Over a baffling 35 years, starting in 1968, a faintly emetic television ad campaign ran in Britain in which an oily action hero in a black roll-neck jumper would jump off cliffs, steward helicopters through storms, dodge sharks and charge speedboats over waterfalls in order to deliver a woman a box of supermarket-standard chocolates. “All because the lady loves Milk Tray,” explained a silky, Received Pronunciation voiceover at the end of each commercial, sounding terrifyingly like a dubiously acquitted, aristo sex pest commentating on the netball.
Viewers never got to see the recipient of the chocolates, only a tantalising glimpse: a couture-sleeved, Chanel-braceleted arm reaching out for the calling card placed on top of them. But we can safely assume that, with the acute diabetes and obesity still to set in, she was all corn-fed, Vaseline-lensed Bond-girl allure and come-to-chaise-longue eyes. In fact, it really tested viewers’ credulity as to why this sophisticated pheromone-fountain of a woman would be wooed into sexual submission by a boxed stack of plastic trays full of nasty hazelnut swirls and chocolate strawberry sundaes, however much peril their libidinous courier had put his stunt man through.
Even more curious than that, though, was the supernatural proficiency with which Milk Tray Man managed to carry off the roll-neck in a way that was simultaneously so right and yet so wrong. He was either the epitome of debonair majesty or a sartorially inept buffoon, depending on any number of factors ranging from the day of the week to the setting of your TV’s contrast knob to the extent to which England had made a hash of the last Ashes series.
In fairness to the Milk Tray Man, the roll-neck — or ‘turtleneck’, as it’s referred to in the U.S. (‘skivvy’ in Australia) — is notoriously hard to pull off, and it’s probably perspicacious for us non-fictional types planning to tread the right side of a thin sartorial line to examine its history, which is itself fraught with ambiguity. Round, neck-hugging collars that fold over go back to 15th century Europe, possibly beyond. The Elizabethan ruff can probably be deemed its distant relative, and the Tudors seemed to have the same struggle with it as contemporary men (ruff size alone was a quagmire, as satirised in an episode of Blackadder II in which the eponymous arch nobleman played by Rowan Atkinson tells his friend Lord Percy that he resembles “a bird who’s swallowed a plate”).