Last week I had a call from the Swiss equivalent of the BBC – William Tell-ivision would be a good name for it – to do an interview on the decline of the British pub. Sadly the statistics show that the rate of closure is higher in Birmingham and the Black Country than almost anywhere else.
Fine, I said. Let’s find an empty pub somewhere in central Birmingham and do the filming there. I spent most of the morning wandering around the city centre looking for a pub that wasn’t open. There’s a strange irony in this; normally one does exactly the opposite.
Anyway, there isn’t one, which is pleasing, though there are more than enough in the suburbs to make up for that. As an alternative, we filmed around Newhall Street, and I talked about pubs which had been converted to lifestyle coffee shops and continental brasseries instead.
As a corrective to this gloomy tale, however, I took the crew to a real Victorian pub, which was still going strong. Politely we asked the barman if it was OK to film there. We can’t do it, he replied. We need permission from head office.
It’s a chance to appear on European TV, we told him. Think of all the Swiss tourists who will flock here (perhaps).
Head office this and head office that, came the reply. We’re owned by M&B, and they have a head office. We would need to okay it with them.
Ah! Corporate England at its inflexible and centralised best. And coming to a council or an organisation near you, if it hasn’t already. Nothing gets past the press office of head office. All initiative is futile.
Around the corner we went, then, down to the Old Contemptibles. No problem, said the landlord, come on in.
And here was a merry old pub, full of contented customers, and I chatted as much to them as I did to camera. The Birmingham public house is alive and well after all, a perfect measure of what we have lost, and what we need to hang on to.
It may, of course, soon be overrun with visitors from Switzerland, but where’s the harm in that? A British pub is what they expect to find in Britain. They have their own continental brasseries.
* Dr Chris Upton is still looking for a pub that isn’t open