I did not foresee that I would need to warn you to take care of your tender heart when watching Saving Britain’s Pubs With Tom Kerridge (BBC Two). I assumed from the title and all our many years of viewing experience and training in the “reality/makeover/salvation of inanimate entities” genre that this would be a gentle jog-trot through a revamp of a tired old boozer or two, possibly with a recalcitrant landlord adding a little spice by initially resisting clearly much-needed change before coming to see the error of his broken-veined, whiskery ways. A lighter version of Gordon Ramsay Goes Mad at Morons – or whatever his latest franchise is called – given that TV chef Kerridge is a preternaturally gentle presence.
Instead, we got a much more dense and moving slice of life, contemporary business, British social history and a lot of other things in between – including, yes, some personal backstories and a touch of recalcitrance, but as part of a much wider picture. An entire sociocultural and commercial ecosystem is laid out for us, instead of furiously edited material manipulated to give us a vision the producers had had in mind all along. It feels very strange to be treated with such unexpected respect and concern as a viewer; I hope the participants enjoyed the rare experience as much at their end.
We met Amy and Ian, who have devoted themselves for the past two years to running a Cornish village pub called the White Hart for … well, nothing, in a way. They pay themselves £75 a week for what is more or less a 24-hour-a-day job that lands mostly on Amy’s shoulders (“If I do it, I know it’s done”), while Ian continues to work as a gas engineer to try and make ends meet. A quarter of the UK’s pubs – about 14,000 – have been lost since 2000 and rural pubs, whose local trade is rarely sufficient to keep them going, have it particularly hard; 500 closed for good last year alone.
At least they have the freedom of ownership. Lottie and Miles run a tied house and are crippled by the contract with their pubco landlord. On last year’s turnover of £350,000 they saw a profit of £3,000. As Tom, gently, points out, they could be less backwards in coming forwards when it comes to pricing pints fairly and taking a percentage of the door at all the musical events they arrange and host. The good publican has a difficult line to straddle: by nature, they tend to be gregarious, generous types, but the desire to see everyone have a good time under your roof must be, in some cases painfully, tempered by financial acumen. Regardless of this, however, it is the tie that is really killing them, and Kerridge does a fine job of outlining how the large breweries and companies that own thousands of pubs up and down the land have no vested interest in helping their tenants over the long term rather than squeezing them for shareholder gains every year. It’s as neat an illustration of the effects of unfettered capitalism as you could wish for, and it only gets clearer next week – when Kerridge meets with a platitudinous pubco representative – and beyond, when Covid hits.
Finally there is Lana, who has been running the Golden Anchor in Peckham, London since 1998. Historically, it has catered to the area’s Jamaican population, but the large contingent of dominoes players who form the largest part of its clientele are there for the game, not the beer. The pint or two they each eke out over the course of an evening does not pay her bills, and nor does the dancehall at the back, which is only busy for a few hours twice a week. The traditional food will not attract a wider customer base. Her main task is to embrace the new without alienating the old, and she sets to work with gusto. But again Covid is coming for her business.
All the participants exist as people in the round. They are part of a system and are shown to be frequently its helpless victims. Swathes of demographic and cultural changes are seen through the prism of different communities, making this more akin to A House Through Time than a simple makeover show. Overseen by Kerridge, a presenter as compassionate as he is experienced in the industry, it asks interesting and important questions about what we value and how we arrest the declines we see. Another round, please.