Roll Out the Barrel is a fascinating collection of 19 films, made between 1944 and 1982, all of which shine a light on the cultural phenomena of the great British public house. From wartime documentaries, intended to keep up flagging spirits, to independent productions promoting products and services or exploring the permissive society of the 1960s, this five-hour collection provides a vivid insight into what life was like in and around the British pub over a forty-year period.
Since there’s a hell of a lot of material here I’ll just provide a capsule summary of each of the films and finish off with an overview of the collection as I see it.
The Story of English Inns (1944)
Starting off with a quote from Samuel Johnson this Pathé news kind of short is a tribute to the affection and esteem in which the pub is held throughout England. It’s very general and is more about companionship and people coming together than about anything else.
Down at the Local (1945)
Utilising some of the same footage from the previous short, this seems to be more of a snap shot of the sorts of characters who were inhabiting pubs up and down the land around the time the film was shot. We see lots of pipe smoking, flat caps, people playing darts and crib and generally just carrying on as normal. This is definitely another propaganda film, this time made by the War Office.
The Inn That Crossed the Sea (1950)
This promotional film for Hope and Anchor Breweries resembles a light news itemfrom a 1950s cinemagazine, with added historical recreations, which, to be fair, are pretty well done. The company basically created a replica inn and sent it to Canada to help promote their beer. Unfortunately the overly promotional theme of this short somewhat ruins it.
Tramps Ball (1953)
The Winning Post Hotel in the mining village of Thorne, Yorkshire holds a fancy dress ball for locals. This short provides an overview of the ball, its activities and participants as they cook sausages over a pit fire, sing and show off their fancy dress costumes. The prize for best costume – a year’s free service at a local barbers!
Beer and Skittles (1954)
Skittles enthusiasts gather at the Parc and Dare Unionist Club, in the Rhonda Valley, Glamorgan, for a local ‘needle match’. There are lots of flat caps and pipes!
The Old Pheasant (1957)
This short also features miners, but this time in Warwickshire. The publican, aware of how TV is drawing his customers away, tries to lure them back by inviting a local film enthusiast to set up his projector every week to show early film classics. Apparently it worked, somewhat surprisingly.
The Friendly Inn (1958)
They don’t make them like this anymore, that’s for sure! Made for the British Travel Association ‘The Friendly Inn’ takes the viewer on a rapid tour of pubs across the British Isles. The film is fronted by English actor Michael Denison (Boyd QC), as he gushes how ‘the atmosphere is bound to be gay’ when introducing The Punch Bowl pub, judging it by its pub sign! This is essentially a travelogue of inns really.
Mining Review 16th Year No 5 (1963)
Starting with a ballad all about improvements being made to retired miner’s homes in Durham, and moving on to a pub where the landlord collects mining relics, this plays more like a mini anthology rather than a coherent all in one short.
Lucy’s Table (1965)
Billiards presided over by a parrot called Lucy. Just a typical night out in Barnsley!
All in Good Time (1964)
Kicking off with a groovy soundtrack by Steve Race, this short offers a wholly unrealistic and overly optimistic view of life in a typical English town where the biggest worry is whether the sexy, but unreliable barmaid will get back to work for the lunchtime rush! I guess the most interesting thing about the film is that it features a very young Richard Briers (The Good Life) and his real-life wife, Ann Davies. It’s all a bit twee, with everyone being so very nice and helpful to each other.
A Working Men’s Club in Sheffield (1965)
Directed by a German, Peter Nestler, this takes a look behind the scenes of working class culture. Utilising both moving and still images to tell his ‘story’ Nestler exposes the social fabric of a community of workers who gather at the Dial House Club. While I’d have liked to have heard more naturalistic dialogue from the denizens of the club the film is still a fascinating warts ‘n’ all snapshot of working men’s leisure time.
The Ship Hotel – Tyne Main (1967)
Another snapshot of pub life, this time by director Philip Trevelyan, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, but don’t let that put you off! This is a very sedately paced short where not a lot happens, expect for people smoking a lot! There is some cracking photography by Richard Stanley, but apart from some interesting faces there’s not a lot to recommend here.
Under the Table You Must Go (1969)
The longest film in this compilation ‘Under the Table You Must Go’ was shot by exploitation specialist Stanley Long and, rather bizarrely, starts off with two cars talking to each other! The cars then head off to see the sights which seem to primarily consist of a creaky can-can dance, a middle of the road Country and Western band, a cabaret act and a bunny girl club. There are chats with a number of sportsmen and we see Otis Reading singing ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ at a gig. Playing very much like a mondo movie for pubs and clubs, the highlight for me was catching sight of former Dr Who, Jon Pertwee, singing ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ whilst wearing a WWI German helmet during a crazy bier Keller sing-a-long!
Guinness for You (1971)
A documentary showing how Guinness glasses are blown and how bottle tops are created, all underlined by some strange, almost sci-fi styled, music by Tristram Cary. The film takes us through the history of the drink via photographs and pictures. It’s more of a promotional piece for Guinness, but features some clever camera work and excellent editing.
A Round of Bass (1972)
Another promotional piece, which focuses on a new site at Runcorn and talks about the skills of the brewers at Bass. There’s a lot of talk about the new beer in town, namely Tennets lager, which back then was looked on with suspicion as a woman’s drink – how things change!
Henry Cleans Up (1974)
This is the made-up story of Henry, a former fish frier, who tries his hand at being a pub landlord with decidedly mixed results. Henry, played by former Python Michael Palin, seeks the help of rival landlord Albert, played by Terry Jones (yet another Python), to train him to pull the perfect pint of Guinness. The morale of the story – make sure you keep your pipes clean, but also make sure your rival is not keeping your wife’s pipes clean behind your back!
What’ll You Have? (1977)
This is an entertaining lesson about the history of British pubs as discovered by time-travelling warriors from the battle of 1066. It then jumps to 1166 and examines ale houses, before moving onto 1366 and looking in on a monastery where they brew their own ales. Our time travelling guides then jump forward to 1539 to the dissolution of the monasteries and then onto 1601 when pubs first have to be licensed, during the Elizabethan era. It continues on through the ages, with funny vignettes right up to the 1970s where pubs have gone back to serving food with their alcohol. It all ends in a sing-a-long, strangely reminiscent of something you would later see during a ‘Horrible Histories’ programme.
New Pubs for Old (1979)
There are essentially two versions of the same film, both of which look at pub makers who create olde world pubs inside new ones using fibreglass mouldings of ancient wooden beams and the like. Basically these are news items from the television show ‘This Week In Britain’, which reported on a company called The Pub Makers who, back in the seventies saw a gap in the market refurbishing new pubs to look like old ones.
Local Life (1982)
Another snapshot of pub life, circa the early eighties, where 13 million pints were being pulled every day in 73,000 British pubs and regular pub goers raised £20 million, per annum, for good charitable causes. We see chefs preparing food for lunchtime customers, clips of clients talking, a charity tug-o-war contest, a three-legged race, pub games being played, live music captivating its audiences and a pub sing-a-long involving pretty much everyone.
Roll Out the Barrel is a tricky thing to review. I’m not entirely sure who it’s aimed at. I’m guessing probably at those with an interest in beers and pubs in general (members of CAMRA then?) and perhaps those who enjoy watching old public information films. If, like me, you’re more into people watching then there’s also a lot to enjoy here. The BFI have done their usual bang-up job of restoring and presenting the films in the best way possible and the supplementary booklet that accompanies the package makes for fascinating reading.
Obviously the quality of the films varies considerably, not only picture and sound wise, but also at general production level with some scripted shorts working better than those which are of a more fly-on-the wall variety.
I’d certainly recommend this BFI release to those who are interested in modern social history and those, like me, who are just fascinated by people.
Rating: (for most people)/ (for people who are really interested in pubs)
Reviewer: Justin Richards
Roll Out the Barrel: The British Pub on Film was recently released by the BFI and is available from all good DVD retailers and the BFI Filmstore.