If you asked someone 20 years ago on a British high street to name an opera singer, they’d probably have gone with Pavarotti. But after 12 years of TV ads for an insurance price comparison website revolving around an opera performance, the answer from many today is likely to be “the GoCompare man”. Gio Compario - the curly-moustachio’d caricature of an Italian opera singer has permeated British culture, burrowing into our ears with three notes belted out repeatedly on commercials for GoCompare.
“That’s something I’m really proud of,” says Wynne Evans, the Welshman who’s been playing Gio since 2009. Before the ads he was an established tenor, singing in major opera houses around the world. Now both an audibly and visually recognisable household figure, he never guessed that his singing would become one of the most enduring features of British advertising.
Before his gig with GoCompare he had done one commercial, for Walkers crisps, providing the operatic voice of football pundit Gary Lineker. Having been introduced to adland, he was the first tenor that sprang to mind when creatives Chris and Siân Wilkins were looking for someone to sing a tune they’d written.
It was a simple, old-fashioned jingle idea: the brand name and some lyrics about what GoCompare can do to help you get an insurance deal, sung to the tune of the main hook from ‘Over There’, a 1917 song written by George M. Cohan that was popular with the US military in both World Wars. “That little hook - just three notes really - written well over 100 years ago,” says Wynne, considering the magnitude of what it’s become. He knew the tune because opera legend Enrico Caruso had sung it, which he felt gave him a bit of an edge. What he didn’t know is that he was going to be acting in the ads as well as singing them.
GoCompare was based in Newport, Wales, and its founder Hayley Parsons was Welsh too, which gave Wynne another advantage. He remembers part of her brief for the singer: “‘It would be great if he was Welsh. And it would be better if he was a bit fat.’ So job done, really!” he laughs.
Although a little out of his comfort zone dressing up in a comedy moustache and singing in an Italian accent, Wynne was at ease to be working with a team including Chris and Siân that he’s since realised are “proper icons of advertising” and, evidently, they were right to put their trust in his now-iconic voice. The original run of ads had people humming GoCompare’s jingle - willingly or not.
By 2010, Wynne’s musical expertise and professionalism was further recognised when he came on as music consultant for the campaign. At the same time, Yellow Boat Music took over the musical duties, with composer Philip Jewson and producer Paul Cartledge (PC) stepping in to move the now recognisable music on into more varied campaigns.
Wynne was soon working smoothly with Philip and PC, whose musical chops he rates highly. “It's a two-way street - there are people in advertising who are full of bullshit and people in opera who think they know everything. It was refreshing to meet somebody that is genuinely talented.” The Yellow Boat guys knew their craft and explained what they wanted from Wynne clearly in recordings. He jokes that it makes a change from ad people telling him his singing “needs to be a bit more purple”. This straight talking has blossomed into a productive collaboration. Wynne estimates he’s done 90 ads and maybe 60 different arrangements of the GoCompare song to date.
Originally, Philip remembers the music briefs were straightforward - a strong jingle to get in people’s heads. “They just wanted to be in everyone's face and getting the brand out there,” he says. The key was to always make it funny, exaggerating the jokes in the scenarios Gio found himself in by bringing in as much of the musical atmosphere of the scenario as possible.
Wynne has always been conscious of a repetitive tune being in “danger of becoming wallpaper”, but with all the variation on the theme over the years, it never did. That said, the main hook was always there. “You’ve got to have that hook that brings people back in.”
In an early run of the ads, a familiar historic or fictional scene would be set up before Gio bursts onto the scene with his operatic enthusiasm, which meant Philip had to tweak the song in its instrumentation or arrangement to suit. Highlights were a country and Western version, a Hawaiian version, a sci-fi one (Wynne loved the idea of adding a nod to Star Trek into the music), Robinson Crusoe (played on steel drums) and ads set in Ancient Egypt and prehistoric times. Each time the song would be subtly rewritten and new twists added. A version based around the legend of Robin Hood featured a medieval style trumpet call. For a Christmas version Wynne once got really excited about referencing Latin carol Gaudete, but doing it in a rock styling. The variety the scripts demanded meant the musical challenges kept coming.
“We messed around for ages,” says Wynne. “That’s one thing the brand have been fantastic about. They’ve given us the opportunity to have time to mess around.”
The lyrics were always being rewritten, the arrangements varied wildly and tempo flexed according to the tone of the film. A challenge all the way through has been Wynne’s ‘in-vision’ singing. As Philip explains, because the music is so integral to the ads. “You have to have everything absolutely nailed down before you shoot. Otherwise it won’t sync up.” This calls for a demo of each version to be recorded before each shoot, which needs to be played to keep Wynne and any other musicians on set in time during the shoot; then the master track is recorded to match the visuals of the ad’s final cut. The music is integral to the whole process. “It’s the first thing that happens and it’s the last thing that’s finished,” says Philip.
Keeping it fresh and yet keeping the key elements has taken the team to other testing lengths. At one point Philip started getting involved with the shoots themselves, making sure if there were musicians in the background they were playing correctly. A shoot involving violinists playing on the wing of a biplane meant Philip had to rewrite the music on the spot to make sure their playing fitted with the vision of director Graham Rose.
The GoCompare account has passed through the hands of various different agencies over 12 years and occasionally it's lost the music, but the idea has repeatedly gravitated back to Wynne, a core team of creatives and musical experts, and that same song, with a classical singer and a melody written during the First World War.
The Yellow Boat team look back on dozens of highlights and big moments in the evolution of the tune over the years, but the 2015 ‘Comeback’ ad stands out as a crowning achievement.
2012 had seen the first break in the singing, in response to the British public voting the ad the “most irritating”. The narrative deliberately subverted Gio by running a series of ads where celebrity guests such as Sue Barker, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Hawking lined up to "silence" the tenor.
They couldn’t keep Gio down though. The comeback ad was a real ‘getting the band back together’ moment of Wynne, Philip, PC, Chris and Siân, along with legendary director Graham Rose (who directed many of the ads over the years). “We created this tentative start with tremolo strings in the background,” remembers Wynne (singing in the restrained style of the ad over our call), before the music built and built into a tremendous epic.
That commercial eventually ended up being recorded with a 90-piece orchestra on stage for three days in an ice hockey stadium in Prague. “I think musically that one is the highlight,” says PC, “because the brief was something that is highly emotional and builds to a massive crescendo that gets everybody on board. It's like the perfect music brief.” It was also brilliant, from his producer’s perspective, to have 90 seconds to build that crescendo - a veritable epic in advertising music terms.
Wynne has always appreciated the GoCompare ads’ scope to “make things properly”, and has relished the opportunity to repeatedly work with large orchestras in cities like Prague or Budapest, rather than relying on synthesised noises to approximate things. He’s also got immense respect for his long-term collaborators at Yellow Boat. “I’m in awe of them. I think Phil Jewson’s a really talented musician. A lot of people in the classical world could learn a lot from him.”
The feeling is absolutely reciprocated by Philip: “Wynne is a consummate professional. He will come in and do it really well each time. And also he's open to interpretation; if someone's got a different idea, he will listen to that and they will take it on board and do it. I think he thoroughly enjoys it. He always tries to attend the orchestral sessions as well because he's a musician. He likes to see what we get out of it and be part of that as well. Quite often he’ll come down and just sit in the background while we're doing our thing. That's nice.”
“He's a joy to work with,” agrees PC. “It's wonderful when he turns up in the studio. I just love it when he sings. To have an opportunity to put a microphone in front of such an accomplished opera singer is a real honour. And he's just so bloody good at it, he nails it!”
As grating as many of the public might find the GoCompare ads, it has kudos in classical music circles. Composer Sir Karl Jenkins, who composed for lots of ads and even came to the attention of the broader public through an ad
, is a friend of Wynne’s. “He really respects what we do. I’ve spoken to him quite a lot about it,” he says. As have all of his opera friends. “To my face, they’ve all been really nice!” Not that he’s insecure about his credentials at all. “I’ve done my time,” he says, listing some of the world-class opera houses and top conductors he’s collaborated with in his life as a singer.
As for the public’s opinion, Wynne is well aware the GoCompare song isn’t everyone’s cup of vocal-chord-friendly chamomile tea with honey. At first he was perplexed. “I couldn’t work out why people were getting so worked up about it.” People were telling him they hated him and thought he was terrible. “What? It’s an ad!” he always thought. But, as he sees it all these years into his life as Gio Compario, “‘annoying’ is another word for ‘effective’.”
That three-note tune that Britains have become so acquainted with (whether welcome or not), doesn’t make an appearance in GoCompare’s latest campaign. 2021, it seems, is time for a ‘Bright New Tune’. In the latest ad, Wynne (as himself) sits opposite Wynne (as Gio) at a piano, introducing a new melody.
The new tune has been on the cards for a long time, recalls the singer. “And they’ve shied away from it. But now it feels really right.” The argument is, people are familiar enough with his face, his voice and the GoCompare brand now, that it doesn’t seem jarring. “You can adapt the tune as long as not everything changes,” Wynne says.
As the composer, Philip thought hard about what was possible to change about such an established part of sonic advertising history. Eventually, the rewrite softened it, introducing more melody and a longer phrase that “gave it a more interesting arc” with less repetition. There are two “GoCompares” now, he notes, and the tune modulates over the two, so there’s one to introduce and one to sign off.
The new tune languished on a shelf for some time, but with lockdown easing in the UK and spring offering positivity, the team felt it might be a good time to refresh the brand.
It’s nothing too radical. As PC says, the aim was “just to refresh it, and do it in a nice way. Everything's real - it's Phil playing a real piano, it's a real string section, Wynne is a performer - all top level people.”
In a time when advertisers are prone to idolising youth culture in a desperate bid to look relevant, there’s something reassuring about Wynne Evans’ operatic tenor voice enduring as the sound of a brand for 12 years. Whether the new tune will endure or not, Philip’s proud of the mark that Gio Compario - and the old tune that lasted so long - made on the UK: “The great thing about it is it forced an opinion - whether you liked or hated it, you still remembered it. And that's really the biggest accolade you can make of advertising. They didn’t play it safe. They knew what they wanted to do. And now everyone knows it.”