Beers Morgan! How Britain's Got Talent judge's love affair with the British pub has entered a new chapter


The traditional British pub means everything to Piers Morgan -  it's a home, a sanctuary and a place of endless fun. Now he reveals how he has fulfilled his lifelong dream and become a landlord himself...


'I have two ambitions in life,' said the late, great Oliver Reed.

'One is to drink every pub dry, the other is to sleep with every woman on Earth.'

Mr Reed sadly died without achieving either of his goals, though I bow to nobody in my admiration of the gloriously determined efforts he made to do so.

Mine host: Piers Morgan and his wife Celia in his pub, The Hanson Cab

Mine host: Piers Morgan and his wife Celia in his pub, The Hanson Cab

But it was the legendary hell-raiser's devotion to the British pub that appealed to me more than his latent lust for the global female form.

I'll confess now that I'm a pub addict. Always have been and always will be. So much so that I recently bought one, becoming the proud co-owner of the historic Hansom Cab on Earl's Court Road, Kensington, West London.

The purchase completed a lifetime's love affair with the institution that began during the Roman occupation of our country with small inns under the name of 'tabernae'.

And I mean lifetime. From when I was five to 13, my parents ran an uproarious country pub in the sleepy village of Fletching in East Sussex, called The Griffin Inn. It was the era when drink-driving was rife, lock-ins were the norm and barely a night went by without people fighting, illicitly fornicating, getting arrested or simply falling over  -  drunk as the proverbial skunk.

For a young lad, with his two brothers and sister, it all seemed utterly thrilling and, quite literally, intoxicating.

One of my mother's most shameful ever moments came when the local primary school headmistress made a formal complaint that my mother's treasured eldest son had arrived for lessons 'smelling of alcohol'.

I had. But only because I'd spent half an hour doing the fun job of 'bottling up', which involved replentifying all the empty shelves with new bottles of beer, wine, spirits and mixers.

A couple of trips down into our dark, dank cellar and I'd emerge with the aroma of Oliver Reed after a three-day bender. And yes, I did used to sneak the odd gulp of flat bitter or a decaying Pinot Grigio.

We moved to a nearby village called Newick as I began my teenage years and at the tender but eager age of 15, I experienced my first alcoholic beverage  -  a pint of Strongbow cider. Consumed with slow, deliberate glee in the corner of The Royal Oak, just off the village green.

Barrel boy: Piers Morgan grew up in a pub after his parents took over a sleepy village hostelry in East Sussex

Barrel boy: Piers Morgan grew up in a pub after his parents took over a sleepy village hostelry in East Sussex

It was strictly illegal, of course. But in those days, village pubs were full of youngsters my age. So long as you looked even vaguely 18, you were fine.

I loved that pub with a passion that even a scantily clad Eva Mendes being brought to my dressing room couldn't match.

Every Friday and Saturday, I'd pile in there with my mates and drink as much Strongbow as I could before my body gave way. Those evenings would follow a familiar pattern, and one that some of my critics today might recognise. I'd get louder and more obnoxious as the cider took its grip, until eventually someone would pour a pint over my head, temporarily blinding me in the process. I'd then wheel around, lashing out at suspected assailants until the leggy landlady Mary, object of all our adolescent dreams, would utter the immortal words: 'Piers, you're banned!' And throw me into the street.

From there, I'd stumble the mile-long walk home, occasionally lurching into a hedge.

The next morning, I'd be back at opening time to beg forgiveness from Mary - who would always capitulate, but often only when I'd agreed to do a few shifts behind the bar.

The Royal Oak became, along with cricket, the focal point of my life.

When I chart the funniest ten evenings of my life, at least three or four would involve the Oak. Including the night my Army colonel brother Jeremy beat his own record for drinking a pint of beer, without spilling a drop, while standing on his head. He did it in 4.8 seconds, considerably faster than most of us could do it standing upright.

Unfortunately, he then tried to repeat the exercise later that year in a restaurant called Joe's Brasserie on Wandsworth Bridge Road - using warm lager instead of bitter, and a weird-shaped glass. Halfway through the attempt, the bubbles flew up his nose, and he reared up like a speared gorilla and began to projectile-vomit over everyone.

Fortunately, the staff were on hand to drag him outside, including a barman called Guy Ritchie. Yes, that one. (I met him years later with Madonna, and asked him to 'get me a pint for old times' sake'  -  he laughed, she didn't.)

On another memorable occasion in the Oak, a local gipsy with very big arms decided the pub needed livening up and started punching everyone he could get his hands on. It was like a scene out of a John Wayne Western as he began smacking my friends over the bar one by one  -  as I gallantly led the women, and myself of course, to safety.

When the fifth victim was deposited over the bar, and left bloodied on the floor, the police arrived and took our assailant to their van. We later learned that he had beaten up six policemen en route to the station.

Apparently, he'd been in training for a big illegal prize fight, and we were perfect sparring partners.

Barrels of fun: Piers in the cellar of his new enterprise

Barrels of fun: Piers in the cellar of his new enterprise

The big night in the Oak was always the annual bonfire parade. In East Sussex, this is a massive deal, with every village converging on each other's event in tribal colours, clutching burning poles and letting off rook-scaring firecrackers at all and sundry.

I vividly remember sitting amid a huge group of men in blue and white hooped shirts from Lewes chanting their pagan ritual songs: 'Remember remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot...'

As they reached a crescendo, the pub would explode with bangers and Catherine wheels and everyone hurled their beer into the air. It was filthy, dangerous and fantastically entertaining.

The Oak became a sanctuary as I reached my late teens. A place to escape the rigours of college and work. Village pubs are habitual, safe places. Same old faces, in the same old chairs, drinking the same old beer.

I liked nothing better than sitting in the corner by a roaring log fire on a Saturday morning, sipping a pint of the local brew, Harveys, and doing a crossword.

It would always smell of the night before  -  a toxic bouquetmix of cigarettes, booze and human sweat. But it also smelled of home.

Even now, when I walk into the Oak  -  sometimes straight from Gatwick Airport after a ten-hour flight from LA  -  I breathe in the familiar fumes and sigh with relief.

The day after I was fired from the Daily Mirror, I knew exactly where I needed to be to get away from the jubilantly frenzied media stomping on my professional grave. I drove to Sussex, parked my car outside the Oak, and walked down to the front door.

As I entered, a large number of my oldest friends were waiting, and delivered a perfectly timed slow handclap of mocking applause. It was the perfect antidote to the nonsense up in London. I took a bow, the applause increased in volume, then one of them said: 'Right, you may be the most humiliated man in Britain, but it's still your round. Get the beers in, Morgan.'

Three hours later, I retraced my old stumbling walk home (by now I'd bought the other half of my parents' house in Newick) and soaked in the comforting scent of springtime flowers in the village. All the angst and tension of the preceding two weeks dissipated.

Pubs have that effect on you. It's why I always understood why men such as George Best took solace in them.

I met him once, in a pub in Fulham on New Year's Eve. He was sitting in a corner with a friend, sipping white wine and fending off a neverending stream of admirers buying him drinks and wanting pictures. Besty was charm personified.

After midnight, I went over to say hello. He shook my hand, and listened to me reciting the same old 'You're the greatest footballer I've ever seen' mantra he'd heard a million times before.

I suspected he wasn't really listening. But I had my moment with a true sporting legend and he had a moment of cheap gratification from a fan. The kind that I think Best needed, and liked, despite his protestations to the contrary.

One of the best: George Best found solace in the relaxed atmosphere of a pub - something that new landlord Piers Morgan can appreciate

One of the best: George Best found solace in the relaxed atmosphere of a pub - something that new landlord Piers Morgan can appreciate

I watched him from afar for another couple of hours and saw a man completely at ease in the pub environment. He was genuinely never happier than when propping up a bar with a drink, among other regulars, chewing the fat and whiling away the time.

As I hit my 20s, I hit London and discovered bars. They seemed to me like lesser mortals to pubs  -  harsher, lighter and less, well, dirty. You had to wear smarter clothes and jostle with the throng to get a drink.

The truth is I've never liked bars the way I like pubs. I bought a house near Wimbledon with three of my old village mates, and we soon located the best local pubs. One gloriously rough dive in the centre of town was so disgusting the grime from the never-cleaned carpets would corrode your shoes like a flesh-eating bug.

But it felt real and authentic. And we'd happily lounge at the bar all night telling stupid stories and laughing our heads off before seeking a kebab or curry as blotting paper for our alcoholraddled bodies.

One night, Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins came in and drank us under the table. No, he really did end up under a table, gurgling but with a smile on his face.

Last summer, the same village mates and I went to a Test match at Lord's - as we do every summer - and ended up afterwards in Gordon Ramsay's nearby pub.

Ale and hearty: Piers enjoys a pint outside his pub

Ale and hearty: Piers enjoys a pint outside his pub

After calling him on location in the Borneo jungle to get his staff to find us a cigar cutter (my bold move worked  -  they did), we then conducted an impromptu armwrestling competition outside. You couldn't do this kind of thing in an American bar, you'd get arrested.

But in a British pub, anything  -  short of frightening the horses and upsetting the children  -  goes. So there we sat, grunting and groaning into our pints as we tried to break each others' arms. Very silly, yet very amusing too.

A couple of years ago, my little brother Rupert (he's actually 6ft 4in, but will always be little to me) became manager of the starry Punchbowl pub in Mayfair, co-owned by the aforementioned Guy Ritchie.

It was a perfect country-style place - no jukebox, video games or tawdry decor. Just a good old-fashioned drinkers' pub with good food out the back if you wanted it. The twist being that loads of celebrities went there, from Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell to David Beckham and Sting.

Rupert's finest hour came when he answered the phone to me saying: 'Sorry bro, can't talk now, serving Clint Eastwood.'

My own favourite night there came after Freddie Flintoff had skittled the Aussies in the 2009 Ashes at Lord's. A few hours later he and his wife Rachael arrived at The Punchbowl in a taxi and he was wearing the biggest grin I've seen since Cherie Blair got lockjaw.

'Good day at the office, Mr Flintoff?' I enquired.

'Not bad, thank you, Mr Morgan,' he chortled. 'In fact, very satisfactory indeed!'

'Drink?' 'A pint of Guinness please.' He drank it like I imagine Guy the Gorilla used to drink his morning supply of milk at London Zoo, very fast and without seeming to touch the sides.

'Another?' 'Seems rude not to!' We spent the next few hours guzzling more beer, fine French claret, steak and chips and chocolate-chip pudding  -  followed by Amaretto chasers. Freddie was exactly as you'd imagine him to be  -  funny as Hell, the kind of guy you'd always want to find in a pub.

When my brother decided to move on from The Punchbowl a few months ago, I decided it was time to make a move into the pub ownership business myself - along with Rupert and another partner called Tarquin Gorst, who also co-owns The Punchbowl.

We looked at a number of places in West London before discovering that one of my local pubs, The Hansom Cab, was up for grabs.

It suited our purposes perfectly. Slightly run-down, but in a great area, with loads of potential. The roles of each partner is clearly defined: Rupert to manage it, Tarquin to do all the finances, and me to bring a bit of stardust to proceedings through my thirsty celebrity friends. (Incidentally, there must be pubs with a trio of owners with names posher than Piers, Tarquin and Rupert  -  I just haven't encountered one yet.)

It's been great fun getting stuck in to turning it round: painting walls, changing furniture, sticking up old photos and bringing in Ollie Couillard, a hot shot chef who used to cook at renowned restaurants Chez Bruce and La Trompette. It's important to offer seriously good pub food if you want to run a seriously good pub in London these days. I think we do that.

Two weeks ago, on the night that CNN threw a big party to launch my new American show, Piers Morgan Tonight, I took a load of guests down to The Hansom Cab afterwards. It was amusing seeing Dragons' Den stars Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones fighting to get served in my own pub against newsgirls Emily Maitlis and Sophie Raworth.

But not quite as amusing as watching Steve Jones, the disturbingly good-looking Welsh television heartthrob, stage-whispering to me: 'Where did you get those barmaids from? They're so fit!'

I looked to where he was pointing, and raised an eyebrow.

'Seriously, man, you don't see barmaids that hot in pubs normally...'

And on and on he drooled for quite some time, until eventually I felt compelled to clarify the situation as one of the objects of his fantastical lust re-emerged into view to pour him another pint of Harveys real ale.

'Steve,' I said, calmly.

'Yes Piers.'

'Meet Celia.'

'Hi Celia...'

Pause.

'She's my wife.'

There was a deliciously long silence as the full horror of his behaviour dawned. At which point Jones collapsed into a curled-up ball of shame, moaning: 'No, no, no, no.'

Yes, my friend. Celia's now considering an offer to pull the pumps once a week.

ANDREW FLINTOFF
Steve Jones

Welcome regulars: Cricketer Andrew Flintoff and TV presenter Steve Jones have enjoyed Piers Morgan's hospitality

Later that evening, Lord Lloyd-Webber turned up with his wife Madeleine, and sat in a corner devouring a fine bottle of Mersault. Meanwhile, my CNN presidents, all three of them (Worldwide, International and America), drank real ale and saluted the unique magic of an old-fashioned British pub.

Naomi Campbell

Top customer: Naomi Campbell is one of the many famous faces seen at The Hansom Cab

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, word got out that a load of stars were in The Hansom Cab and locals began arriving in droves to join in the fun. I cranked up the music, got Celia to pour me another pint, and led the party.

Then came my most testing moment as a new pub owner  -  closing time. 'Lock-in?' asked one guest, desperately.

I looked at Rupert, who shook his head. 'No chance, bro, the police station's right next door.'

Near anarchy broke out as others realised that there would be no post-midnight drinking. But my horror at being the bad guy soon turned to joy at this new power I had.

'Get out, Bannatyne!' I ordered.

'And you, Jones!' They laughed, and went on their way. God, it felt good.

A few nights ago, I invited another load of friends down to The Hansom Cab for a party, including Freddie Flintoff (obviously), Amanda Holden, Katherine Jenkins and James Corden.

As we stood all night, laughing and joking over a few pints and bottles of wine, I realised that I'm simply never as happy as when I'm in a pub with friends and family.

There are 53,500 pubs in Britain, but the number is declining every year and nearly half the country's smaller villages no longer have a pub. This is a tragedy. Samuel Pepys described the pub as the heart of England, and he was so right. It's something we have that no other country does in the same way. The pub is a part of our fabric of society that should be protected at all costs.

Of course, things have moved on from Anglo-Saxon ale houses. There are now karaoke pubs, strip pubs, gothic pubs, biker pubs, rock pubs, Irish pubs and sports pubs. But the pub, in all its guises, remains an essential fixture of British life.

Not that I don't continue to experience humiliating moments in them. Strolling up to another local, The Crown, in my village of Newick last New Year's Eve, I was confronted by two security guards at the door.

'We're full up,' they said.

'But I've lived here 33 years,' I protested. 'Surely I can get a drink with my friends?'

One of the guards stared at me as if I'd just asked if I could run off with his daughter.

'What part of "full" don't you understand?' he sneered.

I looked inside and saw a number of my oldest friends having the time of their lives. Then it started to rain. All the celebrity status in the world wasn't going to save me now. I began the long, slow trudge home.

Piers Morgan Tonight begins on CNN on January 17.



 

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