‘It took four hours and the soup was cold’: being the face of Cup-a-Soup

Derek Lamden recalls how he came to embody beef and tomato in the 1970s

I was going to be an actor, and for a time, I was. As a child, I was in the original West End productions of The Sound Of Music, Camelot and Babes In The Wood. In 1968, I made the film Baby Love, which starred Keith Barron and Diana Dors. I had a nude shower sequence. I remember seeing a poster for the film in neon lights in Piccadilly Circus – it was so exciting. I was still a teenager.

But actors have little control over their lives; you can wait six months for a job, and then have to take the next one that comes in even if you don’t like it. And I really hated signing on, because I wanted to be doing something, anything, in the industry.

I was one of three or four actors to go for this Batchelors advert. When your agent rings with a call like that, it’s a wonderful feeling. The shoot, at a Soho studio, took about four hours. The soup was cold, and I had to take care not to tip the cup or it would leave a stain. Otherwise, the role wasn’t too challenging. I earned about £40. My wife’s aunt, Panny, had knitted my jumper.

You never know if your photograph will be used. But six months later, we had a call from Panny. She’d spotted her jumper (before she’d spotted me) on a packet in her local supermarket. So we rushed out to buy a few for the family. It’s a surreal experience, seeing yourself like that: I was in my late 20s, and I haven’t changed much. Panny took to rearranging the shelves in any store she visited, pulling the beef & tomato to the front. She would say: “That’s my nephew-in-law, and I knitted that pullover!”

I did other commercials, most memorably an advert for the Milk Marketing Board. I had to stand on the wings of a biplane – it was filmed in a hangar, and I wore a scarf with wire in to make it fly out. I once saw it on a vast billboard in Walthamstow; it was quite a shock.

I met my wife while shooting a Babycham commercial in Bruges in 1974 (by British new wave director Clive Donner, who made The Caretaker). The advert was pretty simple: a young man and woman larking about on a canal boat with their friends and falling in love. We each played one of the friends. By the end of the shoot, we were all pretty merry; they would always give you the real product, because it’s hard to fake.

The Cup-a-Soup packet marked a turning point for me. It was one of my last commercials. Shortly afterwards, I got a front-of-house job at the Mayfair theatre in London, which no longer exists. You could say I had found my calling, because I have worked front-of-house ever since. Today, you’ll find me greeting English National Opera audiences at the London Coliseum.

I never regret not continuing to act, because I’ve stayed in the industry. I love the camaraderie, the warmth, dealing with the public and actors. Ever since doing this Batchelors commercial, I’ve drunk Cup-a-Soup, and I still do. But I don’t like beef & tomato – it’s mushroom every time for me.

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com

Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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