Roll Out the Barrel: Pubs Never Looked So Good

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A collection of documentary shorts on the British pub paints a warm, comforting picture of one of the country’s most cherished institutions. But is it a true one?

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man,” intones a voice theatrically, “by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” The quote is from Samuel Johnson and it kicks off The Story of English Inns, the first of 20 collected documentary shorts from the archive released in June 2012 by the British Film Institute.

Alas, anyone who’s ever been to a British pub will tell you that this adage conveys only half the truth. For every charming hostelry with crackling log fire and horse brasses, there are ten places where the carpet is sticky, the toilets haven’t been cleaned since George Best’s heyday and at closing time the landlord thinks nothing of unleashing the hound of the Baskervilles.

If there were such a thing as the propaganda wing of the hospitality industry, these are the sort of films it would produce. Produced between the early 40s and early 80s, they’re patriotic in a woolly way and, typically, look at Britain from the English end of the telescope, the southern end to be specific. Class is everywhere, too, in a warm, paternalistic way. The working man is an honest son of toil in a flat cap, downing a pint of wallop, enjoying a game of dominoes and bantering away in an impenetrable accent. In the lounge bar a couple of hundred miles further south, cravat-wearing extras from the Battle of Britain drink halves of warm bitter, one hand holding the handle of the dimpled glass jug, the other thrust casually into the pocket of a pair of slacks. Meanwhile, behind the bar, “mine host” polishes the glasses, smiling benignly.

Women? There aren’t many. And the few we glimpse seem to be there with their husbands. These are the decades before Breezers and brollies, when lager was still always referred to as “continental” and you could smoke yourself senseless on cigarettes endorsed, in advertisements, by doctors.

In at least two of the shorts we get a quick history of the pub’s development – first as a roadside refuge run by monasteries for pilgrims, hence the large number of religious names (Three Kings, Cross Keys). Then as a billet for the retinue as monarchs made their royal tours of the country (hence all the Queen’s Heads, King’s Arms etc). Then as an overnight sanctuary and stabling depot for travellers and the mail coach (Travellers Rest, Coach & Horses). And so on.

Timeless yet always in flux, then, the pub’s one constant is that the stranger is always welcome and that the drink is ever humble and honest. Or so the propaganda department would have us believe.

What’s particularly interesting about this collection, apart from the portrait it paints of the populace living in harmony, fraternal bonhomie radiating from every face, is the inkling it gives of the future, the world we live in now.

In The Old Pheasant, from 1958, the landlord notes how the arrival of television has made big inroads into his takings. So he’s done the sensible thing and made his pub more attractive with film nights, during which he screens old classics. Since that time quiz nights, curry nights, karaoke and, most recently, tribute bands have extended the idea. TV’s response has been the humungous cinema-sized screen, now in almost every living room in the country. Consequently the British pub is now struggling to survive.

Another big change in recent decades has been the arrival of the gastropub, and that too is reflected here, in a short called The Friendly Inn, also from 1958, which briefly takes us to the Lugger Hotel in Portloe, Cornwall, where a pretty girl and her beau are seen tucking into local lobster and a glass of white wine out on a verandah while the sun does pretty things with the waves. The Lugger is still there, incidentally, and still selling local lobster.

Being a chronological assortment, women do eventually start to turn up, as does an embryonic version of the drinks universe we now inhabit. In All in Good Time, a 1964 film in colour starring a young Richard Briers, a newlywed in a charming old-school pub in Banbury tries to get a pineapple juice for his good lady wife. Pineapple? Juice? Briers grins toothily and says it again. S-L-O-W-L-Y.

This onslaught of endless good humour is broken only occasionally – by a pair of technical short films by the brewers Bass and Guinness – and most remarkably by the collection’s standout, A Working Men’s Club in Sheffield, a 40-minute German documentary that trains an outsider’s gimlet eye on the working and leisure life of a city which still, in those days, made steel for the world.

Like most releases by the British Film Institute, this is a handsome set, the films have been cleaned up and are accompanied by a solidly researched 50-page booklet providing a summary of each film and plenty of background on the more notable.

Whether it is an accurate record of the British Pub in years gone by is highly debatable. But it is an excellent primer on the Pub at mythic level, a place where sound beer, fair play and common sense coalesce to form the beating heart of the British character, and mention is never made of the smell emanating from the gents.

Roll Out the Barrel: The British Pub on Film (a Region 0 DVD) – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

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