A new movie from the power trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is always something worth anticipating, but with The World's End they may have strayed too far into the realms of fantasy. This is a movie that hinges on a premise so unrealistic that it may be hard for viewers in their native Britain to swallow. It's not the alien invasion apocalypse scenario that threatens to trip them up, however. Anyone who has spent a Saturday night in one of our fine city centres will know that's actually not far from the truth.
No, what makes The World's End such a wild fiction is something even more fundamental. In the movie, Pegg and Frost, along with Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, embark on a Great British tradition – the pub crawl, hitting a series of pubs and taking a drink in each. Doing this for all the twelve pubs in their home town defeated them as teenagers and so now, buoyed along by the burgeoning midlife crisis of Pegg's immature 40-year-old rocker, they're attempting it afresh as grown men. What's remarkable is that their home town still has twelve pubs with which to tackle the feat.
You see, the British pub is an endangered species, pushed to the edge of extinction by a perfect storm of problems, not least of which is the very industry they serve. To understand why this is a big deal, you need to understand the deep relationship we Brits have with our local boozers.
A pub is much more than a bar. In the US, bars are often branded as pubs to ensnare Anglophile drinkers, but the very name – pub – comes from “public house.” These were meeting places, community hubs, and their origins in Britain date back to Roman times, when the construction of roads led to thirsty travellers journeying from one village to another, seeking refuge in tabernae, marked by the sign of vine leaves outside. After the Romans abandoned our rainy shores, the Anglo Saxons continued the tradition with alehouses, which were often literally inside people's houses, and served home fermented brews. A shrub on a pole would be placed outside to let visitors know when they could come in for a drink.
The pub was more than just a place to get hammered on beer. In pre-industrial Britain, the pub was the heart of the village, and this is why even today you'll still find local pubs close to the church, thus allowing all the spiritual and social needs of the community to be sated within easy walking (or staggering) distance. It's no wonder that Britain has a long and passionate connection with beer. It's the liquid that lubricated our society for hundreds of years. Rare is the British TV soap opera that doesn't have a pub as its main location.
The weight of this history can be seen in the names of our pubs, proudly displayed on wooden boards that hang above the door – although originally these boards showed only an illustration since most people were illiterate. It was King Richard II who decreed that all pubs should have a name, back in the 14th century, and many still echo the history of the towns they serve. Some take their name from the coat of arms of an important local family, which is why we have so many Red Lions and White Harts, while others pay tribute to the workers who frequented the establishment, revealing much about the dominant industries in years past – witness the proliferation of Farmer's Arms – or mark notable moments in local history. In choosing the names of their fictional pubs to reflect the events in the film, Wright and Pegg aren't just being cute – they're tapping into a vital truth about our nation. Our stories have always been written in pub signs.
Only today, in 2013, there aren't many pub signs left, or pubs to hang them from. There are only around 50,000 pubs still open across the whole of the UK, a drop of 20,000 in the last thirty years, and the decline is accelerating. As many as 26 pubs are now closing their doors for good each and every week. Almost every British high street harbours an empty pub, its windows boarded shut, waiting for new tenants who, more than likely, will never appear.
Thanks to stiff tax duties on alcohol, it's now cheaper to buy six cans of beer from a supermarket or corner store than it is to buy two pints in a pub. A ban on smoking in all public places, brought into effect in 2007, also cut deeply into the customer base for pubs, driving smokers outside to light up in between drinks. In a country not known for its temperate climate, that was enough to make many decide it would be easier to stay at home.
More damaging, however, is the brewery industry itself. Most pubs in Britain are now owned by breweries, which has all but strangled competition. Landlords are legally bound to buy their beers from the brewery which owns the pub, and these breweries often use this leverage in ways that would make Al Capone proud. With a captive market, rents soar, beer prices escalate, profit margins shrink and even the takings from fruit machines on the premises can be syphoned off by the big breweries. Of course, while the right hand squeezes the pubs, the left hand of these breweries are almost always supplying the supermarkets with six packs that will sell for a fraction of the pump-poured alternatives in the pubs. It's as crooked as capitalism gets.
Thankfully, it seems that the situation might not be terminal. The British government has launched a public consultation to see if there's a way the gross imbalance of power between breweries and pubs can be addressed. There's also been a huge surge in the number of microbreweries, over 1000 at the last count, creating new beers for independent local pubs. The trouble, of course, is that such endeavours tend to cluster around the more bohemian middle class areas of big cities where there's still money to be had. Out past the suburbs, into the provinces, in the working class communities that were once the lifeblood of the pub, the outlook remains bleak.
It's great that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are paying tribute to the wonders of the Great British pub. Here's hoping that where our boozers are concerned, The World's End isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. celebrating Edgar Wright's upcoming The World's End, in theaters this Friday. See The World's End at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.