Smell The Pork Crackling: An Immersive Film About The Ivy House Pub

Public House, BFI London Film Festival ★★★★☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 22 months ago
Smell The Pork Crackling: An Immersive Film About The Ivy House Pub Public House, BFI London Film Festival 4

The recent history of The Ivy House pub in Nunhead (or is it Peckham Rye?) is a fascinating exemplar of people power against the march of corporate-sponsored gentrification. And Public House, a documentary by avant-garde filmmaker Sarah Turner, really gets under the skin of the place to explain how and why the local community refused to allow their highly-prized social centre to fall into the grubby mitts of (boo) property developers from (hiss) north London.

The Ivy House has been a performance pub for several decades with comedians and musicians — from Jo Brand to Dr Feelgood — having played the atmospheric back room. Yet despite the venue’s clear cultural significance and the fact that CAMRA nominated it to be listed, in 2012 the umbrella company that owned The Ivy House decided to give the tenants just five days’ notice to pack up their peanuts and get out.

The local outrage that followed prompted 371 people to come together in support of a tricky buy-out that would ultimately turn the place into London’s first ever co-operative pub.

That story alone makes this slightly oddball documentary worth a look (just imagine if every community could take control of their local and turn it into such a brilliantly personal place). Turner has gone further than just charting what happened and crafted an intriguing audio-visual tapestry that takes a little while to get used to (and perhaps goes on a bit too long) but is richly rewarding and a fine tribute to the achievements of the co-op members.

“While it is a documentary, it’s very experimental,” says Turner. “I used The Ivy House story to keep mining a metaphor about the creativity of a community.”

There are no talking heads though we hear memories and testimonies, sometimes overlapping, sometimes looped into hypnotic incantations, one of the most memorable being a disembodied voice chanting “vodka and lime, port and lemon” while a disco ball rotates.

This ‘spoken word-text-opera’, as Turner calls it, is threaded through a collage of events that have taken place in the pub over the last few years (before, during and after the buy-out). The most striking are the performance art stunts and spoken word nights that were devised specifically for this film. Subjects range from life in a video shop to a friend’s suicide, with the readers all being ordinary punters you might nod hello to at the bar but whose stories and feelings you’d never otherwise know. This is the magic of The Ivy House, a pub where anything goes and anyone can say or do whatever they like.

It must be said that the concentrated dedication does verge on the cultish at times with a dance in the park with mirrors and an extended riff on what it means to be local feeling a bit like it's come out of The League Of Gentlemen. But there's plenty of traditional English moaning to balance out the overly hippy-ish elements — the Peckham or Nunhead question is especially controversial.

Yes, the film demands quite a lot of the audience, but if you let it hypnotise you it ends up being a far more immersive experience than the average documentary. As the camera pokes into the corners of the building you can almost smell the spilt beer and crumbs of pork crackling.

Public House has two screenings as part of the BFI London Film Festival. The first is tonight 12 October at Picturehouse Central then another is on 17 October at Rich Mix. Tickets are still available here.

You can also hear our podcast with an interview about The Ivy House here.

Last Updated 13 October 2015

Charlie Darling

Fans of Tom Cruise may heave a sigh of relief as 'Cocktail' is no longer the worst film I have ever seen. Instead, this grotesquely self-indulgent, incongruous, amateurish, turgid and excruciatingly awful piece of cinema takes first prize. Painful to watch, painful to listen to (either the sound recordist or the operator at Picturehouse Central need their ears syringing) and painful to contemplate how an otherwise triumphant tale of the little people overcoming the might of 'The Man' and saving their beloved community pub from the grabbing hands of heartless financial city dwellers into an unfathomable piece of sheer bewildering ineptitude is beyond me? The repetitive audio is possibly the film's biggest irritant - as if the director spent too long listening to 'Little Fluffy Clouds' by The Orb for too long back in the early 90's and somehow got the notion that making an audience want to silently scream "SHUT UP!" in their heads at a cinema screen was a good idea. Inserting a completely irrelevant segment involving the director's partner being entertained and then hit upon by a dancer made no sense to the film's narrative and merely offered up the notion that this was a vanity project hung on the coat hook of a feel-good community scheme. Quite what the hand-held mirrors in the park at the end of the film was supposed to represent, who knows, but if anything positive came out of the screening, it means I never wish to visit the Ivy House ever again, for fear of running into some weird cult of fruit loops and folk-singers. This film has very little to recommend itself - it's too long, the cinematography (and sound) isn't great and the narrative wanders far beyond the brief of telling the admirable story of how a community saved it's heart and soul from developers. As Spinal Tap observed, there is a fine line between clever and stupid, and this is an example of a very fine line between avant-garde and rubbish.