Welcome to our special Easter blog! Next up in our series of special shape blogs is the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny, one of the most loved UK hot air balloons during the 1990s!
Read about the design and build at Cameron Balloons, flying alongside Rupert Bear at Southampton, a charity Red Nose Day tether at Hyde Park and much more. Written by Creative Director of Virgin Airship & Balloon Company at the time, Mark Lockwood. Including original hand-drawn visuals from 1992!
Advertising was different back in the 1980s and 90s.
Birmingham based sweets manufacturer Cadbury’s were already famous for some of the overtly choc-erotic nature of their advertising for brands such as Flake and Milk Tray, when onto our screens oozed a very vampish, Marilyn Monroe inspired cartoon bunny girl. Long before Jessica Rabbit, there was the Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny. With her slow sugary velvet west country ‘come hither’ drawl, voiced by actress Miriam Margoyles, hooded dreamy eyes and pink bow, she won the hearts of millions by inviting us to ‘Take it Easy with Cadbury’s Caramel’.
I had been in discussions with Cadbury’s for quite some time, and invited their director of marketing, Paul Taylor, to join me for a flight early one idyllic Saturday morning in the bunch of carrots balloon we were operating for the telecoms brand Rabbit. Launching from the grounds of Madeley Court hotel in Telford, we drifted gently along the valley of the River Severn, over the World Heritage site of Ironbridge and landed in the grounds of a stately home, where I happened to know the owner. Paul was converted and, to the later delight of all the girls in the office, handed over a huge goodie bag of chocolate products!
The call came literally a couple of days later and I headed off to Bourneville, the traditional home of Cadbury’s, and met with Paul and a number of the brand managers. Caramel had just gone through a logo and packaging re-brand and, due to the success of the TV advertising campaign, was a rapidly growing part of the portfolio. Once I had an idea of how the new brand must be presented, it was back to the ranch to dig out the magic markers. Ideally, they just wanted a flying product replica but this was not going to be viable due to their proportions and shape. I immediately realised that Miss Bunny would be the ideal brand icon and started thinking in that direction. Getting the most important detail of her face was pretty straightforward and worked out very quickly, but the representation of the product bars still had me stumped. As we very often did, we began bouncing ideas around in the office whilst sitting at my regular position in the operations hot seat. Sipping tea, Mike Kendrick was casually leaning on a filing cabinet opposite me. Relaxed. Standing on one leg with the other crossed and resting on his tip toe. It was a ‘Eureka’ moment!
As soon as I had the concept of the pose, it was then just a question of merging the basic shape with two vertical 90 degree opposing bars and getting her to lean on them and appear suitably demure and relaxed. The visual came immediately with very little need to refine the basic shape. I added some of the other characters from the cartoon as these would help hide some of the potentially awkward interfaces, particularly around her feet. A quick trip back to Bourneville to unveil the concept design to the client, which was met with satisfying enthusiasm, and a green light literally 48 hours later. Now it was up to Cameron Balloons to bring her to life.
Multiple trips down the M5 to Bristol and long meetings with the production team and the designers soon had the technical side worked out as the inner structure of the main body was based around a known form as used in the Forbes Fabergé Egg. The addition of her head and ears was made easier with the choker and bow as a strong link between effectively two balloons as the head was almost the same size as a one-man cloud hopper envelope in itself. Dave Boxall had to work on the integration of the bars and how to remove as much of the inner panels and baffles as possible without compromising the structural strength of the whole balloon as this would keep the overall weight down to realistic levels. It’s one of the perennial problems with special shapes as, the more complex they become, the more inner fabric baffles and formers are needed to retain the shape. Although the rip-stop nylon used for making hot air balloons is comparatively light and very strong, the sheer volumes needed to create these huge flying machines adds up and it was not uncommon to encounter envelopes weighing in at 450kgs and more. That needs a lot of people to handle, which bumps up the operations cost, and also needs many Velcro sealing rip panels to allow the air trapped inside to escape on landing. The main volume of air would be released using two large one shot sealed panels in her back and the back of her head so it would be down to the skill of the pilot to gauge the approach to landing, just using the natural cooling of the air inside the envelope, and then hit the rips at the right moment to deflate.
The first speed bump in the build process was a question of colour. None of the standard colours in the Cameron swatch resembled the body of our big bunny so it was necessary to order a specialist batch from Carrington the manufacturer. There is a minimum 5000 square metres quantity needed for a special dye batch and, as we needed nearly 4000 square metres to build her, it made sense to buy a whole run. After a wait of a couple of weeks to get the fabric to the factory, the construction could begin. On average it takes 12 to 17 weeks to build a special shape and we needed to make sure she would be ready for a planned busy summer season. Once she was completed, there was only one indoor venue capable of handling such a tall balloon inflation and that was the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. On a cold and frosty morning, a convoy of shivering balloonists arrived and wrestled the huge amount of fabric out of the bag, which warmed everyone up nicely, and hit the fans. It became immediately apparent just how big she was! When inflated and standing fully upright, her ears nearly reached the roof of this huge hangar and this was a 10 storey building!
This was also the first chance for the chosen pilot, Kevin Johnson, and the crew to get to grips with the material and start to work out an efficient handling routine. All shapes are different, and each has its own little foibles particularly when it comes to inflation and deflation. With dozens of balloons in the stable, we had pretty much standardised the way we operated so that any crew could go out with any balloon and be completely familiar with the equipment, even down to the way it was stored and packed in the trailer. There were always exceptions of course and the bunny presented a particular set of problems purely due to her sheer size. A standard 90,000 cubic foot volume balloon envelope weighs in at around 70 kilograms and the bag it comes in is about 1 cubic metre, which can be carried easily by two people and dragged by one. Miss Bunny was 380 kilograms and her carrying bag was about 8 cubic metres!
Laying out and setting up was relatively easy and we soon found the best way was to leave the envelope bag in the trailer attached to the sides with straps. The basket and burners were set up, laid down and then hooked up to the flying wires and the vehicle driven forwards slowly with one of the crew monitoring how the material was pulled from the bag. After that it was a standard inflation process. Packing up, however, created a problem. Once all the air had been squeezed out and all the fabric gathered into a long ‘sausage’, the objective is to pack it back into the envelope bag starting at the top. The more you pack into the bag, the heavier this gets and the harder to move. Similarly, the amount of fabric still lying on the ground is equally heavy and back breaking to try and haul into the bag. We solved this with a series of webbing straps similar to the ones used to secure the fuel tanks into the basket. After getting all the air out of the envelope, the crew would wrap these straps around the bundled fabric at approximately 5 metre intervals. Each 5 metre section of balloon only weighed around 50 kilograms and the straps gave the crew something to grab and lift each ‘blob’ of fabric and stuff it into the bag. In this way we got the deflation and packing away process down to a realistic 45 minutes with just a crew of 4. It is still hard labour and, if you want to work with special shapes, you need to find some strong friends. Or a team of gorillas!
Having taken delivery and worked out how to wrangle this huge beast, the next task was to find out how she flew and get those all-important photos for press releases. On a beautiful spring morning in Telford, she lifted away from the idyllic grounds of the Madeley Court Hotel and drifted gracefully over the Shropshire countryside. Kevin, the pilot, radioed back to us in the camera balloon that she was incredibly responsive and flew perfectly. We were later to find out that she was also a very well behaved Bunny when there was a little wind and amazingly good when tethered. Her tall tapering shape, smooth surfaces facing the wind and the chocolate bars on the downwind side meant she remained very stable and simply leant over until the bottom of the bars touched the ground. An excellent result for a hard working commercial shape!
Second task was to show her off to all the staff at the Cadbury’s factory in Bourneville. They have a nice open green in front of the old Victorian red brick building and we set up secretly one weekday lunchtime without anyone in the factory knowing, as this was where many of the workers would come and take their lunch break. Little did we know that her appearance would create such a buzz that the entire workforce downed tools and came out to see her, shutting down several production lines! That got me a ticking off from senior management followed by a congratulations as she obviously impressed everyone. Now it was off to reveal her on the unsuspecting general chocolate loving public.
The balloon festivals had been dominated the previous year by the arrival of the equally huge and impressive Rupert The Bear balloon, flown by the legendary Steve Kinsey and operated by our professional rivals, Flying Pictures. Don’t forget these two behemoths were twice the height of all the standard balloons at the events and dwarfed the field. A few years previously, it would have been considered impossible to fly anything on this scale, particularly for the day in day out needs of commercial aerial advertising. With his skills, and often some downright balls of steel, Steve proved this could be done and pushed the boundaries of what we believed were the limits of operational ability. His work allowed us to think bigger, bolder, and further outside the box and many exciting shapes have been born because of his experience.
Photo: Clive R Martin (flickr)
Photos: Ballooning Pictures UK
Visitors to Southampton Balloon and Flower Festival that year were treated to the sight of both balloons launching simultaneously and a friendly rivalry was immediately struck. One of the largest crowds I have ever seen at Bristol Balloon Fiesta were also the lucky witnesses of this amazing flying ballet between the Bear and the Bunny. Someone suggested that it would be great to see the two darlings of the balloon events kiss however the commercial differences between the two brands and the highly competitive nature between the two operating companies were never going to let this happen…officially! At every event the two balloons either launched at different times, too far apart or even from different fields, until Northampton Balloon Fiesta two years later. The weather conditions on the Sunday evening were ideal and, despite launching from two different arenas, Steve Kinsey in Rupert and Kevin Johnson in Miss Bunny used their incredible flying skills, using only the steerage available to them at different heights, slowly edging the two balloons closer and closer in the sky until we saw the infamous aerial kiss! This was immortalised by brilliant Northampton based balloon artist Mark Pacan in a painting and reproduced as prints and postcards.
When we were approached by Comic Relief to organise something for the Red Nose Day charity appeal, we thought long and hard about what could make a significant impact and the idea of organising a tether, or possibly even a flight, from Hyde Park in central London was floated. This was not going to be easy. I reached out to an old friend and associate, Jules Wigdor, who had worked with Virgin for the record breaking flights across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and who I had previously sent to some far-flung corners of the world to project manage difficult balloon projects, and enlisted his assistance. The first issue was the nature of Hyde Park as this was Royal turf but managed on behalf of the Crown by Westminster City Council. Add to this that the chosen area near Marble Arch and Speakers Corner was just inside Heathrow Airport air traffic control zone, who were notoriously anti-balloon, and this was going to be a delicate negotiation.
Numerous visits to Westminster City Council, each time moving slightly higher up the food chain, we eventually presented to the chairman and the committee, outlining all the measures we would have in place to protect and keep secure their precious hallowed ground. Their biggest concern was the weight of the vehicles and trailers as directly below where we proposed to tether, was an underground car park and they were concerned with the stress on the roof. We had prepared for this and had already had meetings with the park engineer’s office, and it showed that the pathways were perfectly able to support the weight of the number of vehicles we were proposing. We had an access plan, distribution plan, operations plan, security plan, hazards plan, crisis plan and even a plan plan! It took some serious persuading however we were delighted when the final word came back down the chain that we were being granted special permission, based on our plan. Once that vital piece of paper had been secured, it was off to a meeting at Scotland Yard and securing the permission of the Metropolitan Police. Once again, the plans were presented, pored over, perused, discussed, negotiated and finally approved as the distance from the road did not impinge on the law regarding advertising billboards in London at the time.
With all these in place, the final hurdle of applying for a tether permission via the CAA could begin. Our relationship with the General Aviation department at the CAA was very good as we always strictly followed the rules and, as the site was a Royal park, we had a tacit possibility that a certain member of the royal family might be attending and that trump card was the winning hand. With full approval from the CAA, Heathrow ATC could not veto as we followed the rules to the letter and we were given the vital permits required, so a NOTAM was issued. My ultimate plan would have been to actually fly out if the winds were right on the day as all we needed was a southerly that would allow the balloons to exit the control zone, climb to 1500 feet and fly to the north safely under the ‘Terminal Manoeuvring Area’. This was needed to be cleared over the radio with the tower on the day and we equipped one of the balloons with a transponder just in case. Fingers crossed.
In hopes that this was all going to come together, we also proposed and got client approval to make a little modification to our beautiful bunny, the addition of a cute red nose! I was worried this was going to mean some significant re-build work, but in the end it turned out to be a relatively simple task as it was high on the envelope and fed with quite a lot of internal pressure. The new nose simply attached by Velcro over the top of the existing one and a vent opened into the main volume and inflated perfectly.
The weather forecast for the day was almost as good as we could have hoped for and the convoy of approved vehicles duly lined up at the designated gate on Grosvenor Avenue to be met by the parks police escort and moving, with hazard lights flashing, at the agreed maximum speed of 5 miles per hour along the designated pathway to the secure barriered tether space we had laid out the previous night. Vehicles and trailers had to stay on the pathway and balloons and baskets carried to their inflation spaces on the grass. The cars formed a network of upwind tethers as the wind was the hoped for southerly and a nice stable 5 knots. Downwind tethers had initially created a problem however we had laid in a network of 100 metre tether lines tied off to the line of trees at the edge of the park leading to a number of steel load rings that all the balloons could attach to so that no vehicle needed to touch the precious green stuff.
At the designated time, the line of balloons inflated with Miss Bunny standing tall in the centre of the line-up and must have looked amazing to all the commuters and bus bound tourists fighting their way around Marble Arch and along Park Lane. A gaggle of celebrities, including the boss, and paparazzi also appeared from the Grosvenor House Hotel and we hosted countless photo opportunities throughout the afternoon. The wind conditions were absolutely perfect for a fly out and we would have been clear of the Heathrow CTA within 5 minutes of launch, heading for an area of the city with plenty of open green spaces for landing so I made the call to Heathrow tower as arranged. I was met with a terse and definitive “NO!” It was a Top Gun moment: “Sorry, the pattern is full!”
Ah well, so we stayed in the park and carried on into the evening, at which point the dreaded call came that we needed to be prepared for a ‘visitor’. I met with the protocol and security guys first, who were very polite and proper ex-military types, and they explained the right and correct way to be presented to a member of the royal family, which didn’t bother me much as in my experience they are actually pretty down to earth in an informal situation. Prince Edward duly rocked up, pressed the flesh, asked the usual whuffo questions had look around and wandered off again. Singularly unimpressive.
The tether finally ended and, after packing up and getting all the vehicles back out under escort, we were all invited back to the Grosvenor House by the Red Nose organising team and plied with delicious warming tomato soup!
Of all the balloons I have had the privilege to design and operate, the Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny has to be one of my favourites. She was cute, friendly, operated beautifully and stood out wherever she went. Personally, I tethered her at the Black Horse April Fools Meet in Great Missenden one year in less than perfect conditions and she was one of the easiest balloons to fly. At the end of the contract, she sat on the shelf at VABC and there were discussions had with Cadbury’s to possibly replace the head or even just the ears as they had become quite porous after 3 hard years of flying and it would have revitalised her.
Photo from 2014: Stu Carr (flickr)
Unfortunately, after I left the company, an order was given for her to be cut up and destroyed, specifically to remove the complete chocolate bars from the envelope as the brand had been updated yet again and these no longer complied. Cadbury’s have since also gone through some significant changes and are now part of Mondelez, a global corporate food brand and, sadly, I doubt we will see the like of her again.
She lives on in the memories of the millions who had the chance to see her in the flesh, or should that be nylon, and ‘Took it Easy’!
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