Reasons to be Cheerful

We don’t generally cast ourselves as cheerleaders but today, with the sun shining, we wanted to take a minute to ac-cen-tu-ate the positives.

1. There are loads of great pubs and bars still to discover. We’re 143 pubs into our #EveryPubInBristol mission and still finding gems like The Beaufort

2. And new ones are opening or re-opening all the time in unexpected places, such as The Pursuit of Hoppiness in Exeter, or the Barrel at Bude.

3. Even with our Every Pub mission, and having been in various small towns, suburbs and villages, we haven’t had a really rank pint in months. We can’t recall the last time we felt the need to complain and ask for a replacement.

4. There’s more choice of beer and beer styles than most of us have the time to do anything about, even outside the hippest centres of craft beer culture. For example, Marks & Spencer announced a new beer range this week which includes a Saison from St Austell, and our local CO-OP has a choice of canned session IPAs, all perfectly decent. The average small-town Wetherspoon can usually do you a double IPA, a choice of standard IPAs, a choice of wheat beers, one or two Trappist beers, and that’s without even looking at the taps.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

5. It’s nearly beer garden season! The evenings are drawing out, the grass is growing over the muddy patches, and the picnic tables are being sanded down. If we don’t get to sit in the sun drinking pints of lager in the next fortnight, something will have gone dreadfully wrong.

6. There are people out there just discovering how interesting and exciting beer can be, drifting towards the thrill-ride of becoming a Five. Someone out there will drink their first Westmalle Tripel today! (Further reading: ‘Dare I Say Wine for Wives?’)

7. Adnams, Fuller’s, Harvey’s, St Austell, Timothy Taylor and a ton of other respected family breweries are not only still going strong but (a) continuing to brew classics such as ESB and Landlord and (b) brewing genuinely interesting side project beers, including a flood of porters.

8. There is beer on TV. It seemed impossible a few years ago but now there’s beer most weekends on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, brewer Jaega Wise has joined the crew on ITV’s The Wine Show, and ‘Jolly’ Olly Smith is currently working on series 3 of Ale Trails for the Travel Channel.

9. Every weekend for the past few years we’ve managed to find enough interesting writing about beer and pubs to populate a blog post with links. There’s more good stuff in 2018 than there was in 2014, covering a wider range of topics from different perspectives. Recently, for the first time, there was so much going on we had to resort to bullet points to get it all in.

10. Beer in general continues to be really tasty, and getting tipsy with friends and family is still great fun.

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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.

The Original Beer Podcast, 1975

If you tuned the radio to BBC Leeds at 18:45 on a Wednesday in 1985 you’d hear What’s Brewing, a programme dedicated to beer and pubs.

It was established during the height of real ale mania, in 1975, by a local journalist and CAMRA activist, Barrie Pepper, who worked in the newsroom at Radio Leeds and would go on to become a well-known beer writer. In a later retrospective in the CAMRA newspaper, also called What’s Brewing, for March 1985, he recalled its origins:

[The radio show] made its first appearance… after pressure from members of the Leeds branch of CAMRA. In that programme, though to be a one-off, Tom Fincham and I made the first of our ‘rural rides’ in search of good ale, we defined real ale and Eddie Lawler sang his now famous ‘We’re all here for the real thing’.

‘Famous’ might be overstating it but Eddie Lawler told us in an email that he has performed the song at the CAMRA AGM. He was kind enough to share the version he recorded under the title ‘CAMRAnthem’ for his 2007 album The Baildon Sky Rocket with 1970s references to ‘big-busted barmaids’ and the ‘nattering spouse’ removed. As you might guess, it’s a folky pub singalong with a piano backing:

We’re all here for the Real Thing.
That’s why we’re singing this song, just to show all those
Fancy TV promotions
That the customer’s not always wrong, so you’d better not
Give us pale imitations
Or gas us with chemical beer.
So just give us a pint of the Real Thing landlord
’Cos that’s why we’re bloody well here.

Off the back of that first programme the producer, David Campbell, commissioned a year’s-worth of monthly programmes. In his 1985 retrospective Barrie Pepper described the difficulty in finding topics for discussion and, in particular, the challenge of finding a Pub of the Month every month. (The first was The Greyhound at Saxton.)

1970s portrait photograph, candid and grainy.
Barrie Pepper.

There was also a ‘real ale soap opera’ called Tap Room Tales written by Gerry Garside from Bradford which was representative of the ribald, pantomime humour that characterised early CAMRA culture. There’s an extract from the first episode, broadcast in August 1977, in Barrie Pepper’s 1990 anthology of beer writing The Bedside Book of Beer:

Episode one — the Price of a Pint

The scene is the tap room of The Plastered Parrot, a real ale pub in a working suburb of a West Riding town. The time is half an hour before closing time on a weekday evening.

Let me introduce you to the cast.

Nora Nockers is an occasional barmaid; Yorkie Bale is a retired shoddy merchant, Shufflem Round is the pub domino captain and Barum Hall is the landlord. Charlie Chock, Gordon Spile, Andrew Mallet and Peter Barrel are members of the Campaign for Real Ale. Girlington Gertie is an aging ex-chorus girl and we present Lars Torders, a Swedish Steel worker.

In his 1985 retrospective Barrie admitted that Tap Room Tales ‘might have seemed a bit facile… but it had a serious purpose and was great fun to take part in’.

From 1980 What’s Brewing went weekly and Barrie took over as producer with Mike Greenwood hosting. There was homebrew advice from Bob Blagboro, profiles of Yorkshire breweries, and campaigns against pub closures. ‘[In] the case of the Spring Close Tavern in East Leeds we were able to secure the reprieve by Leeds City Council live on our microphone,’ Barrie recalled in 1985.

Though Barrie insisted the show was independent of CAMRA he was at various points on the Campaign’s National Executive and it certainly seems to have given the local branch what amounted to a mouthpiece funded by the licence payer.

The last episode was broadcast in June 1986 for reasons Barrie explained in an email:

I moved on from the news room at BBC Radio Leeds to become Head of Press and Public Relations with Leeds City council. Ray Beaty, the station manager, wasn’t keen on a non-staffer producing — he didn’t mind a freelance (unpaid) presenter but worried about someone ‘speaking out of turn’ as he called it. In any case I couldn’t find anyone to do the job and the council wouldn’t allow me to do it.

So, that was that.

Thirty-odd years on, though BBC radio only touches on beer occasionally, in the current podcast boom there’s no shortage of beer-related audio. For example, we recently listened to Fermentation Radio for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll send Barrie Pepper the link.

Main image incorporates elements of ‘Philips Radio from the 1970s’ by David Martyn Hunt under Creative Commons via Flickr.

The Short Pub Documentary — A New Artform?

Pub culture lends itself to film-making thanks to its quirks, eye-catching details, and characters.

We’ve been picking up the odd video here and there over the years but hadn’t checked Vimeo for a while. We were lured there this time trying to answer a question about seafood hawkers in pubs which turned up this gem directed by Matthew Daunt:

Then, following the breadcrumbs, we found this recent portrait of the Steve, landlord of Ye Olde Vic in Stockport:

(Of his fists: ‘Let me just tell you that they’re only resting, not retired.’)

This next film, The Regulars, by Grant Hodgeon, is actually eight years old but it’s the first time we’ve come across it. It’s an eccentric piece in some ways, switching styles, stopping and starting, but there’s no denying the charm of the raw footage:

And, finally, another Stockport pub (is everyone there a documentarian?) filmed by Jake Parker in 2013:

You can really smell the booze and the sticky carpets in that one, can’t you?

The similarity in tone of these films and others — wistful, slightly sad — says something about how the pub is viewed in 21st Century Britain. We suppose it’s because it feels fragile or endangered as an institution that people feel motivated to document it, while they still can.

Is it a new artform? The existence of Peter Davis’s 1962 film Pub, available on the BFI DVD of London in the Raw, would suggest not.

Holding the Fort: a Sitcom With Added Beer

From 1980 to 1982 one of London Weekend Television’s top-rated sitcoms was Holding the Fort in which Peter Davison played a microbrewer. We spoke to the writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, to find out more.

We were first tipped off to the existence of Holding the Fort by a comment from ‘Dvorak’ on something we posted back in September. We watched as much as we could find on YouTube and were amazed by how accurately it portrayed the then embryonic British microbrewing scene. On the off-chance, we emailed Marks & Gran via their website just as the success of their revival of Goodnight Sweetheart hit them and they became very busy. We heard nothing until this week when we got an apologetic reply and an invitation to phone them at their office.

Because the way the timing worked out Bailey made the call, speaking to Laurence Marks while Maurice Gran made muffled interjections somewhere in the background. We’ve slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove some umm-ing and er-ing.

Two young men with facial hair.
Laurence Marks (right) and Maurice Gran in the 1970s. SOURCE: Marks & Gran.

From what we’ve been able to see Holding the Fort is a pretty accurate portrayal of what was going on in British brewing at the time.

Microbrewing had just started and we had met the man… What was his name? This was 40 years ago, our very first commissioned sitcom, so it’s hard to remember. He was the man who started a chain of pubs… What were they called?

David Bruce — the Firkin chain?

That’s him! He was always our adviser on brewing and, in fact, he provided all the brewing equipment for the production which was in the basement of our fictional brewer’s house in Tufnell Park, North London.

Our central character, our male central character, who we join in the first episode, is a brewer. The brewery where he works is closing and moving to the North. He and his wife, played by Patricia Hodge, have just had a little baby and they don’t want to move North, so she goes back to her old job as an Army Captain and he decides he can run a small brewery from his house.

And his assistant, played by Matthew Kelly, he’s a kind of stereotypical real ale drinker with the beard and so on.

No, Fitz, he’s not a brewer — he’s just kind of a layabout, but he starts to learn to brew. Peter Davison, who’s the brewer, is very clean cut. David Bruce always looked alright to me! Very smart.

Peter Davison was in Doctor Who at the same time you were making this series — is that right?

Well, yes and no. We made the first series in 1980 then he got cast as Doctor Who between series, so he was alternating between our series at LWT and Doctor Who at the BBC.

It’s odd that you’re so well-known but that this show is so obscure — we’d never heard of it and it’s quite hard to get to see. But there were three series so it must have been popular.

Oh, yes — hugely successful. It was, at one time, LWT’s top-rated comedy show. I have no idea why it’s out of circulation — I don’t understand the machinations of TV networks.

Were you into beer yourselves? Were you CAMRA members or anything like that?

I was a journalist at the time, in the mid-1970s, and was invited along to the first CAMRA beer festival at Covent Garden in 1975. I went along to what is now the London Transport Museum and there was every beer in the entire country, barrels everywhere. People were walking around vomiting, falling over… It was the closest we’d come to the Munich Oktoberfest, I suppose.

I was with a friend who was a much more learned beer drinker than me, and we worked our way round deciding which was the best beer there. We both agreed it was Hook Norton. In fact, we loved it so much, we found out where the brewery was, took a day off work and drove out there. There were three pubs near the brewery, supplied directly, and we drank in all of them. And funnily enough, it’s now my local brewer.

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Marks & Gran are still writing together. You can read more about their long career at their website, Marks & Gran, and they are also on Twitter @marksandgran.