In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.
First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.
In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.
You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.
With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.
The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.
They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.
They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.
It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:
[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.
This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.
If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.
As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.
In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.
The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.
This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:
His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)
Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.
Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.
Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.
Not everyone welcomed this new development.
“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.
The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:
A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.
And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)
In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.
Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.
For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.
SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.
We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:
The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.
Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.
In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)
Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)
In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”
With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.
So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.
The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.
What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.
But that’s pop culture for you.
This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.
We’ve shared a few accounts of how Guinness was produced in its heyday and here’s yet another, focusing on the conditioning and packaging stage.
It comes from the spring 1967 edition of Guinness Time, the staff magazine for the London brewery at Park Royal, and picks up on a piece from winter 1966 on the brewing process proper which, unfortunately, we’ve never managed to get hold of.
Here’s where this piece begins:
Storage – The beer is stored in large stainless steel vats, the two largest of which can each hold a whole day’s brew, about 160,000 gallons. The beer remains in storage vat for between three and ten days and during this period a certain amount of maturation takes place…
The section that really grabbed our attention, because it provides specific detail about a sometimes mysterious part of the process, is entitled ‘Make-up’:
Beer cannot be despatched direct from the storage vat, for it is quite flat and tastes rather uninteresting in this state. So to form the famous Guinness head when the beer is poured and to give it life and sparkle when it is drunk, we blend in a small of amount of gyle, which is beer containing malt-sugars and yeast… but which has not been allowed to ferment. This we achieve either by using the beer immediately after declaration to the excise officer or, if we want to use it the next day, by chilling it in the storehouse…
The blending of the gyle with storage vat beer is known as the ‘make-up’ and takes place daily in the racking vat. It also affords an opportunity of blending several days’ brewings together, to even out the inevitable small differences that exist between different days’ brewings. Various other beers are added, such as barm beer from the yeast presses, which are pasteurised before the make-up.
That’s the bottled product; here’s the draught process:
Meanwhile, in the racking vathouse, Draught Guinness will have been made up in the same way as the Extra Stout but with a slightly lower proportion of gyle since the beer is processed rather differently. The aim of this processing is to turn the still rather unexciting racking vat beer into the attractive palatable final product, for when Draught Guinness leaves the brewery it must be in all respects ready for drinking.
After conditioning in tanks, the beer was run through a pasteuriser at 190°F (88°C) before being put into specially designed casks (kegs).
That’s fascinating for two reasons.
First, there’s an acknowledgement that without blending with mature beer, Guinness was a bit boring.
Secondly, Draught Guinness was, in fact, distinctly less interesting than bottled, as beer geeks always insisted.
William Schlackman was an American psychologist specialising in attention grabbing market research projects carried out on behalf of big companies. In 1966 he suggested that, for English drinkers, beer was a substitute for sex.
We’ve struggled to track down a copy of the research report itself which is, uh, frustrating, but there’s a summary of its contents in A Monthly Bulletin for January 1967:
At the superficial Freudian level of the unconscious mind, beer-drinking was found, incredibly, to be equated with sex. More profound research revealed this equation with sex to be but a defence enabling the beer-drinker to deny his true motivation… Hunger, the psychologists pointed out, is strong enough in primitive man to stimulate the hunt and the kill. In primitive man, in other words, hunger is overtly a more powerful drive than sex… It comes as a surprise to most of us to learn from the leader of the brewery’s research team, William Schlackman, an American doctor, that what a beer-drinker feels when opening time approaches “is the primitive tension of the hunt.” In civilised man, as in primitive man, “it may outweigh the sex drive.”
The Daily Mirror also picked up the story, quoting Schlackman extensively. Here’s a clearer explanation of his point about beer and sex, in his own words:
The regular drinker puts his love life secondary to his pub life, which is the real reason why so many marriages founder over drink… Confirmed drinkers are rarely womanisers. In fact, they are often hostile to women and to pubs that encourage women’s custom.
So beer displaces sex – got it.
The Mirror article also picks up on a suggestion by Schlackman that the particularly British taste for “tepid” ale rather than cold lager was because…
Beer, which traditionally even schoolboys used to drink for breakfast, subconsciously bears an image very close to that of soup.
Schlackman’s research team came up with a set of personality types matched to beer preference:
The typical draught-bitter drinker was a farm worker on his way home from the plough-field… The mild-and-bitter drinker: A 50-year-old underpaid clerk, dreaming of winning the pools… The Bass and Worthington drinker: A hairy-chested docker… One of the interviewed people though that the typical Bass drinker would probably be a wife-beater, too.
That’s one of those startling statements that makes clear just how much the perception of brands and types of beer can change over the course of decades.
Of course, this should all be taken with a pinch of salt: this kind of pop Freudian analysis has rather gone out of fashion. In 1969, Schlackman suggested that English people liked tea because it reminded them of home, mother and the womb, which says it all, really.
You can read more about William Schlackman and how he ended up living and working in London this obituary – he died in May at the age of 88.
It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.
It’s a letter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Monthly Bulletin, a brewing trade publication, published in June 1966:
In this age of alleged democracy and an apparent tendency to throw convention to the winds, it is surprising to hear that two customers dining in an old hotel restaurant were refused “two pints of best bitter”. Pints of bitter were not served because they “lowered the tone” of the hotel.
So far, so familiar – as we covered in Brew Britannia, refusal to serve pints has become embedded as an indicator of an establishment that wishes to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog standard boozer. Bristol has a couple of such places.
It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becoming anachronisms, petty snobbery and the status symbol may yet extend and widen the possibilities of the absurd.
Well, it’s true that beer has got complicated with all those tribes and symbols and laws of etiquette.
Beer will, if this happens, probably be associated only with shabby taprooms, cloth caps, and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is beginning to feel less plebeian when asking for “keg” rather than “bitter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, somehow, and more sophisticated.
This is something we keep coming back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy product you ordered when you felt a little fancy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?
The New Age bartender may look askance should one inadvertently demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.
No, the correct term is “dark ale”.
A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.
An ignorant saloon bar customer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premises) should he refer to his favourite tipple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.
Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare survivors are ordered by brand name.
Overall, Sloane got it right – though never entirely as classless and simple as some romantics would have you believe, beer has become increasingly complex, stratified and laden with meaning.
But things have also been pretty well swirled about, too.
Is a dimple mug of Black Sheep Bitter posh, or plebeian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accompanying a packet of scratchings or a plate of gnocchi.
A peek behind the scenes: why are we suddenly looking at A Monthly Bulletin again? Because we had a really thorough tidy up of what we jokingly call The Arthur Millard Memorial Library – that is, our boxroom – and having got rid of a load of books and organised the rest, we’ve rediscovered lots of stuff that we forgot we had. It’s easy to dip into something before bed or in the morning before work and AMB in particular is especially dippable.