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Beer on the Box

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Like children, televisions in pubs should know their place.

Time Gentlemen PleaseThere’s nothing wrong with a set discreetly tucked away in a corner ready for the major sporting event, or even a big screen that is unfurled on match days to allow those of us who refuse to be held to ransom by Sky to catch the big match.

But, personally, that’s where I think TV intrusion should end.

Possibly the most anti-social of trends to hit the pub sector in the last decade – and there have been a few – is the multi-screen system, where there’s always something colourful happening to catch your eye and divert your attention from your mate’s conversation.

There’s no sound, of course, or if there is it’s completely drowned out by the conflicting tones of the jukebox, which makes their presence all the more infuriating and pointless.

Contrary to children, who are best seen but not heard in pubs, televisions should be neither or both.

While juggling with this concept of whether television and pubs enjoy a happy marriage, it occurred to me to turn the premise around. If TVs in pubs are a mixed blessing, are pubs on TV any better?

In other words, just how successful has the world of television been at portraying pub life over the decades? Essentially, I think it all depends on the role the pub is expected to play. 

The Admag

One of the first pubs to feature on TV in the UK was called Jim’s Inn. This was a village boozer hosted by Jimmy Hanley (father of Magpie presenter Jenny Hanley).

The series was what was known as an ‘admag’, short for advertising magazine. There were a number of these in the early days of commercial television.

They were eventually outlawed in 1963, but basically they operated as little dramas or feature programmes in which characters or presenters recommended goods in return for advertising fees.

In this respect, the pub worked a treat. Customers would wander up to the bar and chat with other punters or mine host, telling them about their latest bargains, and presumably viewers hared down the shops the next morning to buy up the stock.

Variety Showcase

The pub has also proved to be a handy vehicle for variety. Between 1963 and 1966, ITV treated us to Stars and Garters, a cabaret show with a pub atmosphere.

Shots of artists like Vince Hill and Kathy Kirby in full swing were inter-cut with scenes of locals drinking and singing along.

It proved to be a stepping stone towards Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club in the 1970s, with its cartoon-like depiction of a smoky Saturday night out in clubland, complete with star turns, keg beer, pies and bingo.

If you ever wondered where the inspiration for Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights came from, look no further.

Ideal Venue

The village local or the back-street boozer has, of course, featured prominently in many a drama series, providing an ideal venue for bringing characters together, in the same way as a corner shop or a café operates in this medium.

All major soap operas have their central pub, but in other series, too, the pub plays a key role in proceedings, perhaps showing the lead characters off duty and introducing a new dimension to their lives – The Drovers’ Arms in All Creatures Great and Small and The Aidensfield Arms in Heartbeat spring to mind.

Just like in real life, these are places where locals gather to chew the fat, start an affair or have the odd argument. Inevitably, of course, the TV pub takes the affair or the argument to a new level, as friction between characters is the root of all drama.

The action that takes place in the pub may be rather heightened, but is the pub realistic in other senses? Some more than others, it seems, especially when it comes to the beer being served.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, The Rovers Return in Coronation Street defiantly rejected the use of handpumps, despite the fact that, in its setting of Manchester, there were breweries like Hydes, Holt’s, Lees and Boddingtons all stuffing local pubs with real ale.

The handpumps used to be there in the 1960s, when Jack and Annie Walker pulled pints for Len Fairclough and Jerry Booth, but they were stripped out during the keg uprising of the early 1970s and didn’t make a comeback until well into the 1990s. Thankfully, they are still in place.

Suffering for Art

In most cases the beer served on set is not real, in the sense that it is not beer at all. I believe they do opt for the genuine article in Emmerdale, which I’m sure causes a bit of fun when re-takes are required, as used to happen when Likely Lads Rodney Bewes and James Bolam really did knock back the Newcastle Brown when filming, so it is claimed.

Similarly John Thaw suffered for his art. When filming one scene in Oxford’s Randolph Hotel as the beer-drinkers’ detective, Inspector Morse, Thaw was called upon to sink a pint in one draught. It was only 7.30 am but duty called.

The director, as directors do, then asked for a re-take, which John admirably performed. Then someone noticed that the clock in the background was showing the wrong time, so he had to do it yet again.

John was not even a lover of beer, so it was an act of supreme professionalism.

Sitcom Pubs

Even less realistic than drama pubs have been the pubs that have featured in situation comedies. In this medium, the characters are hugely exaggerated, so the old-school landlord becomes a bigot, the slightly-off-the-pace regular becomes a brain-dead idiot, and the friendly, welcoming barmaid becomes a floozy.

But the pub has proved central to the plots of some great sitcoms. What would Only Fools and Horses have been like without The Nag’s Head as a rendezvous for Peckham’s petty villains?

How would Gary Sparrow have mingled with the wartime Londoners without The Royal Oak in Goodnight Sweetheart?

Surprisingly few comedies have been entirely based around pubs. In the 1970s Ronnie Corbett struggled to find humour as the guvnor of The Prince of Denmark, in the sitcom of the same name, more or less at the same time as Hylda Baker was taking up residence as the landlady of The Brown Cow in the execrable Not on Your Nellie.

Brilliant Comedy

Considering the pub is the place where most of us get our laughs, it is surprising that comedy writers failed to wring the best out of them for so long.

It was Cheers that turned things around. The US hit, set in a Boston bar, really showed how such a setting could generate brilliant comedy.

Of course, the writing had to be spot on for it to work. Getting the characters right and not talking down to your audience counted for more than simply taking a bar as a location, throwing everything in and hoping for the best. But, that said, the venue was intrinsic to the series’ success.

As the place where locals gathered to laugh, to tease and to let off steam after a tough day, it opened up a range of possible stories that would not have worked so well, if at all, in a different setting.

The successors to Cheers – although an ocean apart in many respects – were Time Gentlemen Please (pictured above) and Early Doors. The former was a television manifestation of comedian Al Murray’s angry stand-up creation, the Pub Landlord.

Murray once entertained members of the British Guild of Beer Writers with an extract from the act and his association with the Guild continues in his choice of tie. Look closely and you’ll see the Guild’s quill and tankard logo at the bottom of his striped blue neckwear.

Less is More

Early Doors had its origins in a different sort of comedy. It was clearly a son of The Royle Family.

The brainchild of Royle co-writer and star Craig Cash, it carried on the ‘less is more’ concept of minimal action, with no laughter track and a focus on the little things of life rather than unfeasible plotlines.

In this respect, The Grapes in Early Doors was the most realistic of television pubs. The characters may have been cranked up a notch to raise their comedy profile, but they were merely caricatures of the sort of people who use pubs in real life.

Understated touches like customers wiping their hands on the back of their jeans because the toilet’s hand dryer was not working again and conversation that majored on the latest set of out-of-action traffic lights revealed that Cash and his co-writer Phil Mealey had been in plenty of proper pubs in their time.

I’m not sure there was even a TV in The Grapes, but, if there was, it was hardly ever on. The priorities were right: nothing was allowed to kill the conversation in this admirable boozer.


Penguin TV CompanionAs well as writing about beer, Jeff Evans is also author of The Penguin TV Companion, an A-Z of TV history: more than 1,000 pages crammed with information about thousands of programmes and people who made TV great – cast lists, transmission dates, detailed synopses, star ratings and more.

This feature first appeared in What's Brewing in July 2008. Please note that details and facts may have changed since that first publication.


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