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Suggs wearing sunglasses

'You're never going to beat a 500-year-old pub': Suggs on 'Britain's Greatest Obsessions'

Image: Britain's Greatest Obsessions

Britain’s Greatest Obsessions sees a host of top celebrities explore uniquely British preoccupations and passions in an attempt to find out what makes the British tick.

In each episode, one celebrity guest presenter undertakes a journey through British culture and history, to find out how and why these particular subjects have become so embedded in our collective psyche and national identity.

Sky HISTORY caught up with 'Madness' frontman Suggs who looked at the humble British pub in episode two. Pubs have had a major role in Suggs' life, his mother worked in pubs and his band got their first major break playing in establishments in Camden Town, London.

What can viewers expect to see from your episode of Britain’s Greatest Obsessions?

I was asked by my agent if there was anything I was really interested in. His first suggestion was the Second World War. I had just finished two series about the Second World War for Sky HISTORY, so I asked if there was possibly another subject I could do.

He said ‘They’re thinking about pubs’, and I just said ‘Yes!’ I didn’t really know what the show was about, but I definitely wanted to do a documentary about pubs.

Once I found out the full premise, I thought it was great. To have six different people with their own obsessions sit around in a room and discuss what we learned from those documentaries, it really, really worked.

Obviously, I’m doing pubs, which I love. My whole life has been involved in pubs, from where my band started, and my mum worked in pubs. I think they’re a very important part of our society.

You’ve got Reginald [D Hunter] doing class, so then of course that reminded me of, in the old days, you used to have the saloon bar and then the public bar. The middle classes would never go in the public bar, they would always go in the saloon bar.

Then Harry Hill chips in saying all the stand-up comedy started in pubs and I’m saying all the musicians started there as well. So, it really worked, all the cross-correlation between the subjects we were covering. I found it very interesting.

Why do you think Brits are so proud of their pubs?

It’s a lot colder here than it is in southern Spain or southern Italy. They tend to be much more outdoor cultures. They have all the bars on the pavement, but we like a nice cosy pub because for six months of the year it’s quite cold. The big fireplaces and just the cosiness of pubs is definitely something that we like.

Also, when I was travelling around filming Britain’s Greatest Obsessions, we went to a few small towns and often those pubs are the focal point for the community. It’s where people go when they haven’t got much on, they just go and chat to their neighbours. Pubs are useful places to share information as a community…and get pissed!

Madness got its first break playing in pubs in Camden Town and around London. Just how influential were pubs in your career?

When we started out as teenagers there were probably 12 big Irish pubs in Camden Town that had function rooms where they would have wakes, weddings, and parties. There was a chance they weren’t being used seven days a week, so we would just knock on each pub door and ask if we could use the function room. They never really cared what music you played, as long as they sold a few pints of beer.

It's pretty well-known now that we went to the Dublin Castle and told them we played country and western because we thought it would encourage them to give us a gig. They were a bit bemused when we didn’t, but we managed to sell a few pints of beer and we got a residency. That’s really how it started.

If you could get a regular gig once a week then you could start to build up a following. Suddenly there was a queue outside the door. It’s a very simple fact that if we didn’t have that residency things might have been very different.

Is there a part of you that enjoys playing in the smaller pubs more than in the bigger venues?

Every 10 years or so we go back to the Dublin Castle. The last time we went back I think was to celebrate our 40th anniversary. We were going to do one night, but thousands of people turned up. I think the venue only holds like 50 or 60 people. We ended up playing for the next five nights and it was tremendous. It’s great to play those places and remind yourself of that compact chaos.

From your personal experience touring around the world, how do other countries do pub culture differently compared to the UK?

In the Mediterranean they don't really do it. You get the odd sort of ‘themed pub’, but they always get that completely wrong. In America and Australia, they have bars that are more similar in the way that they are laid out because of their ancient connection with us.

What you're never going to beat is a 500-year-old pub in a village somewhere. It’s the history of some of these places, they go back a really long way. That is what resonates when you turn up in one of those funny little pubs in a village, or indeed in London.

How has pub culture changed during your lifetime and are you worried that it might ever die out?

[The impact of the pandemic] and what's coming with rising energy bills were some of the sad things I learnt while doing this show. I do really worry for a lot of these pubs.

Something that has changed is a lot of them went ‘gastro’. I don’t blame them at all, they had to do something to survive. The supermarkets are constantly undercutting pubs in terms of the price of beer, which I think is unfair.

What’s great about Britain’s Greatest Obsessions is that I met some young people and they were all doing their own thing. They’ve taken over a disused building and turned it into a pub with a bit of music. You wouldn’t call it a traditional pub, but it’s the same principle. It’s a bar, selling beer, and people are communing and hanging out with each other.

I have some optimism in that respect, and I hope I’m right because it would be absolutely awful to see the end of pubs.

You met a lot of interesting people and did a lot of activities for the episode. What was the most fun thing you did while filming?

Firing a gun inside a pub has got to be the most fun! I just couldn’t believe it. I thought they were joking when they said there was a rifle range. That’s got to be sort of counterintuitive, guns and alcohol. But they were a very nice, rather eccentric group of people.

Just travelling around and talking to different people, historians, and publicans. That history is so ancient and why pubs get different names, what they stand for, and what they mean in that community. They’re all really different and that was very interesting.

Was it fun discussing the different topics of the show with the other hosts?

Very much so. We were talking about class, World War Two, comedy, and music and they all cross-correlate at some point. It was fascinating talking about all the different aspects of why we’re obsessed with things.

I’m very pleased because the premise was very abstract, to do a documentary, talk about it, and then try to edit it all together. But from what I’ve seen it works very well.

If you could go back in time to experience any part of history, what would it be and why?

It would be on one of those old ships around about the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. I don’t know how long I’d want to be on it though. I would be intrigued to know what it feels like to sail and not know where I was going. A lot of the world was still unmapped.

Speaking of going back in time, I wouldn’t mind seeing Cnut trying to hold back the tide. I’m doing a show at the end of September called ‘What a King Cnut’. It’s a one-man show where I’m telling a few stories and singing a few songs.