Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The soaking man

When I was a small child, I thought there was a man who lived in a flooded house, with the water coming up to his chest. But he was very neat so he always dressed up, although he also got his shirt badly stained.

This man was known as l’uomo in ammollo, the soaking man. The soaking man was always going on about this bet he made with his wife. His shirt was very dirty. Wine, tomato sauce, grease. Such stains were once impossible to remove. But not anymore, thanks to a laundry detergent called Bio Presto.

Soon the original soaking man was replaced by a new soaking man whose name was Franco Cerri. He featured not only on the television ads but also in full colour in magazines.

The soaking man entered hour homes every night during Carosello (literally ‘Carousel’), a popular prime time show consisting solely of advertisements, mostly in the form of skits of varying duration. Some of these recurring skits are classics of Italian entertainment, including the wonderful La Linea, a character that starred in a series of stand-alone cartoons but was mostly known for his role in advertising Lagostina pots.

The comedy of Carosello was often of the surreal variety. But nothing was quite so strange – to me at least – than the soaking man.

Why was this man submerged? Where did all the water come from? What did soaking man do all day?

Bio Presto was a detergent for your hand-washing. But later they introduced a variety for washing machines.

There was a big generational gap in Italy when it came to washing machines, and I caught the tail end of it. Older women didn’t trust them. My mother bought my grandmother a washing machine. But my grandmother only used the washing machine when my mother came to visit, every second weekend. Otherwise, she washed everything by hand in the big stone laundry basin at the back of the house. I know because sometimes I spent the week there, especially in summer, in-between parental visits.

The sloping front of the stone laundry basin featured a sculpted surface with dents that acted like a washboard. My grandmother didn’t use Bio Presto though. She used big square blocs of Marseilles soap. She trusted Marseilles soap.

The soaking man was trying to sell to Italian housewives a more technologically advanced form of handwashing. Bio Presto isn’t a laundry detergent, he explained. It’s a bio-detergent. It washes clothes biologically.

The television ads included an animation showing how the enzymes of Bio Presto lifted the stains off the material, which greatly fascinated me.

The slogan of the ad campaign in all its iterations was non esiste lo sporco impossibile, there is no such thing as a stain that won’t come clean.

When they introduced the version of Bio Presto for washing machines, in the late 1970s, the ads became even stranger. The soaking man lived inside the washing machine now. But I was older so I was less fazed. Good on the soaking man, I may have thought.

The most famous soaking man was Franco Cerri who – this is also quite strange – was one of the premier Italian jazz guitarists of the last century. He’s still alive, actually. He’s 92 years old. During his very long career, he played with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday, with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan and Stéphane Grappelli, with Buddy Collette and Gorni Kramer, who discovered him in a club in Milan in the late 1940s.

But true fame came to him via television. Carosello had an audience of 20 million. Half the country. For at least two generations of Italian children, bedtime was 9pm, or ‘after Carosello’. So everyone knew the soaking man and the ‘little man of Lagostina’ and all the other characters that populated those ten minutes of nightly television – every day of the year, except for Good Friday and the 2nd of November – all paid for by commerce, and often by multinationals (Bio Presto is a Henkel product). All so they could sell us groceries.

I don’t feel the slightest bit of nostalgia. But if I think back quite hard I can briefly reach for the sense of bafflement I felt whenever I thought of the man who lived in a flooded house.