Writer and actor John Bartlett remembers an iconic Portsmouth pub and some shambolic yet hilarious musical goings-on within.
The Sir Robert Peel was built in 1967 and demolished some forty years later. It had little architectural merit. It was typical of the 1960s; a flat-fronted brick edifice with an attempt at ornamentation and decorative rounded tiled panels let in under the windows. The pub was named after our former PM Peel who was born in 1788 and died in 1850 from being thrown from his horse whilst riding on Constitution Hill, London. Peel was famous for, amongst other things, founding the modern British police force. His famous ‘Peelers’ began patrolling the streets of London on 29th September 1829. In the light of Brexit today it’s interesting that he expanded free trade with Europe and introduced a 3% income tax to compensate for the loss of revenue incurred by tariff reductions. Ironic, then, that the pub that took his name was located in Somerstown, the heart of a city where 58% of the populace voted to leave the EU.
The inside of the pub was as unremarkable as the exterior. Entrance was by way of a recessed wood and glass doorway situated to the right-hand end of the building. The bar was immediately in front of you, plastic-padded and running almost the entire length of the back wall. This, no doubt, was to enable the landlord to keep a check on who was entering his establishment. The usual thick, patterned red carpet with an adequate number of chairs and tables filled the rectangular room, but at the far end was a slightly raised area that doubled as a small stage for entertainment purposes.
Outwardly, the Sir Robert Peel had little going for it, but a pub is not just bricks and mortar, it is mainly about the landlord and the punters who frequent it. Most pubs have their own quirky ways and means to encourage the locals to visit as often as possible: meat raffles, stand-up comedy, the odd band. At the Peel, one of the attractions was a ‘singalong’ every Sunday evening.
From the very beginning of my distinguished drinking career, I have always actively sought out group pub singing. At one time, this activity was relatively common, as nearly all pubs had a ‘Joanna’ (Cockney rhyming slang for piano or rather a ‘pi-anna’). By the late 1970s, though, the practice was in decline, especially in the Petersfield area, where I came from. That said, it was still possible to chance upon an old-fashioned sing-song, rare as they were.
I remember my first real encounter with a natural, off-the-cuff sing-song was at the Three Horseshoes in Elsted, near Midhurst. The pub has changed a lot since those far-off days when I was no more than a ‘boy-chap’. The Queen’s Head in Sheet was my local at the time and, on one particular evening, ‘the gang’ were at a loose end and wanted to go somewhere different.
‘Why don’t you boys go over to Elsted?’ said Dick, our avuncular landlord. ‘They have a bit of a sing-song in there on occasions.’
Needing no encouragement, off we went on our mini-adventure across the border to Sussex. We entered the tiny bar and the whole place went deathly quiet, every face turning towards the interlopers. However, within a few seconds, the‘locals all piped up: ‘Evenin’ boy’, how are yah?’, ‘All roight boys?’, ‘Evenin’!’ A friendlier welcome could not have been had anywhere.
Within a minute, one of them started up ‘Thousands or More’, a classic folk song still popular today. This was followed by song after song, all delivered in a rich Sussex accent that rolled and reverberated around the room like a bass drum. A magnificent evening which I have never forgotten. While I have since been to many such occasions this, to me, was and still is the sweetest of all. I feel privileged to have caught this age-old, simple pleasure before it went the way of all flesh. Those old boys have long since gone and taken their songs with them.
Visiting the pub a decade later, instead of the more rough and ready style where each singer took his or her turn and the room joined in, on this occasion a man was playing a piano accordion. Unfortunately, this had the effect of limiting the session to a single taste and drowning out the singers with material from the Halls and popular tunes from the 1950s and 60s. I recognised two of the old chaps from my first encounter, meekly sitting with their pints, behind a wooden trestle table. They were content merely to listen, rather than to partake themselves, whilst ‘accordion man’ played one tune after another, somewhat dominating.
At the end of the evening we offered the two old countrymen, both in their eighties, a lift home as we were going in their direction. They agreed, so I took the opportunity to ask them to sing for us. ‘Ooo no,’ one of them said. ‘Oi can’t remember any they ol’ songs now, we used t’ ‘ave a chap in the village, ee used to sing a bit, but that were a while back.’
In 1975, having graduated from the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama, I secured my first acting job, working for Q20 a children’s theatre company based in Bingley, near Bradford, Yorkshire. The contract was for the whole academic year, September through until July. We performed in the say so I was free in the evenings to explore the local pubs. The Angel was a short walk from my digs in Baildon and, again on a Sunday night, the pub hosted a sing-around. But this was a very different affair than the Sussex farming men in the Three Horseshoes. Almost everybody in the room was in their twilight years. At the time, I was the youngest by some forty to fifty years and stood out a great deal.
After a week or two, once they realised that I really appreciated and enjoyed their music, they accepted me. The songs were mainly popular music hall and parlour material, full of sentimentality, humour and pathos: ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Oh You Beautiful Doll’, ‘The Old Arm Chair’, ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’, ‘Waiting at the Church’, ‘Loves Old Sweet Song’, ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ and many, many more. When finally, the end of the evening approached, ‘Bless this House’ was always the finale, sung with true passion. Whenever this song was sung, it was customary, until the last bar had ended, that all the men would stand. To begin with, being a newcomer and a southerner at that, I remained seated. However, I was swiftly and unceremoniously encouraged to stand by the formidable and worthy Yorkshire ladies. I had arrived indeed!
Some years later, having moved to Portsmouth, I was keen to find some pub singing. I wasn’t disappointed. Surprising as this sounds today, the Leopold in Albert Road, always had a weekly session with a pianist on hand. In those days, the layout of the pub was quite different and basically constituted a long rectangular bar area, with the piano at the far end. The songs sung were similar to that of the Angel, but slanted to a London style, ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’ and the like. However, the Leopold was not the only venue, the Sir Robert Peel also hosted a community sing-song session and was to become the venue for an occasion that took on legendary status for years to come.
However, before the infamous tale is told some background context is required. Prior to drama school I attended Highbury College. I started with a year of ‘O’ Levels before moving on to the Hampshire specialist drama course run by the legendary Mrs Lavington and her equally legendary team. It was whilst on this course, in addition to my school days, I formed my first meaningful and lasting friendships. There is always an inner circle in any group and by and large, even though I had been living in London for several years, on my return to the area much of the circle was still intact. At college, we had been a friendly but rowdy bunch with a reputation to maintain. We were generally kept in check by the drama staff, however anybody else who had the misfortune to try and impart some knowledge into the thespian version of The Bash Street Kids were in for a shock.
There were no ringleaders per se as each of us had our moments. An example, of which there are many, was when there was nobody to take the class so the vice principal had foolishly been drafted in to cover. Malcolm, as per usual, walked in late and having been stiffly berate for his timekeeping, calmly apologised and claimed he’d been suffering from a bout of malaria. This didn’t go down too well.
Mrs Skein had the dubious weekly task of attempting to teach us ‘use of English’, a subject none of us particularly relished. One might think this a strange attitude for drama students to have but, in our defence, how many young minds have been totally dulled by the teaching of Shakespeare in the classroom? Denny, who was always longing for a fag, would frequently claim she had a headache and needed to see the nurse for an aspirin. Mrs Skein would allow her to go. Of course, Denny had no intention of going anywhere other than to skylark in the corridor. With a fag in her mouth, she would parade up and down leering in front of the glass window in the door, grimacing and puffing smoke, much to our humorous delight and Mrs Skein’s chagrin, as she could never quite catch her.
On one occasion, so fed up with Denny’s constant request for headache mediation, Mrs Skein frogmarched her across to the nurse and stood by whilst Denny had to swallow two aspirins which apparently stuck in her throat. This is a story that, over the years, with the retelling, was embellished and embellished until it barely resembled the original event.
Every week Mrs Skein would produce a list of ten words which we were supposed to attach a meaning to. One such word was ‘archipelago’.
‘Denise,’ said Mrs Skein, ‘what have you written down for archipelago?’
‘A man with a clubbed foot,’ came the lugubrious reply. Although this exchange happened almost fifty years ago, it still makes me laugh today. Even if an archipelago isn’t a man with a clubbed foot, it sounds as if it should be because onomatopoeia rules!
Denise was undoubtedly one of life’s special delights. She was a fine actress and no doubt could have become a professional if she had put her mind to it. She had a long hangdog expression, similar to that of the late Clement Freud. She possessed a deep voice, probably helped by her ‘fags’, but above all she had a great spirit and a wicked sense of humour. With great seriousness, head slightly bowed, she would often tell a tale concerning some outrageous incident that she had been involved in. The sorry story of events would always be relayed with great importance and gravity, but before the end was in sight, she would totally collapse into fits of laughter, her face wreathed in smiles.
There was a serious, caring side to her as well. Ultimately there are choices in life and nursing won out over the spurious existence of an actor.
Out of the two pubs, the Leopold and the Sir Robert Peel, it was the latter we favoured slightly more. Being situated on Albert Road, the Leopold’s entertainment was obliged to pander to a variety of tastes, which ultimately watered down the overall experience. On the other hand, the Peel, being hidden away from the less discerning hoi-polloi, was truer to its core values.
As mentioned, the interior of the pub included a small stage area at one end of the rectangular room. As usual, on the night in question, a small Hammond organ had been set up to provide backing for the various singers. With the aid of a microphone, the organist also sang although anybody and everybody was actively encouraged to have a go in an early form of karaoke. The clientele consisted of the normal male and female pub singers, all considerably older than ourselves. The customary spotlight moved around the room and fell upon us, which meant we’d been invited to have a go.
Denny, never shy in coming forward, was keen to perform. There was only one problem: none of us knew the words to a song all the way through. That is apart from our companion Mike who, bizarrely, knew the words to ‘Hey Big Spender’. After some discussion, it was decided that Denny would sing whilst Mike would mouth the words. This somewhat tenuous proposition, fraught with innumerable pitfalls, was their ridiculous plan of action.
There were one or two singers before Denny’s turn and, at the allotted time, Denny made her way to the little stage, while Mike made his way to the little boy’s room. With mic in hand, Denny turned to face the audience, just in time to see Mike disappear into the gents. The look of panic on her face was an absolute picture as the enormity of her predicament dawned.
‘Mike! Mike!’ she wailed down the microphone, but to no avail. What then ensued was one of the funniest moments I have ever witnessed, as poor Denny had no option but to carry on regardless. The intro had been played and there was nothing for it but to brazen it out. She bludgeoned her way through the evasive lyric all the while grimacing and cavorting across the stage. ‘The minute you walked in the joint,’ she sang with suppressed sexuality and intent. The assembled audience had never seen anything quite like this before and they too joined in with the frivolity by literally crying with laughter.
So successful was she at muddling through the song, every time we went back to the Peel she was always asked to sing it again. In truth, with such instant approval, the song became her own party piece for the rest of her life. Sadly, Denny is with us no more, but in my mind’s eye I can still see her rattle out the infamous lines:
The minute you walked in the joint,
I could see you were a man of distinction,
A real Big Spender,
Good looking, so refined.
Say, wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?
So let me get right to the point,
I don’t pop my cork for every man I see.
HEY Big Spender,
Spend a little time with me.
Image by John Bartlett.