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.