Manchester Matters: Boycott the Breweries?

Posted on January 2, 2014


Manchester’s been hit with a triple whammy of venue closures within the last few months. Three iconic ale houses have shut up shop across the city – each of them had diversified their efforts to stay afloat. Oxford Road’s Jabez Clegg and The Lass O’Gowrie and Chapel Street’s Black Lion have, or will shortly,  close their doors for the last time. But the closure of these and struggles of other venues indicates a worrying trend.

The story began back in November when student nightspot Jabez Clegg abruptly closed its doors after being sold to Manchester University for expansion of their biomedical campus. XS Malarkey, the nationally famous comedy club run by Toby Hadoke was uprooted having only just established itself within the venue. Financial pressures were blamed for the sudden and abrupt closure – one that came as much as a shock to staff as well as punters.

But then, later that same week was the news that Salford’s Black Lion on Chapel Street was also to shut its doors. The Black Lion, famous for the first ever performance from Salford poet John Cooper Clarke (and whom the pub’s theatre space was named after), had been making a name for itself thanks to the broad range of events held there. Chapel St. Studios, helmed by Jenny Trethewey had been putting on exciting and risk-taking events ranging from music to slam poetry nights and new writing from local theatre companies.

Landlord Jenny Inchbald put the blame on “incredibly unhelpful” landlords – a trend that continues with the Lass O’Gowrie’s closure. I’d had many a fun and welcome night in The Black Lion, and seen some entertaining theatre. Some excellent, some not so good events – but events that were always innovative and pushing the envelope, backed up by tasty real ales.

Now, the latest casualty of the brutal and throttling grasp of the Pubco’s is the Lass O’Gowrie, a long held favourite haunt of this blog. The Lass’s last hurrah is this Saturday, with a car boot sale selling off many of the Lass’s knick-knacks.

Lass-OGowrie_ShalkaThe Lass’s legacy has been to enhance and up the game on pub theatre with ambitious adaptations of Coronation Street, Doctor Who and comic favourite Halo Jones amongst rarely seen drama like The Best, Hot Fat and Wine of India. The vibrant pub theatre scene came after the creation of numerous diverse groups. From the Lass’s book group, to the nationally famous Computer Club and the ever growing Doctor Who community and convention scene that had been established saw the Lass O’Gowrie become a shining beacon amongst Manchester’s hidden gems. It even caught the attention of Cosgrove Hall animators in a 2003 animated version of Doctor Who.

The closure of BBC’s Oxford Road site hasn’t helped the pub – and landlord Gareth Kavanagh has now spoken out about the intolerable pressure facing him, and no doubt other landlords.

The Lass O’Gowrie’s brewery, Greene King, considers the pub to be under-performing according to its location. After the BBC’s closure, Kavanagh requested a rent review, a move refused by Greene King. He then become embroiled in a two-year battle to reduce rent. Subsequently winning an independent review, Greene King then enacted a clause in the lease enabling them to charge Kavanagh for a review of the pub – with a bill for renovation works to be footed, a move Kavanagh is now speaking out about.

This may be a sadly familiar story to many landlords up and down the country – except the Lass O’Gowrie is a multiple award winner – and The Great British Pub of the Year 2012. Despite this accolade, Greene King were still unconcerned about the pub’s survival, and viewed Kavanagh’s unique mix of events designed to turn the Lass into a destination pub as irrelevant and secondary to the main objective of the pub – sell beer.

Despite much critical acclaim, and busy ringing tills whilst events are on, none of this trio of venues has managed to stay afloat. Breweries do not understand the subculture that has sprung up around these venues. People just aren’t coming out anymore – there needs to be a reason to come out and drink in your boozer and the Lass O’Gowrie had hit upon that formula. Nearly every single night the Lass team pushed the boundaries, or provided like-minded folk to talk to.

Kavanagh’s relentless determination has most likely kept the Lass O’Gowrie afloat for longer than it would have done without his unique programme of events. The Lass O’Gowrie’s strength was in welcoming anyone, no matter what background. Whether it be Doctor Who fans in one corner with United and City fans mingling in another – or dissemination of a Fringe theatre performance, it’s been a tremendous place to soak in a cultured atmosphere with people outside of your usual sphere.

By the end of the weekend, I will have lost my local. With no disrespect intended to any new owners, I won’t be setting foot in the Lass O’Gowrie ever again. Neither will I touch a drop of ale from Greene King either. Such gestures may be viewed as petty, but I’ve spent much of the last five years making good friends, seeing wonderful events, playing retro computer games and being shocked, amazed and astounded by some of the theatre. That will be gone and with it, for me, much of Manchester’s heart and soul.

An ongoing battle to maintain a beating heart of Manchester’s diverse culture scene has been lost, but the war continues. The Greater Manchester Fringe, co-directed by Lass luminaries Gareth Kavanagh and Lisa Connor will return in July across several new venues with promises of the third round of Coronation Street Live and Corriefest. The Eagle Inn will pick up the baton from the Black Lion and is one of the new homes for Chapel St. Studios. Other venues including The Kings Arms, Three Minute Theatre, Fab Café and The Salford Arms continue to keep Fringe alive and kicking in Manchester.

The human cost is another dimension that affects every pub closing, no matter their size. The Lass O’Gowrie is making 10 staff redundant and Kavanagh himself will bear “significant financial penalties” in a situation repeated across Manchester and the UK. Some of the Lass staff are friends, thanks to their good humour and hospitality, and it’s very unpleasant to have to see them join an ever growing pool of unemployed. Hopefully they’ll all manage to secure positions at other venues.

I’ll end with a heartfelt thanks to the landlords, managers, staff, cleaners and anyone who has ever been involved with Jabez Clegg, The Black Lion and especially The Lass O’Gowrie. Thank you for your belief in new, exciting and different events. Without them, I wouldn’t be blogging, nor would I have had the most wonderful two years reviewing shows at your venues. But especially, I’d like to thank Greene King for their narrow-minded, mercenary and petty behaviour. Thank you for ruining my local, and most of all thanks a bunch for scattering one of the richest communities I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of.

This is a post I wished I’d never have to write. Fringe is at its most vibrant in Manchester, possibly at it’s most vibrant countrywide. But without the support of the breweries to help venues diversify and stay open, no doubt there will be more landlords forced to shut up shop. As I write this, it seems that a village pub in Cambridge is the latest to suffer at the hands of Greene King.

Could your favourite pub in town be next? If you like it, support it and as many events as you can. You never know if your favourite might close its doors as sharply. If you’ve ever enjoyed any event at the Lass, or the Black Lion, then please support the Greater Manchester Fringe in July. Please don’t take it for granted that there will be a 2015 Fringe, or Nowt Part Of, or 24/7. They all need your support.

It’s important for landlords to be brave enough to speak out about their experiences with Pubcos. The Lass O’Gowrie team worked their socks off to provide for their community. That hard work is rewarded with a long lasting legacy of energised Fringe creators, writers, technicians and producers, all of whom are set to see the venue off in style. And if the uproar on Twitter is anything to go by, Greene King might just have lost a lot of customers.

The show goes on in 2014, but it won’t be the same.