A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

Birmingham 1968.

The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the ques­tion John Mer­il­ion asks at the open­ing of a sub­stan­tial arti­cle pub­lished in the arts sup­ple­ment of the Birm­ing­ham Post for Sat­ur­day 30 Novem­ber 1968.

Mer­il­ion was a design con­sul­tant work­ing in the Mid­lands and a lec­tur­er at the Birm­ing­ham Col­lege of Art and Design, and was appar­ent­ly still around as recent­ly as 2014. He was pro­fes­sion­al­ly involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admi­ral on the Sut­ton Hill estate at the new town of Made­ley in Shrop­shire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s but­ter­fly for The Red Admi­ral, Made­ley. SOURCE: Made­ley Mat­ters.

His arti­cle for the Post offers a sum­ma­ry of the devel­op­ment of the design of the Eng­lish pub with a strong line of argu­ment: Vic­to­ri­an town pubs were beau­ti­ful, offer­ing a bold, glit­ter­ing con­trast to the slum hous­es around them; but when brew­eries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own archi­tects’ depart­ments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lack­ing atmos­phere and dis­tinc­tion, as homes came up in qual­i­ty to meet them.

What’s real­ly inter­est­ing to us about this piece, though, is that Mer­il­ion offers a con­sid­ered, bal­anced, occa­sion­al­ly sur­pris­ing view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most peo­ple and they seem to want atmos­phere – the only uni­ver­sal plea – with com­fort run­ning a close sec­ond. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evi­dence of the CAMRA ten­den­cy well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actu­al­ly says they des­per­ate­ly want to drink in a hunt­ing lodge in Har­borne, or beer cel­lar in Bear­wood, or a galleon on the Ring­way. How­ev­er, most peo­ple do not active­ly dis­like these sur­round­ings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their exis­tence. They are sure­ly prefer­able to the pseu­do-tra­di­tion­al Geor­gian or Tudor chintz tea-room ver­sions.

Despite seem­ing to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Mer­il­ion goes on to stick the knife in:

This exten­sion of the name of the pub set­ting the theme for the entire inte­ri­or decor is a com­par­a­tive­ly recent inno­va­tion and is being employed exten­sive­ly where new urban pubs are con­cerned. Any why should the brew­ers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obvi­ous­ly pop­u­lar with the cus­tomers? After all, the oppor­tu­ni­ties are fan­tas­tic – why not a Dr Who space-fic­tion set, or the labyrinth from Bar­barel­la… Only that all these things are sheer gim­mick­ry, equal­ly suit­able for cof­fee bars, restau­rants, night clubs and bou­tiques. They rep­re­sent lost oppor­tu­ni­ties for the dar­ing and excit­ing use of con­tem­po­rary meth­ods and mate­ri­als to main­tain the specif­i­cal­ly pub­lic house atmos­phere.

Too many theme pubs were exces­sive­ly lit­er­al, work­ing the theme through­out the whole pub, lit­er­al­ly “turn­ing the build­ing into a fake cas­tle, pad­dock or barn”. This pres­sure, accord­ing to archi­tects and design­ers he spoke to, came from the brew­eries, and the over-the-top, over-lit­er­al theme ele­ments were some­times applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birm­ing­ham were any good, in his opin­ion,  fail­ing to achieve a state of “friend­ly but not freaky”, though he does have a cou­ple of kind words to say about The Out­rig­ger in the city cen­tre where “a good atmos­phere exists in the pseu­do-galleon (com­plete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Out­rig­ger, Birm­ing­ham, post­ed online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birm­ing­ham Forum.

Merilion’s argu­ment here­after is a smart one: putting aside spe­cif­ic Vic­to­ri­an style and method, why shouldn’t a mod­ern pub design­er seek to achieve the same essen­tial effects of light, reflec­tion and “glit­ter” using up-to-date mate­ri­als? Sub­ur­ban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad light­ing – “an all-embrac­ing orange gloom” which fails to pro­vide highs and lows – why not take advan­tage of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy to vary the colour and inten­si­ty through­out a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with some­thing we could have used a cou­ple of years ago when we were writ­ing 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drug­store.

The Drug­store, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendi­est, most self-con­scious­ly mod­ern pub, which opened in West Lon­don in 1968, and famous­ly appears in A Clock­work Orange as the futur­is­tic hall-of-mir­rors shop­ping bou­tique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drug­store. SOURCE: RIBA.

Mer­il­ion says:

One could dis­miss its decor as trendy and fash­ion­able… but nev­er­the­less is has much of the tra­di­tion­al atmos­phere, with its glit­ter­ing air of excite­ment, vibrant clien­tele and robust self-expres­sion.

Return­ing to Birm­ing­ham, then under heavy rede­vel­op­ment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the brew­eries give the right archi­tects and design­ers a freer hand to pro­duce excit­ing and appro­pri­ate solu­tions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sink­ing Barge.

If you wan to read the entire arti­cle it’s avail­able via the British News­pa­per Archive here.

In gen­er­al, the BNA is a ser­vice we high­ly rec­om­mend to any­one with an inter­est in his­to­ry, nos­tal­gia or British cul­ture; it’s about £80 a year, or alter­na­tive­ly, you can prob­a­bly access it at your local library or archive.

7 thoughts on “A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968”

  1. why not a Dr Who space-fic­tion set, or the labyrinth from Bar­barel­la”. I would enjoy a Doc­tor Who pub.

  2. All these years I nev­er knew that Mick was just going down the pub… Mind you, he’s described the song him­self as “a moody song about drugs in Chelsea”, so maybe there was more than one, er, Chelsea drug store, know what I mean, squire.

    1. That’s an exam­ple of some­thing we just assume every­one knows because it came up in the first sweep of research for the book, before we even got into deep archive dig­ging. Lots of good stuff on the Drug­store knock­ing around online, espe­cial­ly in Face­book groups where for­mer staff and cus­tomers rem­i­nisce about their escapades.

  3. I used to drink in the Out­rig­ger as a teenag­er in the late 80s. I can’t remem­ber any “pseu­do-galleon” fea­tures, apart fromteh anem. Per­haps they’d gone by then. The “sea-sounds” had cer­tain­ly been replaced by north­ern soul.

    1. Well it looked a bit like a galleon from the out­side in the ear­ly to mid 80s, but such a grim-look­ing galleon I nev­er went in. 😉

      1. And I missed out the key and poten­tial­ly use­ful bit – I think it was refur­bished around 85 or 86, cer­tain­ly lost some­thing of the galleon look from the out­side some­where around then. I wasn’t sure if it looked smarter, or less inter­est­ing. Either way, it was only the very vaguest attempt to look like a galleon, a few ropes and the like, to soft­en the bru­tal­ism.

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