The BFI has released a double DVD set called ‘Roll Out the Barrel: the British pub on film’, a collection of 20 films about British pubs made between 1944 and 1982. From wartime documentaries intended to keep up flagging spirits to independent productions exploring the permissive society of the 1960s, the five-hour collection reveals cultural changes in Britain from the perspective of bar and lounge.
One of the great features of British life is still the boozer, the convivial hostelry that acts as neutral ground for all argument and opinion. Traditionally the pub has a landlord/landlady who remains your host, and can invite you in, bar you or ask you to stay late (a bit like vampires). It’s where coroners once set up their offices, a place beyond the sway of prejudice.
And yet there are invisible lines within pubs, particularly between the classes, for where once the Saloon and the Public bars separated clientele there are now rough and smart pubs depending largely on the area. But it seems there’s another divide. I know a number of professional businesswomen who would not be caught dead in a pub. They prefer cocktail bars or – God help us – bars in hotels.
I have never understood this. They’re the same people who complain that the men they meet are universally undesirable. Of course they are; you meet them in hotels! There are pubs that tend to attract a more creative, interesting crowd and there are pubs I wouldn’t touch with a stick. The point is that you make the choice, whereas hotel bars all seem exactly the same.
I have absolutely no interest in networking, being seen somewhere fashionable or knowing anyone famous – years of working in film put paid to that malarkey. You can have no idea how awful a celebrity can be until you’ve eaten with one. But it seems that many women harbour a fantasy of meeting elegant, eligible, famous men in luxurious surroundings. In reality this means eating stale peanuts served by a sleep-deprived Eastern European in a bar with low semi-circular faux-leather armchairs, against a background of Ibiza chillout hits from 1995, and being given a bill of £125.50. Where’s the glamour in that?
The real difference is that pubs are about characters and conversation, and bars are about the surroundings. Recently I went to a place called Shrimpy’s, which has a waiting list of about two months to get in. It consisted of fashionistas sitting in a rather small, glum faux-fifties room, pricing each others’ clothes.
To be fair, a lady likes to get dressed up. She doesn’t want to wrap herself in Marc Jacobs and stand in the Skinner’s Arms. So there’s your answer. ‘Off you go to the Mandarin Oriental bar, love. I’ll be around the corner at the King’s Head, call me when you’re done.’ Or as Al Murray, Pub Landlord, said, ‘A pint of bitter for me and a fruit-based drink for the little lady.’