Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge started its four-week run on BBC2 last night. I was asked to interview Tom about the series for the Radio Times, and got a sneak preview. He brings out the human stories behind the stats better than anyone.
There’s a moment ten minutes into the first episode of Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge where the viewer’s emotions are flipped, as if someone has performed a metaphorical judo move that leaves you momentarily flat on your back.
Tom is eulogising the great British pub, or as he calls it, “the neighbourhood’s living room,” as he heads for the White Hart Inn in Chilsworthy, Cornwall. This award-winning country pub – it was CAMRA’s Cornish Pub of the Year in 2019 – has stunning views down the Tamar Valley, excellent food, a mouth-watering range of local beers, and most of all, the lively atmosphere generated by landlady Amy. Amy is a human dynamo who, if she had to, could probably pour you a perfectly kept pint, cook your dinner, host the pub quiz and change a barrel in the cellar all at the same time.
Tom looks on in wonder, his grin a mile wide, like he’s just found his new local. And then he sits down with Amy, (who only took over the pub with her partner Ian in 2017) to talk about how business is going.
At first, she’s as bright and focused as she was behind the bar, and then suddenly she says, “Oh. I’m going to get emotional”, and collapses into the kind of racking sobs that only come from total despair.
We know how programmes like this work: a famous TV celebrity goes into businesses that are failing. We, as viewers, get a vicarious thrill from observing how crap some of these places are. Jesus, even we could do better! Gordon Ramsay’s entire schtick is built around pretending to throw up some horrible food prepared in a filthy, rat-infested kitchen by some idiot foolish enough to let the cameras in.
But the White Hart, along with the other two pubs in the first programme (the Prince Albert in Stroud and the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, South London) are perfect pubs, run by people who clearly love what they are doing and know how to do it. How can these pubs be in trouble?
If there’s a common theme running through all four pubs in the series, it’s that the people running them need to add a keener, shrewder business eye to the the long list of talents they already display in running pubs that are popular but not profitable.
The things a pub needs to do to survive may not always got down well with the regulars: The first thing Tom tells the Prince Albert to do is put up the beer prices. The domino players nursing one beer all night in the Golden Anchor are shifted to the back room to make way for the craft beer-drinking hipsters who are gentrifying the area. And the White Hart is turned into a building site, somehow remaining open and doing its best to keep brick dust out of the punter’s pints.
But when I spoke to Tom, the first problem he brought up was the pubco tie. Although I’ve written about this issue many times over the last ten years or so, both here and in the trade press, I generally try to avoid it these days because even if I write a piece attacking the tie, as far as anti-pubco campaigners are concerned I’m attacking it in the wrong way. No matter what I say, I get scorn and often abuse from campaigners, because I just don’t understand the issue, apparently. This is the same reason many beer writers avoid the issue altogether – they feel it’s just not worth the hassle. (According to some campaigners, the real reason we don’t write about it is that we, along with various trade press titles and bodies such as the Office of National Statistics, have been paid off by the evil pubcos to keep quiet.)
But whatever side you’re on, Tom Kerridge does understand the issue – his own three pubs are subject to the same tie as any other Greene King tenant. “The business model is supposedly that you pay inflated prices for beer in return for a cheaper rent than High Street rates. But it doesn’t work out like that, and it’s not sustainable,” he tells me on the phone (speaking about the tie generally rather than his own situation.) Interestingly, he tells me he feels “we’re now rapidly finding that those rents will be very much decreasing” thanks to Covid.
The pubco tie is the most complicated issue I’ve come across as a writer on beer and pubs. On the TV programme, Tom Kerridge presents it, without allowing his genuine anger to cloud the issue, as clearly and persuasively as any campaigner could hope for, in a way that is clear to BBC2 viewers and persuasive to mainstream journalists.
Anti-pubco campaigners, we beer writers are never good enough for you even when we try. I say this without any snark or hostility intended: Tom Kerridge is the man you need to make meaningful change.
Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge is on BBC2, Thursdays, 8pm.
Enjoy reading my stuff online? Then please check out my Patreon and consider making a small monthly contribution which gets you access to exclusive, expanded and preview content.