Can you name a successful British soap opera that doesn’t have a pub at its heart? Me neither. The Rovers Return, the Queen Vic and the Woolpack are the most famous boozers in the country.
Remember Albion Market? No, no one does. No pub, that’s why. Even Hollyoaks has the Dog in the Pond. So I’m told, anyway. I’ve never watched it – I’m always in the pub when it’s on. There’s more than a fondness for booze in the primacy of the pub. Drunkenness in soaps is almost always a symbol of inner strife or impending doom. Mostly, characters at the bar are simply enjoying the odd drink or two, with all the pub’s social interaction, heart-to-hearts, random meetings and shenanigans, and little evidence of the binge-drinking “epidemic” that some people would like you to believe is engulfing the nation.
In that aspect if no other, our favourite soaps are an accurate portrayal of real life. Soaps need pubs or they don’t work. They’re the only places where characters can meet each other and share the same space on a regular basis.
Pubs are all about close geographical communities. Take the pub away and you just have a bunch of houses.
We Brits are a taciturn lot. We’re not that good at sparking up a chat and passing the time of day. Until we get to the pub. Everything about pubs is designed to help us talk to each other. In a nice way. We have to go up to the bar to order drinks, and if we stand there long enough, we can’t fail to fall into conversation about the weather, the football or, more importantly, the beer.
We buy in rounds because it’s nicer to drink in groups than on our own. And the pub is democratic; it doesn’t matter who you are on the outside, once you’re inside, everyone is equal. Except the landlord of course. He or she is the guv’nor – salesman, judge, jury, police force, counsellor, confessor, arbitration service, waiter, advice columnist, all-in-one indomitable figure.
Then there’s that great British institution, the pub character. The bloke who has sat on the same stool every day for longer than anyone can remember. The old lady and her dog without whom the place feels emptier than it should. The geezer who stands at the bar wearing a bamboo pith helmet, singing and laughing. And my mate Simmy, famous for his ability to do things with a pile of 5p pieces I would never dream of sharing in a family magazine like Radio Times.
When I decided to write a whole book about the history of one pub – as a way of commenting on the history and importance of all pubs, wherever they might be – I had to choose a pub with character, and a pub with characters.
The George Inn (left), tucked inside a cobbled courtyard just off Borough High Street, south London, didn’t promise this at first glance. But after a bit of digging through press cuttings and historic archives, it delivered more yarns and improbable situations than I could ever have imagined.
The George in its prime was a coaching inn on a key route into and out of London. Anyone and anything that wanted to get between the capital and the southern counties or the continent had to pass its doors. And for many, the temptation of a swift one was too strong.
In the 1380s Geoffrey Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales in the Tabard, which was the George’s neighbour until it was demolished in 1876. (Soap opera logic again: where else could a diverse cast of characters including a knight, a miller, a squire, a pardoner, a shipman and many others plausibly meet under one roof ?)
Shakespeare’s Globe was just around the corner and, before it was built, the Bard and his rivals staged their plays in inn-yards like the George. When the first theatres were built, they bore a close resemblance to the old inn-yards. And Charles Dickens loved the place, drinking there regularly and mentioning it in Little Dorrit.
But my research also led me to discover less well-remembered literary icons, such as Sir John Mennis, Controller of Charles II’s Royal Navy, who immortalised the George in a poem about a dodgy pint (of sherry), in a collection that is obsessed with applying naval imagery to bodily functions, with farts being something of a speciality.
Churchill took his own port to the George and was charged corkage by the landlady, Miss Murray, who proved more than a match for him than any world leader. Princess Margaret enjoyed a lock-in with the Bishop of Southwark in 1961. And count-less celebrities and Hollywood stars have visited.
The George may have welcomed a more illustrious clientele than most pubs over the centuries, but it follows the same pattern as any other British boozer. It’s a place for young and old, rich and poor, genius and fool, and has been for 600 years.
Pubs are having a hard time at the moment, with up to 20 a week closing their doors for good. Our houses are more pleasant places to spend time now than ever, but we still need the pub. We need its warmth, its atmosphere, its good cheer, its colourful characters and unlikely meetings. Pubs are evolving, and becoming more important as places to meet and talk as our lives become more virtual. We need them. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone in the Rovers Return.
Book of the Week: Shakespeare's Local: Five Centuries of History Seen through One Extraordinary Pub is on Monday-Friday at 9:45am on Radio 4