I had dismal hopes for the Channel Four programme — the Red Lion — on Thursday. Another instalment of government promoted doom and gloom about the evils of drinking seemed on the cards.
The programme visited 10 of the 600 Red Lion pubs in the country (the most popular pub name) and the first one featured unashamed, wanton binge drinking, the only objective of which was ‘to get hammered’ — but this was by a group of women. It was a student netball team from Newport University (no, I never realised there was a university there either) who religiously went out on a Wednesday to get completely plastered playing ‘pub golf’ (a close relative of drinking golf that I’ve played myself) at 9 local pubs. So the programme started with a dozen or so girls downing a pint of Guinness in one at the Red Lion. Rather than be apologetic, the students they interviewed were refreshingly honest about their motives — drinking to get pissed (although they have to be able to stand up or else that would be a bad night) and ‘feeling like shit’ the next morning was a big part of it. These women were not violent or sad or ill — they were all pretty athletic as they played netball for the university. I remained in awe as they went on to other pubs in Caerleon to down other drinks in one. I expect that, after this programme, Caerleon will never be the same again on a Wednesday night as hundreds of male binge drinkers will no doubt want to make a favourable impression on the netball players by consuming even larger amounts of alcohol. Where is it again?
After that classic opening, the programme went to a reasonable cross section of other Red Lions. It seemed that even when they found the inevitable solitary drinkers whose whole lives revolved around the pub that even these characters came out of the programme with a lot of dignity. My favourite Red Lion was one in Whitworth, north of Rochdale, which was pretty typical of the pubs I learned to drink in (in Tim Martin approved fashion) myself just over the hills from there. There was one Rugby League player who cheerfully admitted to spending £100 on beer a week — as he didn’t have much else to do. He also gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the pleasure of being mildly inebriated. As with the netball players, even the BMA might have problems correlating the large volume of alcohol consumed with the physical fitness required of the players. (It brings to mind the conclusion that Jancis Robinson came to in The Demon Drink when she reviewed the scientific literature that the people who drink most do so because they can — i.e. fit young people in their 20s can outdrink almost anyone with no ill effects.)
What the programme managed to convey quite effectively was the sense of camaraderie and community that can be found in all good pubs. It showed the pub is a leveller of society and class — with the regulars being incredibly brutal in their comments towards each other but all done so in the safe knowledge that they’ll be back there the next night. The pub pricks pretension and is an amazing social leveller. Many of these issues have been examined by social anthropologist, Kate Fox, who devotes a whole section of her book ‘Watching the English’ to the etiquette of round buying. The last Red Lion was closed — bought up by an owner who has no intention of re-opening it but, by the look of the boarded up windows, can’t get planning permission to do anything else with the building. Speculating and profiteering were ripping the heart out of a community — odd that after 12 years of New Labour.
There was plenty of potential for ridiculing the pubgoers, who were remarkably candid, but what came across was an amazing feeling of common humanity bonding the pubgoers. After all, the pub is basically an institution where ‘the public’ are invited into a ‘house’. The programme generated a very favourable review in The Guardian. I can’t put the conclusion better myself: ‘a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution’. The Times review says ‘Drinking in moderation, the contributors suggested, was a dreary waste of time.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.