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.