"Have you been to the pub lately?" asks the narrator at the beginning of Local Life, one of twenty films compiled in Roll Out the Barrel, the BFI's five hours-plus, country-wide paean to the modern history of the English public house (occasional forays into Wales notwithstanding). Watching in sequential order, you certainly will feel as though you've "been to the pub lately" by the time Local Life comes around. It is the last instalment (made in 1982) of a captivating journey that starts with 1944's The Story of English Inns and the following year's Down at the Local, a quaint creation with an underlying intention--not unusual for minor English films of the period--to tug at the armed forces' heartstrings. The 1950s are represented mainly by some of the shorter, comparatively less remarkable films in the collection, which are nevertheless still packed with nostalgia for an England that it has perhaps become fashionable to say "did not exist," but in many ways actually did, especially if we're talking about a greater sense of collaboration and mutual respect. Films such as The Old Pheasant (1958), in which a landlord has come up with the idea of once-weekly projector screenings of classic films, or Tramps' Ball (1954), depicting a fancy-dress competition offering simple, token prizes, feel redolent of a time before consumerism became un-ignorable and divisive.
If Roll Out the Barrel revolves around a centrepiece, that label should probably be affixed to Under the Table You Must Go (1969). Not only the longest film in the set, and centrally positioned, it is also the most varied. Starting badly, with a somewhat doggedly "groovy" conversation between (for some reason) two parked cars, it quickly eases up on the wacky theme and becomes instead a glued-together "compilation within a compilation" of disparate footage involving an impressively wide selection of London pubs. Harking back to an age when the retired sportsmen of England entered by default into the profession of publican, the film finds the late Reg Gutteridge OBE, a boxing journalist of some renown, interviewing the great pugilist Len Harvey in situ at his pub, The Star and Garter, Upper Street, Islington. Sporting luminaries feature in other sections of the film, including Dennis Compton, Billy Walker and Jimmy Hill, the latter in thoughtful mode, positing a theory that we tend to "look at the past in a favourable light." Music hall features strongly, with some particularly charming footage of Tommy Trinder regaling a packed pub with Champagne Charlie, plus a subsequent interview. The conventional pub singer is included to further cover the film's good-old-days angle, and this is once again done in quite an endearing fashion, but the same cannot be said of the segment on "swinging London" (which had more or less come to an end by the time this film was made). It features a series of hard-to-watch "interviews" involving a pub DJ invading the personal space of several young ladies and issuing lascivious single entendres. Better, and redressing the balance to some extent, is an outstanding piece of footage of an obscure Mod band going at full throttle before a fashionable crowd. Ultimately, though, and despite a smattering of then-current celebrity faces, Under the Table You Must Go seems to present the old days in the better light, making an unconvincing (and late) showcase for the "now in colour" 1960s.
The only really noticeable corporate presence in the films of Roll Out the Barrel is that of the monolithic Guinness brewery, who would in later years gain plaudits for their imaginative and surreal advertisements. This demonstrates that even in the 1960s and 70s, the company was fully switched on to the possibilities of film. Guinness was not the only brewery commissioning films in that era, of course, but theirs have a markedly ambitious and artistic streak that differs hugely from the predictable lines taken by certain competitors, whose efforts can safely be consigned to the file marked "Our Family Have Been Here for Generations." There are three Guinness films in the set: Guinness for You (1971); All in Good Time (1964); and Henry Cleans Up (1974). Appearances in the last two films by the likes of Richard Briers, Michael Palin and many other recognisable television faces signal a certain intent to create a robust end product, even if, for the average viewer, that aim is only partially achieved. All in Good Time and Henry Cleans Up are, essentially, not aimed at the general public. They are trade films, obviously so in the case of Henry Cleans Up, which is a knockabout lesson in how not to run a pub, until Palin learns from a nearby landlord the correct methods of cellaring and serving a pint of the black stuff. All in Good Time is a subtler affair, like the sitcoms in which Briers would star in the coming years. Cleverly pushing the Guinness brand more and more as it goes on, the film tries to provide an object lesson to landlords on how to create the perfect convivial atmosphere. The sudden appearance of a superfluous narrator in the room, pointing out the obvious, hammers the point home to those who may have somehow missed it. The third film, Guinness for You, is beyond simple categorisation: a mind-bending production with the apparent goal of creating in the viewer the experience of taking large quantities of LSD. It really has to be seen, not reviewed.
The jewel in Roll Out the Barrel's crown is The Ship Hotel-Tyne Main (1967). Absolutely the inverse of anything to do with the swinging sixties (in fact it feels genuinely timeless), this beautifully shot and progressively compelling film was made under the umbrella of Amber Films, and is typical of their niche docudrama genre, starring real people in their own locality, with only the lightest of touches from the creative minds at work. A melange of young and old together, chain-smoking, bitter, Fives and Threes, and a pub-singing duo comprises a Sunday afternoon at The Ship Hotel. An open door affords tremendous images of a bygone river Tyne with its cranes, yards and ships-- the pub sits alone amidst an undeveloped wasteland barely conceivable now.
Although "before" does not equal "better," it is hard to ignore the sense of loss that threads through the entirety of Roll Out the Barrel. "Every pub," opines the narrator of Local Life, "is somebody's local." Is it still true? For those who find themselves drawn to the traditional, it would be easy, as a knee-jerk reaction to these films, to become somewhat despondent about the current state of England's drinking establishments, but a day trip around London with the aid of a reliable guide would rid you of the notion that an excellent pub is a now only a thing of nostalgia. The same goes for a wander through the nooks and crannies of cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, and Liverpool, or a tour of a few of England's numerous market towns. The difference in 2012 is that you will have to search for the pubs of Roll Out the Barrel - certainly in a city environment - and search rather hard at that. Looking for the sort of places featured here will, more and more, push you away from the teeming pavements of the ersatz to the perimeters of the city.--Neil Jackson