Dreadful welcome: pubs on film

Old Hollywood was a town overrun with homesick British expats, making films that reflected a particular vision of the old country – nostalgic, parodic and often with a Gothic tint. That was reflected in its portrayal of pubs, too, skewing their image for decades to come.

Con­sid­er 1943’s Sher­lock Holmes Faces Death, one of the bet­ter entries in the run of Sher­lock Holmes films star­ring Basil Rath­bone and Nigel Bruce, which gives us The Rat & Raven.

The film is set in Northum­bria, not that you’d know that from the cast of assort­ed Brits, Antipodeans, Irish­men and Amer­i­cans, all speak­ing stage cock­ney or Transat­lantic Eng­lish.

The pub, which appears 35 min­utes in, is locat­ed in the coun­try town of Hurl­stone – instant­ly recog­nis­able to stu­dents of hor­ror film as the stand­ing ‘Euro­pean vil­lage’ set at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, built c.1920 and reused end­less­ly to stand in for every­where from the West­ern Front to Wales to the fic­tion­al ‘Vis­aria’ where Frankenstein’s mon­ster ram­paged in his lat­er post-Karloff career.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Dread­ful wel­come: pubs on film”

Rough Pubs: Snobbery vs. Experience

Stink-eye bar-fly.

I admit that I’m over-cautious when it comes to guessing whether a pub is rough, but that hasn’t come out of nowhere.

For a start, there’s my fam­i­ly. My Dad – and I hope he won’t mind me say­ing this – was him­self a major cause of rough­ness in pubs when he was a young man. My par­ents met in a pub in Bridg­wa­ter as young­sters but Mum had heard of Dad and his broth­ers long before that:

Your Uncle Ernie espe­cial­ly had a rep­u­ta­tion as a real hard man. Your dad nev­er start­ed any­thing. They’d look at him and because he had red hair they’d see how far they could push him. And you could push him quite a long way but then.… He’d just snap. He got banned from pubs for fight­ing.

Dad him­self is a bit embar­rassed by it all now but…

Basi­cal­ly, we went out to pubs for two rea­sons: either to score, or for a punch-up. Get a few bevvies, have a punch up. That was part of the evening, part of the enter­tain­ment. Young men strut about, I’m the bees knees, don’t mess with me – they have a hard man atti­tude. Back then, the boys from North Pether­ton, boys from Woolav­ing­ton, the Bridg­wa­ter boys… They were hard boys. And you did­n’t mix until you got the bus into town and saw each oth­er in the pubs, so there were ten­sions. Fights start­ed either because peo­ple got pissed and row­dy, or because there was a feud – long-run­ning feuds, some­times – and it would just spark. You did­n’t go look­ing for it, exact­ly, but you did­n’t back away, and you were always ready. The land­lords usu­al­ly dealt with it them­selves: they’d come out from behind the bar with a mal­let, a bat, a stick, or a bloody big Alsa­t­ian. Swing­ing their sticks, get ’em out quick, into the street. Some of them used to employ local hard men as their bounc­ers, like the Starkey broth­ers on the door at The New­mar­ket.

I grew up with sto­ries likes this, and sim­i­lar tales from my late and much-missed Uncle Nor­man, Mum’s broth­er, who was in the Army for years. And my Mum could look after her­self, too, come to that.

My par­ents, being expe­ri­enced pub-goers and briefly pub­li­cans them­selves, at a pub that was­n’t rough but was­n’t gen­teel either, were adept at read­ing them. And in Bridg­wa­ter they knew which ones were no-go at any giv­en time and always made sure I knew, too. The pubs on the estate where I grew up were non-starters as far as they were con­cerned – too dodgy alto­geth­er, much bet­ter to walk a bit into town.

Liv­ing in New Cross in Lon­don in my ear­ly twen­ties I test­ed the bound­aries and worked out that I could have a good time in almost any pub. On bal­ance, though, I rather pre­ferred the ones where I did­n’t have to watch what I said, or where I sat, and where I was­n’t being stared at. (And that goes for posh pubs, too, actu­al­ly – it’s a gen­er­al rule.)

A friend of mine once said that there are two types of peo­ple in life: those after a roller-coast­er ride, and those who want peace and qui­et. I’m very much the lat­ter and so I’ve sim­ply nev­er shared the glee that some seem to find in ambi­ent aggro.

That does mean, how­ev­er, that I – and there­fore we – have missed out on some decent pubs because, at first pass, my spidey sense reg­is­tered a false pos­i­tive for rough­ness. There’s a fine line between rough and char­ac­ter­ful and per­haps I need to re-cal­i­brate my instru­ments, just a lit­tle.

Think You’re Hard, Then?

William Badger Pope c.1930.
William ‘Bad­ger’ Pope c.1930.

William ‘Bad­ger’ Pope, born in around 1878, was a psy­cho who caused trou­ble in the West Coun­try city of Bath in the years before World War I. Local papers from around the turn of the cen­tu­ry are full of sto­ries about his ‘foul mouth’, and of him steal­ing, sleep­ing in dust­bins, assault­ing peo­ple (both men and women), and, in par­tic­u­lar, chuck­ing them in the riv­er.

He was, of course, per­pet­u­al­ly drunk, and most often found in the pub. It was there that, in his most benign moods, he enter­tained peo­ple with fair­ground side-show tricks – bit­ing the heads off live rats he kept stuffed in his shirt, or steal­ing ladies’ hat­pins and dri­ving them through both of his cheeks. When he was feel­ing punchy (which seems to have been most of the time) he would find a bloke he did­n’t like the look of, snatch his beer glass and emp­ty it on to the pub floor, before tak­ing a seat to wait for the fight to begin.

He was almost as good at evad­ing the police as he was at drink­ing and fight­ing. He might, for exam­ple, climb up the may­pole out­side the Water­man’s Arms like King Kong and wait them out, or, even more effec­tive, dive into the riv­er and swim to the oth­er side.

With char­ac­ters like Bad­ger about, land­lords had to be hard, too, and even Bad­ger is said to have respect­ed (feared) Sep­ti­mus Smith, who ran the The Sham­rock. He was famous for wrestling cus­tomers, with a free pint on offer to any­one who could get their hands around both of his wrists at the same time. He could also car­ry three sacks of cement at once.

Yikes. If you need us, we’ll be in the lounge at the hotel, in our Sun­day best, sip­ping sher­ry.

We read about Bad­ger in Kegs & Ale: Bath and the pub­lic house, pub­lished by Bath Indus­tri­al Her­itage Cen­tre and Mill­stream Books in 1991. It’s out of print but our sec­ond­hand copy cost 1p.

The Scariest Pub in Town

The Bristol and Exeter pub, Bridgwater.

By Bai­ley

When I was grow­ing up in Bridg­wa­ter, Som­er­set, there were lots of pubs, and my par­ents took care to edu­cate me on the mer­its and quirks of each one. The Bris­tol and Exeter, aka the B&E, was one of the few pubs that deserved a flat-out warn­ing: I was nev­er to go there. It was, they said, the haunt of scrumpy casu­al­ties, so addled by their con­stant intake of super-strength, mind­bend­ing ‘natch’ that they’d prob­a­bly eat my face as soon as look at me.

The B&E cer­tain­ly nev­er looked very wel­com­ing as nico­tine-stained cur­tains made it impos­si­ble to see inside. Once, walk­ing home from my wai­t­er­ing job after mid­night, a ner­vous sev­en­teen year-old, I was pass­ing the B&E when the door flew open with a bang. I had to leap clear as two rather poor­ly-look­ing women rolled out, mid-fight, and tum­bled into the gut­ter, where one pro­ceed­ed to throt­tle the oth­er, pulling at her hair and scream­ing and swear­ing in the fruiti­est fash­ion. This was not atyp­i­cal.

Now I hear from the par­ents that, forty-years after it began, the ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’ has hit the B&E. It is under new man­age­ment and so cask ales from Moles are on offer; the impen­e­tra­ble screen­ing cur­tains have gone; and there is even the promise of free Wi-Fi.

Next time I go home, will I be able to over­come years of fear and con­di­tion­ing and actu­al­ly cross the thresh­old? And is Bridg­wa­ter poor­er for the loss of an authen­tic rough pub of the old school?

Pic­ture to fol­low when my Mum has popped round and tak­en one for me. Thanks for the pic, Mum! (The pub is now pink!?)

No Riff Raff

Some­thing was odd about the pub we found our­selves in on Sat­ur­day evening, but it took us a few min­utes to work out what: the land­lord was wear­ing a shirt and tie.

We’ve been served in pubs by unshaven, bleary-eyed chaps in their slip­pers; teenagers in cor­po­rate polo shirts; or, y’know, nor­mal peo­ple in nor­mal clothes. But it was the first time we’ve seen a shirt and tie on a land­lord for as long as we can remem­ber.

Read­ing between the lines, we realised that we were in what, until recent­ly, had been a rough pub, now under new man­age­ment. The tie was an attempt — a rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful one — to set the tone.

Turn­ing around a real­ly rough ‘Murderer’s Arms’-type booz­er is a tough job. The most suc­cess­ful attempt we’ve ever seen was in Waltham­stow. There, the Nags Head [sic] closed for sev­er­al months while it was fumi­gat­ed and refur­bished. When it re-opened, there was jazz play­ing, zebra-pat­tern table­cloths and a carousel of olives.

Short of putting up a sign say­ing “NO RIFF RAFF” (or the only slight­ly more sub­tle “NO WORK CLOTHES”) these lit­tle sig­nals are a publican’s most pow­er­ful way of choos­ing their clien­tele.

We define a rough pub as one where, as a bare min­i­mum, you get stared at men­ac­ing­ly. Our favourite pubs are those where no-one pays us any atten­tion at all.