Watney’s Red on Film, 1971

The above film was made by Watney Mann (Watney’s) to help their staff understand Watney’s Red, which replaced Red Barrel as the firm’s flagship keg bitter in 1971.

It was unearthed by Nick Wheat who collects British documentary and industrial films and writes occasional beer articles for Dronfield CAMRA’s Peel Ale magazine. The copy above was made by projecting the 16mm film onto a wall and pointing his phone at it but it doesn’t look bad for all that.

From an article Nick dug up from Film User for July 1971 we know that it was one of three films produced to help with the roll-out of the new product as part of what Watney’s called ‘Operation Cheka’ in reference to the Bolshevik secret police. The suit of films cost £5,500 pounds to make (about £80k in today’s money) and this one is ‘Cheka 2’ ‘Cheka 3’, highlighted in this infographic from Film User:

Infographic depicting the roll-out of Operation Cheka.

The film itself is an amazing relic. It features various plummy senior executives explaining, rather stiltedly, the thinking behind the change, accompanied by footage of lorries and brewing plants around the country (our emphasis):

You see Red Barrel has been with us now for fifteen years and is still the same. In the meantime other beers have come along in keg with new flavours, and meeting new ideas of taste. Therefore Red Barrel might be said to be old fashioned. So what we did was to study the whole situation in great detail with our colleagues in the group marketing department. We wanted to find out just what it was the customers liked, what their ideals were, what were the faults, perhaps, in earlier beers, and altogether how we could make it right for the seventies.

What we’ve done is to give the beer a new smooth pleasant taste. We’ve also given it a much better head and altogether a more attractive appearance. Gone is any suggestion of bitter after palate; instead, there is a pleasant malty mealiness…. We’ve studied flavour, studied people’s reaction to flavour, and produced experimental beers, testing out all the variations we can think of in such things of sweetness or bitterness.

That confirms what we’d heard from other sources, and what we said in Brew Britannia: that Red Barrel and Red were quite different beers, with the latter an altogether fizzier, sweeter beer. But this would seem to suggest that, unless they’re outright fibbers, that people in the company genuinely believed they were responding to public demand rather than cutting corners for the sake of it.

There’s some solid historical information in all this, too. It tells us, for example, that Red was developed primarily at the Watney’s plant in Northampton, formerly Phipps, and that the beer and point-of-sale material was scheduled to hit pubs in March and April of 1971.

There is also an awkward interview with Mr Horsfall, a publican in… Eldon? Oldham? Answers on a postcard. He had been tasked with selling the new Red on the quiet to gauge customer reactions to the reformulation and, though hardly jumping for joy, seemed to think his customers preferred it, on the whole.

Arguably the most exciting part comes at the end: a reel of original TV ads from the time starring (we think) Michael Coles as a hard-boiled counter-intelligence operative tasked with stopping ‘the Red Revolution’. These ads seem to us to be parodying Callan, a popular TV programme of the day starring Edward Woodward, with the seedy sidekick ‘Friendly’ clearly a reference to Callan’s ‘Lonely’.

Thanks so much for sharing this, Nick! And if anyone else out there has this kind of material, we’d love to see it.

Updated 22/03/2018 after Nick got in touch to say he thinks this is actually Film 3.

11 thoughts on “Watney’s Red on Film, 1971”

  1. Great find. The place name at 6:13 I initially heard as “Eldum” but on second listening I think that “d” might just be a “th” – Eltham – it would make sense to trial it in the London suburbs.

    Interesting comparing with your previous piece on recipes, where RB->Red saw 12% of the barley replaced by sugars. But even 80% barley for the starting point of Red is nothing compared to what John Keeling mentioned in the new GBH article about Fuller’s, where he says that at Watney in Manchester :
    “We were making beer with only 40 percent barley, using buckets of enzymes to effectively convert the sugar,” Keeling recalls. “We had to wear gauntlets and protective equipment. I remember thinking, ‘This is strange, that we’re adding something to beer that we’re too afraid to splash on our skin.’ How natural is that beer?”

    He joined Fuller’s in January 1981 so presumably that was during the crises of the late 1970s.

    I’ve not seen anything definite on it but it’s an interesting question whether the decision to reformulate was not driven by marketing, but by the process engineers. It was a time when Big Beer was developing continuous fermenters and the like, and one can imagine that if one had a (very much cost-driven) change to process of that magnitude, then it would make sense to reformulate.

    Seeing them rolling it out on 22 March made me think “I bet Easter was late that year” and it was, 11 April. Get it in front of all the part-time pubgoers.

    1. The other thing I thought was interesting was the comments about the new-fangled medium of television, which had been with them “10 years” and was where “heroes are made”. Weird parallels with corporates trying to understand the interweb and social media.

    2. Re: Mr Keeling’s comments, ten years is a long time. By 1981 Watney’s had ditched Red/Red Barrel and was pushing Special as its keg beer, alongside some new cask ales. We don’t know much about Special, TBH, but that might be the one John has in mind.

      1. I see John on Twitter has clarified that by “barley” he means unmalted barley as opposed to malt, so they were skipping the malting process by using presumably amylases to break down the starch in unmalted barley. It was the way of the future….

  2. Definitely “Oldham”, albeit said in a rather clipped RP way. Wilsons Brewery in north Manchester which appears in the film would have been only a few miles down Oldham Road from the pub and the landlord has a Lancashire accent too.

  3. I note that one of the objectives in producing ‘Red’,presumably in the interests of modernisation or revitalisation, was to eliminate the bitter after taste which the drinker had with Red Barrel and replace it with a ‘malty sweetness’ it is perhaps this characteristic which turned off a lot of drinkers in the early 1970’s,I,for one,was not impressed with it. One of the side effects of the change is that ‘Red Barrel’ a product of the 1950’s has even today,see correspondence in the Daily Telegraph,got the reputation as being the prime example of a most unpleasant beer when the real culprit was ‘Red’.Perhaps it is time for Red Barrel to be brewed again to restore its maligned reputation.

    1. These are not unoriginal thoughts, rebrewing Red Barrel has become a bit of a cult activity, I’m sure both B&B and Ron Pattinson have written about it. Originally Red Barrel was a premium product, in the same way that keg ale is now, but it seems to have suffered the same fate as “Nou Camp” and “Robin Reliant” as getting established in the public mind regardless of the facts. I guess “Red Barrel” is more memorable than just “Red”, and the barrel logo did stick around for a long time.

    2. Red Barrel has been rebrewed. I’ve published a recipe, based on a document supplied by B+B, that at least two breweries have made. One of them being owned by my schoolfriend Henry. He left a firkin of it at my brother’s when I visited with the kids last summer. We emptied it in four days. The kids – who usually drink Pils – seemed to quite like it, judging by how quickly they slurped it down. It was cask, mind. And there wasn’t any ullage in it.

      I liked it. Any easy-drinking Bitter. But, if you pasteurised the hell out of it and fizzed it up like crazy, it wouldn’t be so nice.

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