Roll Out the Barrel: The British Pub on Film Review
Had it not been for Edition Filmmuseum’s excellent survey of Die Oberhausener in May (which I reviewed here), I strongly suspect that Roll Out the Barrel would end the year as my documentary highpoint of 2012. It offers up a decade-spanning cinematic tour of the British boozer on film, encompassing everything from WWII-era morale boosting to a pair of Pythons playing silly buggers. This kind of themed collection has become a BFI standard nowadays – one theme, two discs, a hefty booklet and plenty of gems out of the archive – and the latest addition is no different. We get 20 films in all, totalling five hours and an impressive range of styles. There’s also at least one forgotten masterpiece, a handful of genuine delights and plenty of pleasing diversions. Taken on a film-by-film basis I’d argue that it ranks among the very best of the BFI’s non-fiction sets to date.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a history lesson. The Story of English Inns (a 1944 re-edit of The English Inn, made three years earlier) combines brief period re-enactment, the voice-over of BBC announcer Bruce Belfridge and light orchestral accompaniment to provide a crash course on the inn through the ages, right up to the present day. Given the end date there’s also an understandable streak of nationalist fervour. It traces both the progress made over the years and notes the continuities, unerringly identifying them as distinctly British characteristics. Interestingly, some of its footage finds its way into Down at the Local (1945), a very different take on English pubs by Richard Massingham nevertheless still very much coloured by the war. Here we learn of glass shortages, a lack of spirits, an increase in beer prices and a plea for patrons to write to former regulars now fighting overseas. Not that things are quite so sombre as this possibly sounds. There’s also a great deal of warmth thanks to Massingham’s usual good humour (which should be familiar to purchasers of the BFI’s COI sets) and bouts of local colour: “Two pints o’ mix, lass.”
Unsurprisingly, it is the locals who provide one of Roll Out the Barrel’s constants. A selection of Mining Reviews from the fifties and sixties journey across the land for various tales of local quirk: a tramps’ ball in Yorkshire where the winning prize is a year’s worth of free haircuts or a misbalanced billiards table in Barnsley presided over by a parrot. We also find singing miners, sundry pub games and Chaplin screenings to the regulars of a Bedworth establishment every Thursday night. Put them all together and you could create either a mini-narrative or a societal cross-section, which is exactly what two of the longer-form pieces choose to do. All in Good Time (1964), though sponsored by Guinness, “could be mistaken for an episode of a soap opera,” as Lisa Kerrigan notes in her booklet essay. A young Richard Briers plays a newly-wed who makes up just one of a host of characters from across the class spectrum who gather at a fictional pub somewhere in Banbury. Each has a story to tell and the end result is a near-half-hour of diverting entertainment. The jazzy score by Steve Race and his Orchestra also deserves a quick nod.
By way of contrast to the colour charms of All in Good Time, Ein Arbeiterclub in Sheffield (A Working Men’s Club in Sheffield, 1965) offers up black and white vérité footage and a strict documentary portrait of its chosen subject. It too gets to know its regulars, but does so outside of its drinking house as well as in. Dick Alvermann’s camera follows them as they go about their work, head to the shops or take the kids to school, essentially placing the Dial House as a key component within the community. Made for German television, the film comes with an outsider’s eye, though many will recognise its chief components: slot machines, snooker, bingo, an eclectic range of musical acts. Needless to say, it makes for a fascinating time capsule.
Even better is The Ship Hotel – Tyne Main (1967) which operates along similar lines. Once again we have black and white photography and an observation stance, but here the boozer in question is a smaller one thereby allowing for a more intimate portrait. The director, Philip Trevelyan, would later make The Moon and the Sledgehammer, a documentary account of the Page family who effectively lived off the land in rural Sussex. Though marked with a certain freakishness, Trevelyan refused to judge those in front of his cameras and in doing so was able to tap into both the tensions and the tenderness behind this odd little family unit. Whilst the patrons of the Ship Hotel hardly compare in this respect, the approach is very much the same: stand back and never once force the details to emerge. Indeed, Trevelyan likes to take his time, to let his picture slowly build. His camera takes in the faces and the games of dominoes, his soundtrack records the chatter and murmur of conversation. Soon impromptu singing breaks out and relationships and hints of drama can be slightly discerned. Some moments were staged at Trevelyan’s request, but importantly the whole thing feels entirely real. If Roll Out the Barrel has a standout then The Ship Hotel – Tyne Main is it; further proof that its director is one of British cinema’s most unsung talents.
From something a little arthouse (The Ship Hotel was independently produced and then distributed by the Amber collective) to something a little grindhouse. Under the Table You Must Go was the final collaboration between Stanley A. Long and Arnold L. Miller. Made in 1969, it followed the likes of West End Jungle [review], London in the Raw [review] and Primitive London [review] and shared something of their ‘mondo’-esque qualities. It begins, bizarrely enough, with a conversation between two parked cars who then make their way around the capital to check out its various drinking houses. What follows is just as strange: Jon Pertwee singing in a mock bierkeller; Radio One DJ Stuart Henry chatting up young girls; former prisoners-of-war convening to remember past escape attempts; an interview with a ‘bunny mother’ (she was in charge of ‘bunny girls’); and cameos from the likes of Tommy Trinder, Jonathan King and Jimmy Hill. There’s also conveniently low-angle cameras capturing mini-skirted girls on the dancefloor and an overwhelming sensation of everything feeling incredibly brown and dingy. It’s an awkward watch, but once again makes for a fascinating time capsule.
As a palette cleanser comes Guinness for You (1971), an artistic promo for a self-evident sponsor that avoids the dry lecture in favour of an entirely wordless, emphatically visual approach. Here bottles of Guinness are reduced to dancing geometric shapes, all light and shade and varying depths of focus. Glass, liquid and grain are shot as though the filmmakers (director Anthony Short, writer-producer Eric Marquis) were making a science-fiction film, psychedelia, a nature documentary or a combination of all three. Tristram Cary’s experimental score – all electronic burbles – adds immeasurably to the mood and yet somehow we still manage to learn about the product at hand. Quite a feat!
A Round of Bass from 1972 similarly sets out to promote its titular brand, but does so through more conventional means. The creative force here was Geoffrey Reeve, taking on writer and director duties in-between his two Alistair MacLean features, Puppet on a Chain and Caravan to Vaccares. The approach is sensible, unfussy and impressively wide-ranging for its mere 22-minute running time. Voice-over and chatty interview snippets (plus a few jokey anecdotes) seamlessly gel together as Reeve takes us from brewery to boardroom and even a private jet, and touches on everything from Bass’ growing chain of hotels and motels and their dabbling in sports sponsorship. Whilst less artistically inclined than Guinness for You, there’s no doubting the professional touch.
If it does prove a little too dry, then a more light-hearted duo swiftly follow. Henry Cleans Up, from 1974, and What’ll You Have?, from 1977, are chockfull of familiar faces and offer up a more comedic approach. The former (another Guinness commission) sees Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Monty Python-regular Carol Cleeveland team up for a brief tale about keeping your pipes clean. The latter has Richard Wattis travelling through time for a history of the British pub from 1066 onwards. Also along for the ride are Roy Hudd, On the Buses’ Michael Robbins and the chest of Jenny Lee-Wright, most commonly seen on The Benny Hill Show. Interestingly there’s a touch of crossover here with Roll Out the Barrel’s opener, The Story of English Inns, though the comic element (however broad) undoubtedly sweetens the educational pill.
The last of the seventies films, New Pubs for Old (1979), appears twice. It is essentially a news item, produced by the COI and intended for inclusion in one of their ‘cine-magazines’ for foreign markets. London Line catered for Caribbean and African audiences, whilst This Week in Britain was distributed in Australasia and Canada (presumably targeting ex-pats). Here we find both editions which tell the exact same story – pre-fabricated pub interiors that look period but are made from modern materials such as fibreglass – but with a different host depending on territory. It’s a somewhat standard item (as are two of the earlier documentaries I’ve neglected to mention so far, The Inn That Crossed the Sea  and The Friendly Inn ), but makes for an intriguing insight into the documentary practices of the time.
Lastly, we arrive at Local Life, an 18-minute promotional item made for the Brewers Society in 1982. Bernard Cribbins introduces and Brian Redhead delivers the opening voice-over, but then we’re left to the patrons of numerous UK-wide pubs as their activities over the course of a day are effortlessly blended together by editor Peter Day. Not that it’s all boozing and idle chit-chat – we also get bell-ringers, all manner of charity events, a spot of cricket and plenty more besides. Indeed, as a summation of British pub it makes for a fitting end to Roll Out the Barrel. Whilst the subject matter may initially seem rather limiting, it’s really quite amazing how it has managed to inspire such a diverse range of often excellent little films.
Two dual-layered discs and a very impressive 50-page booklet make up Roll Out the Barrel. The 20 films are split between the all-region DVDs and programmed in chronological order (see contents below). On the whole the presentations are very good indeed. Some of the Mining Reviews, in particular, look absolutely stunning given their age and obscurity. Perhaps inevitably there are a few weaker titles on offer (What’ll You Have? suffers from instability issues from time to time), though not enough to encroach on the overall standard which is excellent. All films come in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with original mono soundtracks and the option of English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
As for the booklet, it offers up everything you could care to know. Various members of the BFI National Archive are on hand to provide individual essays on each of the inclusions (plus some wider overviews, as per Ros Cranston’s notes on the Mining Review or Patrick Russell’s brisk look at corporate filmmaking), whilst Robin Turner of Caught by the River and Chris Murray of the Pub History Society provide the historical angles. Murray’s discussion of some of the pubs involved – both their histories and their stories since – is a particularly nice touch. As should be expected we also get full credits of each of the films and notes on their transfers.
The Story of English Inns (1944)
Down at the Local (1945, d. Richard Massingham)
The Inn that Crossed the Sea (1950, d. Norman Cobb)
Tramp’s Ball (1953, d. Basil Somner, from Mining Review 6th Year No 11)
Beer and Skittles (1954, d. Stanley Gouler, from Mining Review 8th Year No 2)
The Old Pheasant (1958, from Mining Review 11th Year No 9)
The Friendly Inn (1958, d. Clare Ash)
Mining Review 16th Year No.5 (1963, d. John Reid)
Lucy’s Table (1965, from Mining Review 18th Year No 9)
All in Good Time (1964, d. Robert Tronson)
Ein Arbeiter in Sheffield (1965, d. Peter Nestler)
The Ship Hotel - Tyne Main (1967, d. Philip Trevelyan)
Under the Table You Must Go (1969, d. Arnold Miller)
Guinness for You (1971, d. Anthony Short)
A Round of Bass (1972, d. Geoffrey Reeve)
Henry Cleans Up (1974, d. Digby Turpin)
What’ll You Have? (1977, d. James Allen)
New Pubs For Old [Australasian Version] (1979)
New Pubs For Old [African Version] (1979)
Local Life (1982, d. Clive Mitchell)