Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2008

* No Escape *

The increasing prominence of TV screens is destroying both the character and the trade of pubs

A LETTER in “Opening Times” complains that, even in a multi-roomed pub, it is impossible to escape from big-screen football, and when the customers in one room ask for the set to be turned off, the licensee refuses. In another pub, the casual drinker is left with nowhere to go when presented with a stark choice between a diners-only room and one blacked out for the big match. In yet another, one of the most traditional in the area, a massive flat screen now covers one of the walls in the main lounge. In a pub newly taken over and refurbished by one of our respected local independents, every single room seems to be dominated by a screen. A visit to a pub at a quiet time during the day finds the TV blaring out an Australian soap at top volume to a handful of customers, none of whom seem to be watching.

It seems that the plummeting price of flat-screen TVs and the ease of fitting them in means that it is getting increasingly difficult to escape from the dreaded gogglebox in the pub. And, while televised football matches can be very popular, they often bring into pubs a loud, boorish, overwhelmingly male clientèle which can easily deter quieter customers, especially mixed-sex groups.

By all means show live matches in your pub, and it certainly can help boost takings. But if you allow televised sport, and TV in general, to dominate to the exclusion of all else you run the risk of narrowing your customer base and ultimately damaging your trade.

* Against the Tide *

Sam Smith’s deserve credit for their fine traditional pubs and good value beer

ONE PLACE where your ears and eyes won’t be assailed by TV is in a Sam Smith’s pub. In the interests of saving money, Sam Smith’s have decreed that their pubs should have no television and no music of any kind, either piped or lived. For many pubgoers that makes them a haven of tranquillity where they can enjoy a drink and a chat in peace.

Sam Smith’s are often dismissed by real ale aficionados for only offering a single cask beer in their pubs and that, Old Brewery Bitter, is a distinctively malty, bitter-sweet brew very different from the pale, hoppy bitters traditionally popular in the North-West. But when kept well it is a very good beer indeed, and in reality the vast majority of pub customers do not want to spend their evening chopping and changing between different brews. Sam’s do offer more variety with an impressive range of high-quality bottled beers. Their incredibly low prices are another major attraction - for a number of years now, they have done nothing but apply the annual duty rises at the bar, with the result that they are now 30 or 40p a pint below Holt’s, who were once renowned as the champions of good value beer.

They also have an excellent record of conserving their pubs and carrying out sympathetic refurbishments. Indeed in recent years they even performed the rare feat of restoring internal walls in the Boar’s Head in Stockport - a pub that is deservedly receiving May’s Pub of the Month award. Sam’s houses are, almost without exception, still “real” pubs - something enhanced by the absence of electronic distractions.

Sam Smith’s is undoubtedly a firm run in a quirky, idiosyncratic way that flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. But the world would be a much duller place if every business followed the same policy, and long may they continue ploughing their distinctive furrow.

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