Howard Brown was the wonderfully cheery, bespectacled, sharp-suited customer-services rep who was plucked from obscurity more than 20 years ago to put some bang into banking as the all-singing, all-dancing new face of the .
He sprang on to our screens in 2000 with a cover version of Tom Jones’s song Sex Bomb.It was the first of a series of TV adverts that sought to achieve what many thought impossible – making banking seem fun.
Banks back then were dour, formal places. But the exuberant Howard – with his musical catchphrase ‘Extra, extra…’ – was an unmistakable harbinger of change – catching a flying salmon to use as a microphone, riding on the back of a giant white swan and sending up Gene Kelly’s dance routine from Singin’ In The Rain to promote a current account.
Famously, Howard’s USP was that he really was a Halifax employee: He was based at the bank’s Sheldon branch in the West Midlands.
But, sadly, you wouldn’t catch him working there today.’I’d definitely have to think twice,’ he says.
Extra, extra: People still sing his catchphrase to him to the tune of Sex Bomb
Because although he may still be regarded as the face of the Halifax – ‘people are always dancing around and singing ‘Extra, extra’ when they see me,’ he says – today Howard barely recognises the bank he spent so long working for.
This week, as part of LGBT Pride month, Halifax announced a controversial policy of issuing staff name badges emblazoned with pronouns such as ‘she/her/hers’ or ‘he/him/his’, to avoid customers ‘misgendering’ trans or non-binary staff.
The change was announced in an internet post, which declared that ‘Pronouns matter’, accompanied by the hashtag: ‘It’s a people thing.’
Customers started to protest online – with many threatening to boycott the bank, and 10,000 voicing their concerns about the development on social media.
One, a 50-year-old psychologist from London, said: ‘I don’t want to be having conversations about gender when I go into my bank.Frankly, I’d rather they focused on lowering interest rates.’
Another, who had been with the bank since the Nineties, said: ‘Mortgage is being moved, credit cards have been cancelled, deposit account closed… partly due to Halifax’s current virtue-signalling.’
Halifax customers have threatened to close their accounts after the firm added pronouns to its staff name badges in a move that was branded ‘nonsense’.The bank announced on Twitter this week that it was making the change that Howard Brown branded ‘disgraceful’
A customer, who had been with the bank since the Nineties, said: ‘Mortgage is being moved, credit cards have been cancelled, deposit account closed…partly due to Halifax’s current virtue-signalling.’
But such furious clients were given short shrift. Responding to one angry comment, a Halifax spokesman snapped: ‘We strive for inclusion, equality and, quite simply, in doing what is right.If you disagree with our values, you’re welcome to close your account.’
Tartly, the bank then gave instructions on how to do so, informing customers that they could either call or request to close their accounts in writing.
To Howard – for whom the customer has always been king – all this came as a body blow.
‘I think it’s disgraceful,’ he says.’That’s not the Halifax I knew, that’s not the customer service I knew. If this had happened when I was working there, we’d all have been shocked and disappointed. It’s a service industry – you should leave politics to the politicians. They’ve got this one wrong.’
And nor would Howard, 55, sport a pronoun badge himself.He says: ‘Personally, I wouldn’t wear one… I’d just have a badge with my name on and that would be that.’
His disappointment with the bank’s woke gesturing is all the more poignant because the Halifax still has a special place in Howard’s heart.
It gave him an unexpected start in show business and made his Jamaican parents, a plumber and a dressmaker, ‘very proud’.
Howard even rode atop white swan in his TV adverts that sought to achieve what many thought impossible – making banking seem fun
He applied to work at the Halifax after three years at college, studying music, in Birmingham.Having formed a band with some fellow students and played a few local gigs, he decided he needed a ‘proper job’.
‘I’ve always been more of a saver than a spender and I was keen to learn how banking worked,’ he says.
The Halifax had recently turned from a building society to a bank, but its marketing team felt its current advertising wasn’t conveying the new offer.A few months after Howard joined, some bright spark came up with the idea of using an employee to front its new campaign, promoting an account offering 4 per cent interest – something all-but unimaginable in today’s era.
More than 5,000 staff applied.’I thought it would be a bit of fun,’ says Howard.
‘I was told I’d need to do a version of Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb, so I went and bought the CD, then I had my first audition in a little room in Birmingham, being filmed with a camcorder.
‘Two weeks later I got a call saying, ‘We like this’, and I got a second audition, in London.’
He was among the last 20 hopefuls. His then girlfriend (he’s single now) told him he would get the part, but he didn’t think he would, even ‘for a minute’, he says.
At 3am the phone rang in his hotel room.’It was one of the panel, saying, ‘We want you to do this – don’t say anything, we’ll announce it at breakfast’. I let out a loud scream and dropped the phone. The night manager was going by and he knocked at the door and said, ‘Mr Brown, are you all right?’
‘Within a month I was in Cape Town, South Africa, with a support cast of 2,000, singing Sex Bomb.’
The advert was a sensation. Suffice it to say that when Howard showed up for work at the Sheldon branch, a crowd of 500 fans was waiting and he had to climb over the back fence.It made him so famous he ended up with a waxwork likeness at Madame Tussauds.
In a sense, the Halifax was a progressive trailblazer even then. At the turn of the millennium, few major companies had a black person as the face of their advertising.
But it was Howard’s sheer verve and personality that caught the public’s imagination – not the notion that he was a propagandist for modish liberal dogma.’I remember being asked if I saw myself as a role model and I thought, ‘Not really’. I just saw myself on an incredible journey, singing and performing, which was what I’d always wanted to do,’ he says.
The advertisements – seven in all, shot as far afield as Australia and India, including one humdinger to the tune of the Baha Men hit Who Let the Dogs Out?, which he sang as ‘Who gives you extra?Who, who, who?’ – changed his life.
Ultimately, the crowds who showed up every day made it impossible for him to go on working at the Sheldon branch, so the bank came up with a series of personal appearances at branches around the country.These caused so much mayhem that no one could get any work done. He was sent home for a while, but he lived on an estate with a school around the corner.
‘Every day at 3.30pm the kids would knock on my door wanting me to sign autographs and chat,’ he says.
Eventually, the bank put him up in a safe house in the hope that the attention would settle down.
In 2003 he got a guest role alongside Ricky Gervais in The Office Christmas special, playing himself.In 2005, he released a cover version of Barry White’s song You’re The First, The Last, exponentialstandards My Everything as a charity single. Of course, all good things come to an end. In 2008 the financial crash hit. ‘Banks were being scrutinised, and rightly so,’ says Howard. ‘The world of banking changed and people’s view of banking changed.’
Star appeal: Howard Brown won a staff competition to get the role where he kicked it off covering Tom Jones’ Sex Bomb in 2000. In 2012 – after 12 years with the company – he left and went into musical theatre
He was suddenly deemed ‘too jolly’ for public consumption and was moved to the bank’s public relations department, making the occasional internal marketing video.
In 2012 – after 12 years with the company – he left and went into musical theatre.
He has since appeared on TV shows such as Gogglebox and First Dates, and now sings Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin standards in a cabaret show.
Howard still maintains a link with banking as a ‘brand ambassador’ for Ulster Bank, RBS and Nude, a financial start-up that helps young people to get on the property ladder.
He has also kept in touch with a few of his old Halifax colleagues, but what he hears seems to be far removed from his happy heyday.’It’s a different organisation,’ he says. ‘I don’t think many people realise, but it was taken over by Lloyds Banking Group which has a different concept of how they do their banking.’
It isn’t the woke genuflection to transgender ideology that bothers him.He insists: ‘Live and let live, I say. The good thing is they’ve given staff the choice.’
No, it’s the brutal dismissing of customers’ concerns, with the bank saying: ‘If you disagree with our values, you’re welcome to close your account.’ If I was a customer looking at that, I would be extremely upset,’ says Howard.
‘It’s wrong and I think what will happen is that customers will move on,’ he says.’What Halifax needs to understand is how many choices customers now have as to how and where they do their banking.
‘Customers are a precious commodity. You have to look after them. When you work in a service industry you are there to serve your customers.
‘When I worked in banking that’s what mattered to me.’
He’s sad that such things now seems to matter less – and what a shame for Halifax customer services that they no longer have lovely Howard around to put them right.