Whatever happened to the theme pub?

Sherlock Holmes pub, London.
One thing all the beer and pub writers from the nineteen-sixties and seventies agree on is this: the theme pub is an abomination and a terrible threat to the ‘proper’ pub. Derek Cooper’s The Beverage Report (1970) has a whole chapter on them.

You only have to turn your back on a pub for a few days now and it has undergone some bizarre transformation. A bewildered beer-drinker sent me this sociological note: ‘A pub that I once knew well was called the Kentish Horseman. Imagine my surprise this week to find it has blossomed out under the name of The Escape. The motif: RAF escapes. The walls are hung with with such trivia as flying uniforms, photos of renowned escapers and Mae Wests etc, etc…’

He also lists pubs themed around the wild west, the roaring twenties, medieval minstrels, torture dungeons, vikings, sailing ships, Kon Tiki, trawlers… you get the idea.

A handful of theme pubs still exist. The Sherlock Holmes on Northumberland Avenue in London is one we’ve visited and it’s not so bad, the Victorian theme happening to overlap quite nicely with what we’d expect of any pub. Penzance has a couple of very ‘piratey’ pubs, as it happens. There are also plenty of international Irish, Australian and German pubs.

Other than these odd freaks, though, the theme pub didn’t really have legs. They were presumably expensive to fit out, each requiring unique design work, and at the mercy of changes in fashion. (The Roaring Twenties are out and the publican is stuck with an oil painting of Al Capone.) At some point, they were given the heave-ho, and the theme for most pubs became ‘pubbiness’: brown wood, sepia-toned prints, ‘useless shelves’ and Victoriana, even in buildings less than thirty years old.

But… is ‘craft beer’ a kind of theme?

Picture by Matt from London, via Flickr Creative Commons.

24 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the theme pub?”

  1. They opened a ‘new’ Irish bar in Nottingham at the end of last year. Never let it be said that we’re not cutting edge up here. 😉

    1. You could say that every Irish pub outside of Ireland was a theme pub! When in the US, I really had to work hard to persuade my American friends that I did not want to go to their favourite Irish bar.

  2. yeah, you could claim chain pubs with similar interiors is the “theme”. There are also a number of “spooky castle” themed pubs dotted about, I forget what they’re called but there’s one in Aberdeen

  3. I don’t know if you could guide me on how I could find out more about Bacchus Bar, in Birmingham – it’s under the Burlington Hotel, and is now branded as Nicholsons (so I guess may long have been a part of the M&B empire) – but it has some very ornate and ‘theme’ decor – the stairwell has slightly nudey Roman paintings, the main room is done out in a grand way on a Medieval theme (drapes, wrought iron, Gothic shapes in the furniture, suits of armour, shields etc.), and then there is a side room with Egyptian wall paintings and plasterwork. I’d love to know when exactly this decor was put in place, and if it was once some kind of historical theme bar associated with the hotel – but Googling has so far not brought up any useful info! There’s no “theme” basis these days apart from the furnishings (thankfully no twee menu descriptions of Monk’s Hotpot or Damsels’ Desserts and the like) but I’d love to know how it came about.

  4. Possibly the Hayrick in Nuneaton is a good surviving example. It’s on CAMRA’s National Inventory, but for some reason it won’t give me a direct URL for the relevant page. The description is as follows:

    The bars are a bizarre example of brewer’s agricultural rustic, and almost completely unaltered. On the right is the ‘Wheelwright’s Lounge’, designed as a facsimile of an old wheelwright’s shop. This room has a spectacular servery in the style of a 19c farm wagon with cartwheels and a thatched canopy. Unfortunately the many cartwheels which once hung precariously from the ceiling have been removed, perhaps as an early example of health and safety precautions. There was also originally behind the counter a pictorial panel of wheelwrights at work, and this also appears to have been removed. On the left is the ‘Blacksmith’s Lounge’; the servery here is in simpler rustic style, but elegant, and behind is a glass pictorial panel with an illustration of blacksmiths at work; on the opposite wall is a large timber horseshoe with a carved illustration of a farm worker. The decor overall comprises ceilings of rough plaster and fake beams, rough panelling around the walls, and lots of agricultural bricabrac.

    Surely, as others have said, beer itself has become something of a theme.

  5. The Playhouse in Colchester (a Weatherspoons) is in an old theatre and has some of that ‘theme’ going on – one of the seating areas is essentially the stage (and there are even some mannequins up in the rafters looking towards it), and there are posters on the walls (google it for some pictures).

    Is this a Weatherspoons thing? The Opera House in Tunbridge Wells (also ‘spoons) has something similar. Though I haven’t seen this sort of thing with them anywhere else.

  6. Bacchus bar rose from the ashes of the superb Atkinsons bar of the Midland hotel. It was a sanctuary in the busy Birmingham city centre and was actually ‘men only’ untill about 1970. It would have closed in 1992-93 when the hotel was refurbished and the Bacchus bar created in all its fiberglass glory!

  7. I quite fancy a Western saloon style bar complete with swinging doors and sippin’ whisky.

    A lot of pubs still have themes, they’re just a lot more subtle nowadays. I swear some pubs even have a pub theme.

  8. Thanks Roger for the info, didn’t realise the decor at Bacchus only dates from 92-93, will keep digging to see if I can find any info on why that decor was chosen – i.e. was it intended as an actual theme bar at the time, or just something a bit opulent! I heard Atkinson’s Ale House was where the back entrance to Waterstones is now; are parts of Bacchus the same areas that Atkinson’s occupied behind the street level?

    1. I would have said Atkinson’s was where ONU is now- i.e. to the left of the Stephenson Street entrance to the Midland and it was at street level. A brilliant place to wait for and meet visitors off the train in the 80s. All gravity dispense I think.

  9. I quite like the Palladium, a Wetherspoons in a former theatre, in Llandudno.

    The front bar of my own pub has my Butlins memorabilia on the walls, including a framed redcoat. Not a theme as such, just an identity.

    1. It’s not a bad Spoons, I normally go there when I go back, saw the Exorcist and Clockwork Orange there when I was in school so I get some pretty bittersweet memories.

  10. I remember in the mid-1990s interviewing a guy who owned several pubs in Cornwall – he said he had tried opening an Irish theme pub in Falmouth, but the Cornish, feeling their own Celtic heritage was perfectly good enough, thank you, stayed away in droves.

  11. Then there was the Firkin chain, where the theme (apart from ‘big open spaces with long tables and benches’) was fidelity to the building’s previous use, whatever it was – so you got the Flea and Firkin (a former cinema), the Footage and Firkin (another former cinema) and, er, many others.

    On second thoughts maybe the theme was ‘converted cinemas’.

  12. What about when a pub holds a themed festival (Spoons, various smaller pubs doing ‘Irish’ weekends, or ‘World Cup Festivals’, that sort of thing?
    As for Craft….maybe. Like much else, depends on your definition. Craft, or North Bar, say, wouldn’t say that serving ‘craft’ beer is a theme – it’s just their market.

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