EVEN TV VIEWERS WHO DON'T CARE beans about their brand of coffee perk up when Taster's Choice commercials flash on the screen. In the first 45-second installment of what may become the sexiest soap opera on TV, the elegant hostess with the satiny English accent gets an emergency instant-coffee loan from her handsome neighbor, who throws in one—maybe two—lumps of insinuation. In the second episode, she returns the, um, coffee. With pulses racing—and not from caffeine—America wants to know: What next?

Sorry, any possible nightcap will have to wait for the next coffee break. "The ad people guard the story line jealously," says Tony Head, who plays the sensual savior in the spots, which are written as a serial. "On the phone they call it Project X." In other words, he and his costar, Sharon Maughan, aren't sure either. "I wait with bated breath," he says.

So do fans on both sides of the Atlantic, though the Brits are ahead of the game: Head, 37, and Maughan, 38, have been coffee-courting for four years in their native England on behalf of Gold Blend, the British version of Taster's Choice, both made by Nestlé. There, seven ads have aired. Says Maughan: "Only in the last one did we finally get to one little kiss—and that kept the nation on the edge of their seats."

In London the coffee come-ons made headlines. Even better, from the manufacturer's point of view, Gold Blend's sales jumped 20 percent—and that in the kingdom of tea—within 18 months of the ads' being introduced. Meanwhile the series has brought instant fame to the two classically trained actors. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me," says Maughan, who had once prided herself on never doing commercials. In fact, the veteran stage and television actress landed the Taster's Choice job only because she happened to be meeting a friend at the London studio where it was being cast. Maughan grew up in Kirkby, a working-class suburb of Liverpool, where her father was a mail-room supervisor and her mother a nursing-home warden. "A rough upbringing for the classy lady I play in the commercial," she says. But the actress can act what she's asked to; in a May 30 episode of Inspector Morse on PBS's Mystery! series, she even utters the (now unthinkable) line, "I hate coffee." With an eye toward doing more U.S. TV and films, Maughan recently moved to Venice, Calif., where she'll live with her actor husband, Trevor Eve, 39, and their two kids. She's savoring Hollywood's attention but says, "I wish they'd ask me about Shakespeare."

Head, too, speaks Bard and is also an accomplished musical theater performer. He played the lead in Chess, a part originated by his brother Murray, and is currently sporting fishnet stockings as the pansexual prankster Frank N Furter in the West End revival of The Rocky Horror Show. Raised in Hampton, near London, Head is the son of documentary filmmaker Seafield Head and actress Helen Shingler. Unmarried, he shares his cuppas with Sarah Fisher, 27, a former theater administrator with whom he has two daughters. Now he's discovering that sex-symbol status has drawbacks. "A workman came to the house and said, 'Oh, Gawd, my girlfriend goes on about you all the time.' And then he didn't do a very good job."

And as to wishful thoughts that something might be percolating between Maughan and Head in real life? "We're friends," says Head. "But it's a working relationship." "Honestly, I don't fancy him," says Maughan. "We're just great buddies. And he's not my type."

Where will the Java jive lead? Tune in next fall when a new spot airs—but keep calm. Says Maughan: "I don't have nudity in my contract."

TIM ALLIS
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London
LORENZO BENET in Venice

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy,
  • Lorenzo Benet.