A Nice Cold Pint at 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.

Film Review: Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)

Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in 1939, is a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the battle between technology and tradition in brewing.

Ironside Brewery as seen in Cheer Boys Cheer, 1939.

Iron­side Brew­ery is a tech­no­log­i­cal won­der, staffed by effi­cient white-coat­ed tech­ni­cians, resem­bling some­thing from The Shape of Things to Come – rock­et-like fer­ment­ing ves­sels reach to the sky, and every­thing is gleam­ing met­al. (It is clev­er­ly con­struct­ed using a mix of mat­te paint­ings, mod­els, and, we think, shots of some­where like Acton Lane pow­er sta­tion.)

Nonethe­less, in the words of a rebel­lious new mem­bers of its board:

The beer isn’t worth drink­ing…  You’ve ratio­nalised the taste out if it… What’s the use of machin­ery that can pro­duce ten mil­lion bot­tles a minute when you can’t offer one of them to your friend?

Old Mr Iron­side (Edmund Gwenn) and his ruth­less­ly schem­ing son John (Peter Coke) don’t care about that: they want to expand for the sake of expan­sion. But where will they sell all the extra beer they pro­duce? Their search for leben­sraum leads them to the rur­al Green­leaf Brew­ery and it’s ‘100 first class hous­es’. (That ref­er­ence to Nazism isn’t glib: Old Man Iron­side is actu­al­ly shown leaf­ing casu­al­ly through Mein Kampf lat­er in the film.)

The Greenleaf Brewery, from Cheer Boys Cheer, 1939.

Green­leaf vs. Iron­side… The sym­bol­ism in this film is not sub­tle. Iron­side is met­al, elec­tric­i­ty, lor­ries and sharp suits; Green­leaf is wood, steam, hors­es and rum­pled tweed. Taste is every­thing at Green­leaf and the head brew­er, Matt Boyle (Jim­my O’Dea), first appears proud­ly bran­dish­ing a glass of the lat­est batch of his XXX for his col­leagues to try. When he sees buf­foon­ish brew­ery work­er Albert (Gra­ham Mof­fat) kick­ing a cask of XXX across the room, he reacts furi­ous­ly: ‘You’ll bruise it!’ He would no doubt today be described as ‘pas­sion­ate’ about brew­ing.

Lat­er in the film, high on his own sup­ply, he pro­duces his grandfather’s tat­tered brew­ing book and boasts:

He could brew a beer for any pur­pose. A beer to make you hap­py, a beer to make you sigh, a beer to make you laugh, and a beer to make you cry.

A stereo­typ­i­cal drunk com­ic Irish­man, Boyle is nonethe­less the film’s most engag­ing char­ac­ter, and O’Dea cer­tain­ly knew how to make a beer look tasty on screen, smack­ing his lips, widen­ing his eyes and sigh­ing con­tent­ed­ly with each draught of dark, foamy mild.

A pre­dictable plot gives the film its rather flab­by shape: young John Iron­side invei­gles his way into Greenleaf’s and seduces the owner’s daugh­ter (Nova Pil­beam), but their sim­ple, hon­est ways and tru­ly deli­cious beers win him over. Prov­ing him­self to be a good egg at heart, he joins them to fight back against his increas­ing­ly gang­ster­ish father and his gangs of vio­lent goons: ‘Gone ide­al­ist, eh?’ sneers the old man.

It is expert brew­ing which saves the day when Boyle pro­duces a batch of his grandfather’s mas­ter­piece – a beer con­tain­ing ‘all the sor­rows of Ire­land’, the ‘tears of Dei­dre’. It is lit­er­al­ly so aston­ish­ing­ly bril­liant that it caus­es grown men to cry when they drink it.

The humour through­out is of the ‘Ooo, yaroo! It’s on me blinkin’ foot!’ vari­ety, and the dou­ble act of Gra­ham Mof­fat and Moore Mar­riot, famil­iar from the films of Will Hay, has not aged well. Frankly, if this film had been about, say, the dairy indus­try, we would prob­a­bly not have enjoyed it half as much.

Though nice­ly done, the pubs and brew­eries fea­tured are either stu­dio sets or paint­ings, so there isn’t much to be gleaned in terms of use­ful his­tor­i­cal detail, either.

The val­ue of Cheer Boys Cheer is as an ear­ly expres­sion of a point of view that would lat­er inform the found­ing of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood and the Cam­paign for Real Ale, and which arguably under­lies the ‘small is beau­ti­ful’, ‘buy local’ trend of the last forty years: dis­pas­sion­ate tech­ni­cians in a fac­to­ry can­not pos­si­bly make real­ly sat­is­fy­ing beer.

Cheer Boys Cheer fea­tures is includ­ed in the two-disc, four-film set The Eal­ing Stu­dios Rar­i­ties Col­lec­tion Vol­ume 9, from Net­work DVD. Our copy cost £10.

The Lost Runcorn Mega Brewery

Screenshot from A Round of Bass

The col­lec­tion of doc­u­men­taries about pubs from the British Film Insti­tute we’ve been eager­ly await­ing for some time has final­ly arrived, and our copy turned up this week. (We bought it with our own mon­ey, for the record.)

Quite apart from the aching nos­tal­gia for an age before we born pro­voked by the fad­ed films, there are lots of nuggets which demand fur­ther research.

For exam­ple, there’s the Run­corn mega brew­ery men­tioned in A Round of Bass (dir. Geof­frey Reeve, 1972). We’ve been to Run­corn sev­er­al times and nev­er noticed any sign of the ‘most mod­ern beer pro­duc­ing plant in Europe’. A quick Google turned up this aca­d­e­m­ic paper (PDF) by David W Gutzke which sum­maris­es the sto­ry as fol­lows:

Built by Bass Char­ring­ton, Britain’s pre-emi­nent brew­ery in the 1960s and 1970s, Run­corn was con­ceived as becom­ing west­ern Europe’s largest brew­ery. Even before it opened in 1974, how­ev­er, Run­corn was struck with paralysing labour dis­rup­tions, tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems, and man­age­r­i­al mis­cal­cu­la­tions that would plague its his­to­ry until its clo­sure until 1991. What gave Run­corn broad­er sig­nif­i­cance was its role in reflect­ing the per­va­sive, but mis­placed, assump­tions about a new cor­po­rate cul­ture, new tech­nolo­gies, the emer­gence of nation­al brands, and adver­tis­ing as a vehi­cle for replac­ing local con­sumer tastes with nation­al mar­kets.

The paper is an inter­est­ing beer-focused com­pan­ion piece to Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out and answers the rid­dle of why we didn’t spot any sign of a mon­strous­ly huge brew­ery on our trips to Cheshire:

Soon the entire brew­ery plant was dis­man­tled and sold, with some of it shipped to Roma­nia; Bass even dis­posed of the emp­ty brew­ing site. Noth­ing remained to remind the com­pa­ny of a scheme so grandiose but so calami­tous that its true nature was expunged from Bass’s offi­cial his­to­ries.