By Nicole Pesa
Are pubs still vital to the Australian landscape? Documentary feature filmmakers James Ward Breen and Natalie Palomo explore this question by looking at the past and the present. Verdict? Pubs are more important than ever.
The son of an Aussie publican, James strives for an unprecedented inside- the-industry and behind-the-bar look at the recent social history of the iconic Aussie pub. It celebrates an essential part of the Australian cultural identity and aims to show the positive impact pubs have had on our culture through its connection between patrons. From the 6 o’clock swill to different forms of entertainment, it’s a rough and tumble joyride showing how this resilient industry adapts and thrives in the midst of change.
In investigating the shifts in pub culture we discover how pubs have had to weather a barrage of legislative changes over the last five decades. Told from those who live and breathe the industry, the filmmakers discover for example that Queensland was the only state where it was illegal for women to order a drink at the Public Bar. In other states it was simply socially unacceptable. Merle Thornton’s famous protest of chaining herself to the public bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel – was undertaken because, in her own words, “the ‘Public’ bar symbolised the pinnacle of female exclusion.
Ending the 6 o’clock closing law meant that the huge pubs became empty. It gave birth to pub rock as
it filled these spaces with voices such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and AC/DC. These iconic bands played in hotels such as the Manly Vale in Sydney, Espy’s in Melbourne, and Mansfield Tavern in Brisbane to audiences packed like sardines. Greedy Smith from Mental As Anything says “people followed their favourite bands all over the country like their favourite football teams.” Mark Gable from the Choirboys defines how pubs define their brand of rock, “It wasn’t just a band thing, it was a band-audience thing, and they connected.”
But then fire, RBT and smoking regulations came in and profits dropped. Arthur Laundy said that in NSW, 600 out of 2000 pubs were in receivership. Then, the one-armed bandits arrived. New regulations allowed for poker machines to explode into the pub scene taking the industry to a whole new level. No longer was it the domain of ex-footballers and veteran publicans, hotels suddenly became big business.
A saviour to some and a source of contention for others, the filmmakers discover that poker machines changed Aussie pub culture forever. The corporatisation of ‘Aussie pubs’ meant their definition changed. Together with the rapid development of technology and the times, our traditional view of publicans as the centre of their local communities where locals gather and connect over a drink, has evolved into renovated buildings filled with sports on TV, TAB, pokies, and music. Some mourn the loss of an intimate ‘publican’ personality, others revel in the bevy of entertainment presented to them.
For those seeking personal connection, the small bar license spurned a more specialised experience. The filmmakers also discovered that bartenders and small bar owners were like a renaissance in that, as Tim Philips, World Bartender
of the Year puts it, bartenders are basically like the publicans of yesteryear in that they communicate directly with their customers and get to know their locals.
The small bar epidemic also reminded us that ‘Aussie pubs’ are
a beacon of belonging stooped in Australian history, and that despite the changing drinking landscape,
one thing remains certain – pubs
will continue to do what they have always done – and that is adapt and thrive with change, for Australians will always seek out a connection that is entrenched in their identity.
After the Swill features some of the most iconic personalities in Australian pub history. Join the filmmakers’ journey by liking their Facebook group www.facebook. com/lastpublican or visiting www. aftertheswill.com.