We all remember where we were for the first all day Sunday licence.
In terms of licencing hours the 1970s were positively the Dark Ages, pubs were closing in the afternoons at 3pm and even worse for those of us in Cardiff it was stop tap at 10.30 every evening, while drinkers bemoaned ‘the system’ and its restricted pub opening times it had universally been forgotten by then that the licencing hours had remained the same since they were changed by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George in 1917 to assist with the war effort – yes it does sound like a script idea for an episode of Red Dwarf. Drinkers feelings of persecution were consolidated by the old black & white gangster movies still showing on 1970s television mostly set during the days of prohibition in the US, we identified with our heroes Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney as they cheated the system by drinking bootlegged beer in speakeasies and shooting it out with the cops – well we were certainly not going to get involved in shoot outs with the South Wales police but like the 1920s film gangsters we were set on cheating the system and as Jeremy Clarkson would say it “By heading for Newport”
Gender bending was all the rage in the 1970s the male pop stars of the day were wearing all the make-up, David Bowie did not know if his Rebel Rebel was a boy or a girl while Newport and Monmouthshire could not decide if they were in England or in Wales, the end result was the Bowie song Life On Mars the theme tune for the recent BBC drama featuring the correct way to police criminals but most importantly for the oppressed drinkers of 1970s Cardiff an extra half hour opening time in nearby Monmouthshire. We were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as we went south of the border down Mexico way, or 6 miles east along Newport Road to cross the parish boundary for an 11pm stop tap at the Coach & Horses now the Beefeater Grill, although the journey out to Castleton took the half hour that we gained in extra drinking time we felt that we were making a point in the fight for freedom and for the right of a man to have a pint when he wanted one.
We may have thought of ourselves as living life on the edge as we ordered another round at one minute to eleven in the Coach & Horses but we were merely part of a well-established tradition of Welshmen making the trek to England in the pursuit of a pint, on Sundays during the first half of the 20th Century our thirsty forefathers were having to make the journey to England across the Bristol Channel to Weston-Super-Mare when the pubs in Wales were not even open at all. The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 that did what it said on the can was not repealed until 1961 and when the pubs did finally begin to open on the Sabbath it was to even shorter opening hours, closing at 2pm in the afternoon and not opening again until 7pm in the evening, while we remained innocent of the fact that it was a long dead fellow Welshman who was responsible for weekday pub opening times in the 1970s we knew exactly who to blame for the even more draconian opening hours on Sundays – the Church.
The first law requiring Sunday Observance was imposed by the Emperor Constantine in 321 soon after he had made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion, Sabbath restrictions remained with us almost up to the end of the 20th Century, ironically with an interlude for the
Dark Ages where we believed 1970s weekday pub opening hours belonged. There are those of you out there who may remember crow barring yourself into the very busy Inn on the River in Cardiff on Sunday lunchtimes in the 1970s to just about get to the bar to then have to shout over that dreadful jazz band in time to order one round of drinks before the pub would have to shut its doors at 2pm, this absolutely ridiculous situation not only left punters feeling thirsty and frustrated but me with a lifelong hatred of jazz. Even going to England for an extra pint on a Sunday in the 70s was not an option as their opening hours were the same as ours in Wales, however long suffering Welsh drinkers now had sympathetic English friends across the border and we become comrades in arms, in the Kings Arms, the Queens Arms, Cardiff Arms and the Harpenden Arms, the fightback was on as the national press began highlighting anomalies in Sunday trading law that made it perfectly legal to purchase a copy of Playboy magazine on the Sabbath but illegal to buy the bible, questions had been hinted at some 20 years earlier but from a most unlikely source.
In 1958 an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour entitled Sunday Afternoon at Home focused on the dullness of life on Sundays when everything in Britain was closed, although only a middle of the road radio comedy it somehow rattled the Church, the young satirists of the early 1960s would begin the real battle with the establishment but it was a row over copyright in 1979 between the film Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and the General Synods Life of Christ that would become a signpost moment in our country’s drinking history. After accusations of blasphemy were made against the film the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood was sent out to close it down in the now famous television debate, up until this point the church would only be shown deference that could explain why Stockwood was given a throne to sit in while John Cleese and Michael Palin were provided with regular chat show chairs making the debate look like David verses Goliath or the election strategist’s nightmare scenario now known as an ‘Axelrod’ While Cleese put forward coherent intelligent arguments the Bishop resplendent in purple cassock holding what seemed to be an oversized crucifix argued from the church default position of divine right, the end result was oodles of free publicity for the film and poor Mervyn Stockwood to remain the only person in the history of Christendom to have almost made Michael Palin nearly lose his temper.
This was the first time a television audience had witnessed a member of the clergy challenged in this way but if the church could now be questioned then so could the Sabbath and therefore Sunday trading and licencing laws – unfortunately for those of us simply looking for an extra few hours on a Sunday afternoon for a pint we got trampled underfoot by the supermarkets, DIY stores, cinemas, bowling alleys, sporting events and many other interested parties who also wanted to throw open their doors on Sunday afternoons.
In 1994 I was in the Kings Head, Thorpe-St-Andrew in Norfolk for the great day when we could finally and officially [cough cough] purchase and enjoy a pint gone 2pm on a Sunday, I no longer had to rush back after a morning sailing on the Norfolk Broads but could now casually glide along the River Yare under the outboard to moor up alongside the Kings Head gardens to then hop straight into the pub for roast beef and tatties saved by Landlords Uncles Clive and Colin, the two favourite uncles I never had all followed with an afternoon propping up the bar with friends and the barmaids with that Sunday afternoon breeze coming up from the river wafting through the open French windows – and I also fell back in love with Jazz.
So what happened to all those satirists and comedians who battled so bravely on our behalf with the Establishment? Why they became the new establishment of course – come back Bishop Stockwood all is forgiven.