of local authorities reveals a further connection between the campaigns. As well as advertising the company as a whole, both campaigns focused specifically on the promotion of the GWR as a means of leisure travel. The current campaign does this by evoking the sense of adventure and exploration offered by train travel, and attempts to present travel on the railway as part of a day trip or holiday. The interwar campaign also presented these ideas, albeit in a slightly different way. Attempting to capitalise on the company’s position in the West Country, the posters from the 1920s and 1930s emphasised the railways role in providing holiday travel, attempting to encourage the ‘holiday habit’ amongst their viewers.[6] Signs and symbols of the holiday – such as the blue sea, yellow sun and brightly coloured bathing costumes – were used to evoke these ideas, designating the locations displayed as holiday sites.  The posters depictions of rolling hills, green meadows and cliff top views were also in keeping with this. Such imagery presented an urban view of the countryside, which, according to Alun Howkins, had become a widespread symbol of a holiday at the end of WW1. [7]

But why do two campaigns produced almost a hundred years apart follow such similar approaches? To understand this, it is helpful to turn to the wider interest in the nostalgia industry, which has regained popularity in recent years. Based on ‘a view of the past emotionally laden with positive value,’ this industry uses the idealised past to sell a product, appealing to peoples desires for stability and things to remain the same. [8]

Such ideas can be easily identified in the explosion of ‘vintage’ ephemera available today in high street shops where designs of railway posters, war slogans and vintage packaging can now be bought as images on mugs, notebooks, calendars and even t-shirts. It can also be related to campaigns shared on social media, including the 2012 message which recalled the idyllic childhood of those ‘who were born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s’ as a time when ‘we ate white bread and real butter, drank cow’s milk and soft drinks with sugar, but we weren’t overweight because we were always outside playing’.[9]

A similar search for the past can be identified during the interwar period. Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin promoted the importance of Britain’s pre-industrial history in books and radio programs.[10] He claimed that Britain’s strength as a country could be traced back to its Anglo-Saxon basis, which encouraged devolution, regionalism and local independence. [11] Artists and writers also rejected the ‘modern’ style promoted during the 1910s, turning to more traditional imagery and styles as the basis of their work.

Considering the context of both periods provides a reason for these connections. Both today and during the interwar period, audiences of the GWR’s campaigns were attempting to come to terms with substantial political changes which altered the way they viewed and understood the world. The 1920s and 1930s were overshadowed by a sense of loss brought about by WW1, and were then encompassed by social disruptions (including the General Strike of 1926), growing political extremism (most notably Hitler’s rise to power), and an uncertain financial environment brought about by the Wall Street Crash and depression of the 1930s. It is easy to see parallels between these events and the country today. Still recovering from the recession of 2008, today Britain faces uncertainty in the form of Brexit and is witnessing the growth of extremist political parties both at home and abroad. These changes come at the same time as wider discussions concerning the destruction of the planet through climate change; making it inevitable that many are looking for an easier way of life.[12]

So is it any wonder that we are returning to the same nostalgic campaigns we have used before? At a time when the future appears to be uncertain, it is reassuring to view a past which we have already experienced and from which we know that the country emerged (relatively) unscathed.  The problem with these ideas however, is that the past we turn to is inevitably a rose tinted image, which ignores the problems, dangers and social inequalities which existed during this time. This is true of both the advertising campaigns created by the GWR, which present the past as an idealised vision and ignore the problems that those living through the era faced. It is therefore perhaps worth remembering that the past we admire today within our railway adverts was once one that previous generations were attempting to escape.




[1] Josh Baines, (2018) ‘Great Western Railway has recruited Enid Blyton’s famous five for new campaign’ Available at: (Accessed 9th August 2019)

[2] adam&eveDDB (no date) Work, Available at: (Accessed 9th August 2019)

[3]  Dirix,E. (2008) ‘Fashioning the Tube Women and Transport Posters’ in Bownes D and Green O (eds) London Transport posters: a century of art and design. London: Lund Humphries, pp 130-145

[4]GWR Adventures with the Famous Five – The Start of the Adventure Available at: (accessed 7th August 2019)

[5] Brixham Council Minutes, held at South West Heritage Trust Devon Archives, 3rd February 1927

[6] Lock C.S., ‘Railway Advertising. Is it on the right lines?’ Great Western Railway Lecture and Debating Society, January 1929, 3

[7] Howkins, A (1987) ‘The discovery of rural England’, in, Colls R and Dodd P (eds) Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880– 1920, London: Bloosmbury, pp 62-88

[8] Brooker, J. (2006) ‘Forbidden To Dream Again: Orwell and Nostalgia,’ English: Journal of the English Association, 55,(213), pp 281–297

[9] ‘We Was Brung Up Proper’ viral web post, 2012

[10] As discussed in Causey, A.(2002) ‘English art and National Character’ in Peters Corbett D, Holt Y, and Russell F,(eds) The Geographies of Englishness landscape and the national past 1880-1940, Yale: Yale Universtiy Press, pp 275-302

[11] Ibid

[12] Jillian Abrose, ‘UK ‘needs billions a year’ to meet 2050 climate targets’ The Guardian, 28th september 2019 (accessed Oct 2019)