A Nice Cold Pint at the Winchester

The Winchester

Take car. Go to mum’s. Kill Phil, grab Liz, go to The Win­ches­ter, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”

The above line in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2004 zom­bie com­e­dy Shaun of the Dead, accom­pa­nied by a car­toon­ish wink and the rais­ing of a pint of lager by Pegg, spawned a meme and sum­maris­es a whole (point­ed­ly flawed) phi­los­o­phy of life.

Shaun of the Dead is one of the all-time great pub films. Few oth­ers fea­ture a pub so promi­nent­ly as both a loca­tion and in dia­logue; hard­ly any make a pub so piv­otal to the plot. Shaun’s atti­tude to the pub, to this par­tic­u­lar pub, defines his entire per­son­al­i­ty and directs the course of his rela­tion­ships.

It has an added res­o­nance for me in that, for sev­er­al years in my own flat-shar­ing twen­ties, I lived around the cor­ner from The Win­ches­ter.

And, to be clear, I don’t mean that I lived near a pub that was like The Win­ches­ter: the actu­al pub you actu­al­ly see in the actu­al film was about four min­utes walk from my house in New Cross, South Lon­don.

It was called the Duke of Albany and I nev­er went in.

Why? I was too scared.

I was, in gen­er­al, fair­ly brave, reg­u­lar­ly drink­ing in sev­er­al pubs near my house that oth­ers might have balked at – the kind of down-at-heel, last-legs places where it was a choice of Foster’s or Stel­la, and every­thing was ripped, stained, bro­ken, or had ini­tials carved into it.

The Duke of Albany always seemed next lev­el scary, though, per­haps because it was a Big Mill­wall Pub. Or maybe because it was on a back­street rather than the main road – the only street, in fact, where any­one has ever tried to mug me. I have a faint mem­o­ry of there always being dogs out­side and I don’t mean 10/10 floofy inter­net dog­gos – real face-chew­ers. You couldn’t see in, either, which meant walk­ing through the door would have been a pure gam­ble.

And that fortress char­ac­ter is, of course, exact­ly why Shaun choos­es it as his base for the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse.

The pub In Shaun of the Dead, though it is The Duke of Albany, isn’t the Duke of Albany. It rep­re­sents every decent but unpre­ten­tious, tat­ty but not grot­ty, func­tion­al neigh­bour­hood pub in Lon­don.

As such, it is lov­ing­ly, care­ful­ly depict­ed, Edgar Wright’s hyper­ac­tive cam­era swoop­ing in on res­o­nant details: a cow­boy boot tap­ping a brass rail, the fire­works of the fruit machine, tex­tured wall­pa­per var­nished with nico­tine, and frost­ed glass that speaks of pri­va­cy and mis­chief. TV screens, flam­ing sam­bu­cas, glass­es that only just bare­ly look clean…

It’s an attempt to depict a real back­street, out­er-rim Lon­don pub, not the roman­tic Olde Inne of pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. An ide­al, sure, but not a fan­ta­sy.

It picks up on threads laid down in Spaced, the cult TV show that launched the careers of Jes­si­ca Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. One episode in par­tic­u­lar, ‘Back’, the open­ing to series two from 2001, fea­tures a Matrix-like fight sequence in a very real-look­ing, unglam­orous pub.

You might dis­cern a pro­gres­sion, in fact. In Spaced, about post-ado­les­cence, pubs are impor­tant, but just part of the mix along­side night­clubs, raves and house par­ties. By Shaun of the Dead, with char­ac­ters star­ing down the bar­rel of 30, pubs have become the default, with fan­cy restau­rants and din­ner par­ties the threat­ened next step. And in The World’s End, pubs have def­i­nite­ly become a prob­lem, some­thing to be shak­en off with matu­ri­ty.

Simon Pegg has said as much out­right, in fact, acknowl­edg­ing last sum­mer that he had stopped drink­ing, and describ­ing The World’s End as a way of admit­ting his prob­lem with alco­hol.

Re-watch­ing Shaun of the Dead recent­ly both Jess and I were struck by the extent to which the spe­cif­ic pub cul­ture depict­ed has already begun to fade out of exis­tence. The por­tray­al of a lock-in, for exam­ple, gave us a rush of nos­tal­gia for the world of drawn cur­tains, low mut­ter­ing and con­spir­a­to­r­i­al glee.

The Duke of Albany closed a few years after the film came out and is now flats. When I vis­it­ed New Cross last year I found that oth­er sim­i­lar­ly rough-and-ready pubs had also dis­ap­peared, either re-pur­posed, demol­ished or gen­tri­fied into some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent.

The Wind­sor had some of the old Win­ches­ter atmos­phere, though, with chat about pool cues being bro­ken over people’s heads (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) and elder­ly drinkers whose faces told sto­ries.

But would I hole up there dur­ing the end of the world? No chance. After all, man can­not sur­vive on scratch­ings and Extra Cold Guin­ness alone.