TV UK, 25 November

A brief history of TV pubs.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

In recognition of this week’s relaxation of the UK licensing laws, allowing pubs to stay open later, this week’s TV UK will not be about TV. Instead, I have spent the week indulging in binge-drinking, violence and casual sex.

That, at least, is the impression of Britain’s pub culture to be had from TV and the other media. In fact, as a regular enough patron of London pubs to find myself struggling some weeks to think of some television to write about, I’m afraid I have very little experience of any of these things (unless you take the official definition of binge-drinking, which is any more than half a shandy at a time). If I want violence and casual sex, I go home and watch TV.

TV, it should go without saying, is mostly another world. These things are never straightforward, but as a rough guide, real life happens in pubs, while television just shows pictures. This is at least worth bearing in mind when television portrays pub culture as decadent and escapist, and pundits express horror at young people going out and ‘getting out of it’. It’s still a step up from Friends and its non-alcoholic, non-smoking, family-friendly coffee shop.

In fact, pubs on TV have a long history: they were a favourite location long before late opening became a threat to civilisation as we know it. My first conception of what pubs are like came from TV. To this day, I have a vague but unshakeable sense that the proper price of a pint is 80p, the figure first planted in my head by television. The Queen Vic and the Rover’s Return are part of the British national consciousness, even for those of us who don’t watch EastEnders or Coronation Street. I’m convinced that Brookside ultimately failed because it had a trendy bar instead of a proper pub. But perhaps that’s because my idea of a ‘proper pub’ is the country one depicted in The Two Ronnies, complete with dimpled pint glasses and comically-rich swear tin.

Perhaps the most famous TV pub, though, is not a pub at all but an American bar, the one in Cheers. This was of course a hub of sociability, ‘where everybody knows your name’, rather than the sort of soulless superpub conjured by the present debate. There was always a lingering sense that Cliff and Norm were probably not doing themselves much good by drinking there every night, but we were somehow grateful for it (a similar ambivalence to alcoholism can be seen in the portrayal of Mo’s Tavern in The Simpsons). In another US cartoon, Family Guy (BBC2, Saturday nights), the local bar was recently taken over by an English landlord who made it over rather like the pub in The Two Ronnies, much to the chagrin of the regulars.

The notion that Britain’s pub culture is actually about binge-drinking, violence and casual sex has yet to make it across the Atlantic, though Daphne’s loutish brother in Frasier (the one with the confused accent) is certainly along the right lines. It remains to be seen whether the new stereotype of the British pub can make the leap direct from British to US TV, or whether the mediating influence of (still rather convivial) reality will come into play.

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Topics Culture


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