'I haven't been spat at on the street yet by angry Morrissey fans'
Neil McCormick meets Amelia Warner, the singer whose cover of the Smiths classic has become the Christmas TV ad hit of the year
You may remember Joe O'Shea writing in these pages last week about the Christmas ad that has divided viewers straight down the middle.
Yes, we're talking about the John Lewis department store chain in the UK, whose TV commercial features a cute child waiting impatiently for Christmas, while Warner's dreamy version of The Smiths' 'Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' plays in the background. So far, so mawkish.
The ad has had an extraordinary reaction. Since its launch on YouTube last week, it has been viewed more than a million times. Messages flared across the blogosphere describing scenes of uncontrolled weeping, with people declaring it the most moving TV ad ever. But there has been a simultaneous backlash at the transformation of a sorrowful ballad of existential despair into a paean to consumerism.
"I haven't been spat at by Smiths fans in the street," smiles the beautiful and demure Amelia Warner, who sings the song on the ad. "I've had a few people being furious at me on Twitter, saying, 'How dare you?' But I haven't done anything to the original. I think you'll find it still exists."
Warner, predictably, loves the ad. "It's really simple, quiet and restrained. At this time of year everything is so shiny and loud and bright, and everything on television is just wacked up to this kind of screechy, crazy hysteria. It's nice to have a little serenity."
It also has the potential to make Warner a star. At 29, the London-born singer is known as Slow Moving Millie, a name friends gave her because she took so long to get her music career started. Although she has been playing piano and writing songs since she was a child, she started gigging only last year. However, you may have seen Warner before. She has been an actress since she was talent-spotted in a school play. She won the title role in a BBC version of Lorna Doone at 18, and has appeared in a dozen movies, including Quills, Aeon Flux, Winter Passing and Alpha Male.
She was even, very briefly, married to our own Colin Farrell, in a teenage, five-month whirlwind romance. But by her mid-twenties she had decided acting was not for her.
"It wasn't fulfilling. You have no control, there is no responsibility, you go to the audition, and you either get the part or you don't -- that's as much choice as you have.
"Then a year later you see the end product and you can be in a completely different film from the one you thought you were making. It started to get really frustrating. At least with music, you can write a song and it exists in the world, even if no one hears it. That's lovely."
Warner composed soundtracks to short films and put out an independent EP last year. One of her songs, 'Beasts', was used in a Virgin Media ad, which helped secure a deal with Island records. To beef up her live set, she started playing covers, which has turned into an album, Renditions, featuring low-key interpretations of 80s hits including Bananarama, the Thompson Twins, Yazoo and Tears For Fears (released on December 12).
"I was born in the 80s and grew up with this music, but the decade was so unforgiving to songwriting. It was all huge synths and electric drums and weird sounds. It was interesting to turn that on its head and get at the song underneath."
The Smiths' song, however, is performed straight. "It is so perfect I wouldn't have the audacity to change it. I connected a piece of myself to it; it just resonated, something came through."
To her joy, the composers have approved her version. "Morrissey said it was delightful, and Johnny Marr thinks it's great." This may be the thing that has most upset Smiths fans: that their heroes would allow their classic to be used in such a commercial fashion.
"Did all the Smiths' fans get their albums for free?" retorts Warner. "Did Morrissey send them out personally? No, they went into a shop and bought them, and he made money from that, and now he lives in a nice house in LA. I don't see how this is any different."