The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Roll Out The Barrel: The British Pub On Film Explored
Anna Coatman , June 11th, 2012 08:12

Anna Coatman downs a new BFI DVD compilation of shorts about the nation's drinking establishments. Still from Michael Palin's 1970s trade film Henry Cleans Up

Sprawling across two discs, propped up under the armpits by exhaustive, illustrated notes, Roll Out The Barrel: The British Pub On Film takes the viewer on a filmic pub crawl of epic proportions, encompassing the length and breadth of Britain - from London to Argyll, with stops at Kent, Oxford, Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Salisbury, Somerset, Surrey, Cleveland, Sheffield and Newcastle along the way. Finally calling time, ladies and gentlemen, time, after five-and-a-half hours of footage, it may not be one for lightweights, but well rewards those who stick with it till the end.

For its latest DVD release, the BFI has been down into the (metaphorical) cellar of its National Archive, and brought up 20 shorts about pubs. Made between 1944 and 1982, most of these have not been seen since the time they were first created. It's an obscure collection of rousing wartime documentaries, garish Guinness adverts, seedy '60s independent productions, and poetic portraits of northern 'locals'. Taken together, it makes compelling viewing. Watching it feels a bit like standing by the bar, ordering a drink, and watching 40 years of British social history totter by.

As the tonal spectrum slides from sepia to Technicolor, the clipped, authoritative, Queen's English voice-over breaks into a plethora of different regional accents, and the number of women (drinking pints, rather than just serving them with a smile) steadily increases. But, equally, some things stay stubbornly the same. The pub remains an escape from the world as much as a window onto it. An escape from work, an escape from home - a place you can get lost in between the two.

The films in Roll Out The Barrel are fascinating for the cultural change – and continuity - they show. But they're perhaps even more fascinating because of what they are striving to depict. Whatever its original purpose may have been – commercial, propagandist, ethnographic or artistic – each, in its own way, represents a kind of national self-portrait: clumsy/polished/cynical/naïve, ultimately hopeless, attempts to define who 'we', the British, are.

Most explicit in this purpose are the first pair. The Story Of English Inns (1944) and Down At The Local (1945). These specially commissioned wartime films were intended to remind the troops overseas what they were fighting for: affectionate, patriotism-stirring pieces about the ale houses back home. Here, the pub is presented an essential, enduring part of England that will remain untouched and unchanged by the chaos consuming the rest of the globe.

After the war, we witness this heritage haven being packaged and sold to the transatlantic market: English culture as a kind of theme park attraction. The commercially sponsored documentary, The Inn That Crossed The Sea (1950) – which is unfortunately narrated by a chronically uncharismatic employee - tells the story of the Hope & Anchor Breweries' trip to a trade show in North America, where it reconstructed, tacky brass wall decoration by tacky brass wall decoration, a Rose & Crown pub (the original being located in South Yorkshire).

By contrast, in later films attempts are made to show the pub as a site of societal shift. Under The Table You Must Go (1969) is a sleazy, Italian mondo cinema-inspired documentary that somewhat desperately attempts to reveal the era's 'shocking' permissiveness. The tables have been pushed back to make room for a dance floor, the wizened old regulars have been replaced by gyrating youths, and a silken-shirted, sexually predatory DJ harasses the 'girls' over the sound system.

On the flipside of this sensationalism, there is the delicately crafted The Ship Hotel - Tyne Main (1967). Created by Philip Trevelyan, this is a beautiful, steady-paced black and white depiction of The Ship Hotel pub, which sits, battered by Baltic winds, on the bank of the River Tyne. Trevelyan intimately follows the owners and frequenters of the working-class pub with his Royal College of Art-funded camera. He renders the quotidian melancholy and mirth of those within the establishment almost mythical: pub-going as a timeless, endless local ritual, the roots of which lie far back in the past.

Not all of these films about British pubs are British-made: A Working Men's Club In Sheffield (1965) was produced by an all-German crew, overseen. This 40-minute piece paints a poignant period picture, with the Dial House club as its focal point. The film starts out by looking at its subject from an outsider's perspective - the sub-titled voice-over soberly informing the viewer that Sheffield is equivalent to Duisberg or Essen - but soon gets right to its heart. Shot and edited masterfully, director Peter Nestler switches between beautifully unobtrusive footage of a city at work and then at play. We see the intense, red-hot concentration of workers on the steam-filled steel factory floor; silent, tired commuters on the swaying top deck of the bus home; children and their pet dogs running down the streets; a mixed-race girl excluded from a circle of other children in a playground; men and women forgetting about all of the above in the club.

As well as providing social support to the community, the Dial House Working Men's Club is also the platform for an odd assortment of amateur musicians and entertainers: comedians, folk duets, sopranos. Nestler intercuts moving footage of the acts and their appreciative audiences, with photographs of them posing backstage afterwards. The contrast of these quiet, motionless images with their noisy, moving counterparts is striking: the former belong to the past, but the latter, somehow, still live in the present.

In a sense, though, all of the shorts on Roll Out The Barrel are looking to the past: a quest for the 'real' Britain, preserved by the pub, a perpetual attempt to recover something lost (a task that preoccupies people now, seemingly as much as ever, in this bunting-choked year of 2012.). It's the hazy, half-forgotten memory of a thing which may or may not have ever been. This is Britain, as seen through a pint glass, blearily.

Roll Out The Barrel: The British Pub On Film is released today by the BFI. There will be a free screening of selections from the anthology next Wednesday June 20 at The Montpelier in Peckham, introduced by The Search For The Perfect Pub co-author Robin Turner and Chris Murray from the Pub History Society. Both the book and DVD will be available for purchase on the night.