beer in fiction / tv opinion

Real ale as folk horror

It’s a standing joke amongst horror fans that you can make the case for almost anything to be part of the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre. But what about real ale?

This thought started with a conversation I was having on BlueSky about cultural cycles of reaction against technology in which I said:

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Campaign for Real Ale, The Wicker Man and the English Morris dancing revival all landed at about the same time.

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy and released in 1973, is arguably the key text in understanding what folk horror means.

It stars Edward Woodward as a mainland policeman sent to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a girl.

He finds that the people of Summerisle practice a form of paganism and, though they’re a weirdly friendly bunch, he soon discovers that sacrifice plays an important part in their religion.

Other important examples of folk horror include The Blood on Satan’s Claw, directed by Piers Haggard, released in 1971, and the 1973 novel Harvest Home by American writer Thomas Tryon.

For a fuller explanation of what folk horror is, or might be, check out this post from Rowan Lee and, indeed, her entire blog.

The main point is that many of the stories concern secretive cults which are unwelcoming to outsiders and cling to arcane practices and rituals. Which brings us to CAMRA.

Calm down! I’m kidding. Sort of.

If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll know that Jess and I made the case there for CAMRA as part of a post-post-war reaction against modernity. After 20 years of space age, atom age technology, including keg beer and concrete pubs, it felt like time to get back to basics – and to nature.

We highlighted connections with preservation movements, protest movements, and E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

In 1976 CAMRA founder Michael Hardman even wrote a book called Beer Naturally (we have a signed copy) which opens with this statement:

Beer at its best is a reflection of a golden field of barley, a reminder of the rich aroma of a hop garden. Scientists can argue endlessly about the merits of the man-made concoctions which go into much of today’s beer but the proof of the pint is in the drinking… the best of British beer is produced from the gifts that nature gave us and by methods which have been proudly handed down over the centuries. The story of beer is a story of nature and of craftsmanship; a story of farmers and brewers who join forces to create beer naturally.

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in an excellent tweed suit. Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie is behind him. They are in a lush garden.

Now, try reading that in the voice of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, whose actual speech goes:

What attracted my grandfather to the island, apart from the profuse source of wiry labor that it promised, was the unique combination of volcanic soil and the warm gulf stream that surrounded it. You see, his experiments had led him to believe that it was possible to induce here the successful growth of certain new strains of fruit that he had developed. So, with typical mid-Victorian zeal, he set to work. The best way of accomplishing this, so it seemed to him, was to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods, and it is as a result of this worship that the barren island would burgeon and bring forth fruit in great abundance.

We’ve written before about the spooky potential of pubs, including The Green Man in The Wicker Man and, of course, The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. That’s not generally considered folk horror but those scenes on the Yorkshire moors could definitely be framed that way.

Beer loosens inhibitions. Beer puts people in touch with their animal instincts. Beer is magic.

The crossover between folk + horror + beer is perhaps best captured in a traditional song recorded by Traffic in 1971 as ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’:

“There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die…”

Just to run over those dates again:

  • The Blood on Satan’s Claw, 1971
  • ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, 1971
  • CAMRA is founded, 1972
  • The Wicker Man, 1973

Much as I was enjoying my thought experiment, I wanted a sense check, and immediately thought of Lisa Grimm.

She’s a beer blogger and podcaster who I also happen to know enjoys folk horror. She says:

The Venn diagram of real ale, CAMRA, folk horror and – depending on whom you ask, more or less tangentially – mainstream archaeology in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s is not quite a circle, but there is a huge amount of overlap.

While archaeologists have always liked their beer (I’m pretty sure I learned more about beer than prehistory in my two degrees) popular archaeology fed into the eventual folk horror media landscape starting in 1968, when Richard J. C. Atkinson’s work at Silbury Hill was broadcast on the BBC.

This makes its way into Doctor Who in 1971 in The Daemons, which ticks all the boxes: a traditional pub called The Cloven Hoof, predating The Green Man in The Wicker Man by several years; televised ‘archaeology’ summoning an ancient evil (albeit one from another planet, in this instance) from definitely-not-Silbury Hill; good witchcraft; a maypole; and even some dodgy Morris dancers thrown into the mix.

There’s no way the pub in this episode – or, indeed, The Green Man – wouldn’t pass muster with early-years CAMRA. These look like hardcore real-ale spots with aggressively local-rural clientele. The punters literally out of central casting also fit the stereotype – all beards and tankards, no kegged lagers here!

The other thing Lisa flagged is that modern breweries are leaning into this connection.

She highlighted Verdant’s collaboration with the people behind the Weird Walk zine and their Ritual Pale Ale.

This made me think about other ways folk horror, or pagan imagery, or horror imagery, has leaked into beer branding.

Hop Back sprang to mind immediately with its grimacing green man mascot, as did Exmoor Beast.

Oakham also has a sort of green man crossed with a hop – imagine meeting someone wearing that for a mask in a Kentish field at midnight before the harvest!

These days, folk horror has also leaked into the mainstream in some interesting ways.

Detectorists isn’t horror, it’s a gentle comedy, but its creator Mackenzie Crook clearly knows the tropes. And his Worzel Gummidge was practically The Wicker Man for kids. Both shows feature beer and pubs conspicuously as a benign symbol of Englishness, and of life on the land.

Then there’s Morris dancing, another revived folk tradition that surged in popularity in the 1970s. I recently watched Tim Plester’s interesting 2011 documentary Way of the Morris about the rebirth of Morris dancing in the Oxfordshire village where he grew up, and the role his father and uncles played in the process. It was distinctly beer-soaked and blokey but Plester’s gloss on the story also made it feel somewhat spooky – or, at least, mystical.

Another interesting artefact, from 2018, is this excellent video for the song ‘Apparition’ by Stealing Sheep:

Reframing beard-weirdy finger-in-ear folkiness as something deeper, darker, and more magical is a clever trick.

And it might work in real ale’s favour.

beer in fiction / tv pubs

Snob screens in the Punch & Judy Man, 1963

The 1963 film The Punch & Judy Man has a scene in a pub where a ‘snob screen’ is an essential part of the action, and fuel for class satire.

In The Punch & Judy Man Tony Hancock plays a seaside entertainer at war with the snooty town council which wants to take Piltdown-on-Sea upmarket.

When rain comes, he and his fellow entertainers and hawkers retreat to a seafront pub called The Trident – actually a studio set at Elstree, evidence suggests.

Being skint, and being working men, they stand in the public bar drinking mild and bitter. Meanwhile, the suit-wearing town dignitaries hang out in the saloon drinking expensive spirits.

Between them is a barrier: an ornate ‘snob screen’ in wood and etched glass, jutting out a few feet from the bar.

Hancock, who co-wrote the film as well as starring in it, uses these as the basis for a bit of ‘business’ which, handily, you can see some of in the trailer for the film.

He pops in and out of the various windows, taunting and teasing the snobs behind the snob screen. In other words, he refuses to respect (literal) social barriers, and highlights their purely symbolic nature.

After all, he and his pals can hear almost every word that is being said a few inches from them, on the other side of the screen.

What is slightly odd is that most surviving examples of tilting or swivelling snob screens are there to separate customers from bar staff, rather than from each other.

A view along the bar of a traditional Victorian pub with swivelling screens, with etched glass.
Snob screens between customers and serving staff at The Barton Arms, Birmingham.

In Licensed to Sell: the history and heritage of the public house (Brandwood et al, 2011) the small section on snob screens explains that they were also known as ‘shy screens’.

Pub designer Ben Davis, in his book The Traditional English Pub, 1981, describes them like this:

“This was a Victorian invention consisting of a polished mahogany structure fixed to the counter top and containing small panes of decorative glass in centre-pivoted timber frames. This allowed the ‘snobs’ in the Saloon Bar to be served and at the same time to cut themselves off from the direct scrutiny of the lower orders – perhaps their own servants or employees – in the Public Bar.”

This sounds more like the purpose of the screen we see in The Punch & Judy Man but it is still mounted on the bar, rather than along the bar.

A person ducks beneath a screen in a traditional wood-panelled pub.
Screens separating bars at The Prince Alfred in Maida Vale.

And while there are numerous examples of screens separating bars or sections in pubs, they don’t tend to have pivoting or opening windows. Why would they?

We have to assume that the production designer on Hancock’s film took some liberties here. Artistic licence, if you like, to facilitate a gag the Lad Himself wanted to perform.

A few more footnotes

Even if this isn’t a real pub, and licence has been taken, it’s worth recording a couple of other observations.

First, there are pump clips. Small ones, on the public bar only, but they’re there. This ties into the date we’ve previously suggested for the popular uptake of pump clips, in around 1963.

Secondly, a bit of business between Hancock and his pals underlines the status of different types of beer.

The beach photographer Nevil (Mario Fabrizi) is pressed into buying a round to make up for a breach of etiquette in touting for customers during a performance.

Hugh Lloyd, as Hancock’s hangdog assistant, takes advantage by ordering a large bitter, causing Nevil’s eyes to widen in panic. This is an expensive order! He balances it by ordering a half of mild for himself – the cheapest thing on the menu.

And, finally, it’s yet another faux-Watney’s pub on film, with a famous Red Barrel on the bar. Was the Watney’s publicity department particularly friendly to filmmakers, perhaps?

A promotional booklet for the film (reproduced with the 2019 Network Releasing Blu-ray) trumpeted various ‘national tie-ups’ with Kellogs, Gordon & Moore’s toothpaste, Kodak, Remington Shavers and Lyon’s Maid ice cream. But not Watney’s.

20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv

The 1950s pub captured in a 1980s film

Distant Voices, Still Lives from 1988 is Terence Davies’ attempt to capture working class Liverpool life of the 1940s and 50s on film. His evocation of pub life is particularly powerful.

Perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the whole film takes place in or outside the pub.

Cosmetically, most of the details are right. We see etched glass bearing the name of Higson’s, bottles of Mackeson Stout, ten-sided pint glasses, and bell pushes on the benches where the ladies sit.

It’s run-down and plain, this pub, but that doesn’t matter because the people bring it to life.

It is where families and friends get together, crowding every space.

In a repeated shot, from the lounge or saloon into the public bar, we see men ordering rounds of drinks:

“Nora! Hey, Nora! Can I have two ‘alves of shandy, a Mackies, a Double Diamond, a pale ale and lime, a black-and-tan, a pint of mix, a rum and pep, a rum and blackcurrant, and a Guinness?”

“Rum and pep” is rum with peppermint cordial; “mix”, also known as half-and-half, is 50/50 mild and bitter.

Another reason this pub feels so vibrant is the constant singing.

Eileen (Angela Walsh, second left) sings in the pub in Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Singing is how the women in the film express their feelings, from sadness to joy.

Taking it in turns to perform, or harmonising together, they sway with their glasses:

“When that old gang of mine get together… On the corner of my home town… We were friends in the past… And our friendship will last… ’Til the curtain of dreams comes down!”

Would people put up with it these days? You’d probably end up in a snarky video on social media.

There’s also a strong implication that men who don’t like the pub – who don’t go, or complain about having to go – are the most likely to be unhappy:

“Come on, Les, just one drink.”

“Alright, just one, to wet the baby’s head, but we’re not staying here all fucking night.”

They simply don’t have what it takes to rub along with other people.

There are plenty of pubs on film but this portrayal seems, somehow, more real than most. Perhaps its because it isn’t treated as special – just part of everyday life, like the back yard or the kitchen.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is available via the BFI.

The trailer for the recent rerelease of the film in a restored version.
beer in fiction / tv

Amazon’s Beer Masters: overall, good, with some off flavours

One of the things we did during our recent period of Covid isolation was to work our way through the Amazon reality show Beer Masters. It wasn’t a difficult task – there are only five episodes.

Ed Wray’s neat review has prompted us to add a few thoughts.

First, kudos to the producers, Electric Robin, for coming up with a way to make the Bake Off format work for a product which is slow to manufacture.

Our tongue-in-cheek post about TV formats from more than eight years ago was really intended to make the point that we couldn’t see how this could be done.

But, in the end, they found quite a clever mechanism: by keeping all the contestants in until the end, it simultaneously solves the issue of maturing time, while making for a gentler and what feels like a fairer format than the weekly elimination model that we’re all so used to.

This could lend itself to other crafts, too – The Great British Knit Off?

We also really liked that the final challenge required the contestants to make the same beer twice, testing their ability to deliver consistency.

The international cast was also a selling point, despite some occasionally awkward attempts to make the contestants banter in English.

It almost felt like a travel show at times with sequences at homes in France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as filming in breweries in Belgium and Holland. In these sequences, the visuals switched to the slick Netflix documentary style, all drone shots and depth of field.

A typical location shot from Beer Masters. SOURCE: Amazon Prime Video.

Jaega Wise made an excellent presenter, not mincing her words when the beer wasn’t up to standard, but always feeling kind and constructive.

Her co-host, James Blunt, filled a thankless role adequately, making the odd joke and asking daft questions on behalf of the layman viewer.

Some commentators have argued that the format removed all tension from the show, and indeed, it did feel at times as if drama was being contrived around, for example, a stuck sparge, or a slightly leaky tap.

Each episode also includes an on-the-day challenge, too. None of these were as interesting as the brewing but did provide a race-against-time quality and allowed the contestants to gather round and look nervous while being judged.

We wondered several times who this was pitched at. As (very) occasional homebrewers, we didn’t feel patronised, or out of our depth. The obvious wasn’t stated too often and there were some interesting insights into other people’s home brewing setups. And there were some extremely relatable moments, such as when one team lost their hop filter in the boiler.

Perhaps, however, they could have spent less time on the somewhat laboured descriptions of what makes an Abbey beer, or a pilsner, and told us a bit more about the contestants’ kits. We could see some interesting gadgets and arrangements that were never really discussed.

If the aim is to spark a home-brewing revolution, as was suggested at a couple of points, then this probably won’t do it.

Of course, you could say that who it was pitched at was the general beer consumer, in a clever piece of stealth advertising by AB-InBev.

All of the commercial beers featured are AB-InBev products, with carefully managed stories designed to highlight their ‘authenticity’ (Camden Hells, Tripel Karmeliet) and/or consistency (Stella Artois).

Some of this was interesting in itself, and it’s hard not to be impressed by professional brewers being professionals. In fact, we thought the explanation of how global quality control was enforced from the Stella Artois mothership was one of the most interesting nuggets in the whole show.

But, ultimately, the presentation of the stories of these beers was downright misleading at times.

We understand why the producers would work with AB-InBev: instant access to a whole raft of brewers and breweries without having to juggle multiple commercial partners. But it was a bit weird that the parent company wasn’t, as far as we noticed, mentioned even once.

Overall, the fact that we’re still talking about it suggests it’s got something about it. Concerns about transparency aside, we hope there’ll be a second series, with some tweaks to the format.

Beer Masters is available free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the UK.

20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv london pubs

Lose Bunny Lake, find a pub

The 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing was set in London and, of course, features a scene set in a pub – The Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale.

Bunny Lake was a flop on its original release, and an obscurity for decades. Now, like many lesser-known films of the period, it’s been beautifully restored and released on Blu-ray.

That gives us an opportunity not only to see the pub as it looked almost 60 years ago but also to freeze the frame, zoom and enhance, to see what details we can pick up.

First, a disclaimer: this is a real pub, not a studio set – there are enough clues to be sure of that. But, of course, it is filled with studio extras, not real drinkers, or so we assume.

That means some of what we see is sort of real, and some sort of isn’t – although the film is intended to feel real rather than presenting that romantic fantasy version of London so often seen in American productions.

In fact, Laurence Olivier, as Superintendent Newhouse, makes that point very well, in dialogue written by novelists Penelope Mortimer and John Mortimer:

“Ever been in a pub before? Here it is, the heart of Merrie Olde England. Complete with dirty glasses, watery beer, draughts under the doors, and a 23-inch television.”

Oh, yes – the television. A novelty in pubs in the 1950s, by 1965, it’s a fixture – almost the centrepiece, in fact, front and centre above the bar. It shows the news first, then a performance by The Zombies. Middle-aged and elderly drinkers seem transfixed by it.

A pub television.

Never mind the TV, you’re probably thinking – what about those bottles beneath it.

In this shot, and others, we’ve got:

  • Babycham
  • Courage Brown Ale
  • Worthington Pale Ale
  • Guinness
  • and some others we don’t recognise, but you might

There’s also some very prominent point-of-sale material for SKOL lager.

Bottled beers

What about draught beer? There’s a very obvious Courage Tavern Keg Bitter font in several shots, a draught Guinness font, and a single lonely cask ale pump-clip advertising Flowers.

Tavern Keg Bitter

That last one is a bit confusing because Flowers was a Whitbread brand by 1961 and this pub was definitely a Barclays (Courage) pub. Perhaps this is a bit of set dressing by a production designer who – can you believe it? – didn’t especially care about brewery ownership.

There’s also some background detail for students of pub grub to enjoy. Jars of pickles. Boiled eggs. Pies. Miserable sandwiches. And a full but unconvincing steak, seafood and oyster menu.

Full dining menu

What’s also clear is that this was a handsome building. Green and White’s The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs from 1973 says:

A dominant building at the north end of Warrington Crescent… the Warrington is a glowing example of faded splendour, possibly due to the fact that it has never really been taken up by the Maida Vale elite. It has one of the most imposing pub entrances in London, with its own ornate lamp-standards and a coy lady holding a torch in a niche on your right as you go in. Fascinating interior with some art nouveau stained glass, only slightly marred by some more recent murals, a salmon-pink ceiling hung with chandeliers, and a crescent-shaped bar with a brass footrail. Probably the best example of an Edwardian pub in London.

The exterior of the Warrington
Painted sign on the door: LOUNGE
Art Nouveau windows

Apparently, it’s still worth a visit. Next time we’re in London, plagues and regulations permitting, we’ll try to pop in for a sad sandwich and a bottle of brown ale.