WHEN the pound coin was introduced on April 21, 1983, it quickly gained the sobriquet, “a Maggie”. It, according to the wags of the time, reminded them of Mrs Thatcher because it was “thick, brassy and thought it was a sovereign”. How we laughed.
Her name lives on, though, and Maggie’s End, a beer launched to celebrate the world premiere of a play set around the former prime minister has proved so successful a second brew has been ordered. Maggie’s End was written by North-East playwrights Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood, the duo responsible for the international hit comedies Dirty Dusting and. Waiting For Gateaux And, since its launch by Jarrow Brewery last month, the 5% alcohol by volume beer has been an outstanding hit at 40 real ale outlets across the region.
“The first 3,000 pints absolutely flew out,” says Jess McConnell, who runs Jarrow Brewery and a string of very successful, real ale-focused pubs with his wife Alison. “It was incredible, especially as it’s a strong beer and strong beers tend to take longer than weaker, session ales to get established.
“The feedback has been so good we’re seriously considering making it a permanent feature in the Jarrow Brewery portfolio. It’s a completely new beer, a pale gold wheat beer with a refreshing taste and a complex hop aroma. Trevor and Ed come regularly to one of our pubs, The Maltings in South Shields, and we decided to come up with it.”
Wheat beer (or witbier or bière blanche) is brewed using malted barley and raw wheat, often with the addition of spices – most notably coriander – and orange peel. The result is a cloudy beer with spice and fruit on the nose and palate.
Jess says: “I thought, if it’s a Maggie Thatcher beer it’ll have to be strong and full of character. Our strongest beer was Old Cornelius at 4.8% alcohol by volume and is quite dark, but we didn’t have a lighter one at the top end.”
Ed Waugh, who worked for several years in Vaux Brewery’s press office in Sunderland, says everyone connected with Maggie’s End, both as a beer and a play, is delighted.
He says: “It was one of my aims in life to work in a brewery and I did that at Vaux up until it closed in 2000. The other one was to get a beer named after one of our plays. Jarrow Brewery has done really well with the beer. We have great hopes for Maggie’s End – if she stays alive.
“Trevor and I are big real ale fans and drink in the likes of The Tyne, the Cumberland Arms, The Bridge, the Cluny and the Bodega in Newcastle and in The Maltings after rehearsals of our shows at The Customs House in South Shields. When Jess found out we had a play called Maggie’s End he offered to brew a beer for us. We were really chuffed and just said, ‘champion’.”
Maggie’s End is a dark comedy which opens with the death of Margaret Thatcher. New Labour is determined to give her a state funeral, but the effect this proposal has on one North-East family brings it to breaking point. The older members are socialists who remember the Thatcher 1980s; the younger ones are New Labour supporters who were too young to be directly affected by an emphasis on monetarism, rampant inflation, spiralling unemployment, vainglorious national posturing, Little England-style bloody-mindedness and ideological self-congratulation. They may, of course, have read about The Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, health-service cuts and the Iron Maiden playing stooge to President Reagan.
Ed says: “Margaret Thatcher permeates the whole play, but it’s actually a focus on New Labour, effectively set in the future – and the present – because we didn’t want to hark back to the 1980s when beer was rubbish. It’s a satire, a comedy – we’re renowned, sorry, noted for our comedy.”
Like many a creative force before them, Trevor and Ed recognise the seductive effect that beer and pubs have on their working lives. Inspiration and imagination don’t come at the snap of a finger but have to be worked at hard and constantly worried over.
“We come out with all these ideas and have lots of barneys,” says Ed. “Then when things get too heated we go for a couple of pints and all our problems are solved.
“Pubs are a major focus on our lives; they’re not just places for recreation, they’re very, very important for business meetings. They put people at ease straight away. We closed the deal with the producer for Waiting For Gateaux in a pub in Bloomsbury in London, for instance.
“Beer is great for creativity. When we go to London or Manchester or Glasgow or Dublin to meet producers and television people we always say, ‘we’re not going to drink, we’re not going to drink’ – it puts weight on for a start – but when you have a couple of pints it’s great, man. You’ve got to have beer in a pub, there’s nothing else to drink. Then, next thing you know it’s midnight...”
Possibly a disproportionate amount of the pair’s time is spent thinking up titles for their work. There’s no doubt, however, that they have the brushstroke of genius.
“Titles are very, very important,” says Ed. “Trevor came up with Waiting For Gateaux but Dirty Dusting took longer to find – longer actually than it took to write the play. Maggie’s End was provisionally Which Side Are You On? and we lived with that for about a year and got used to it. But Maggie’s End is the perfect title; it says everything.”
Beer-loving dramatists are nothing new – the line runs through the likes of Robert Burns, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas. One linked with politics is Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright, former (and first) president of the Czech Republic. While in office (1989-2003) his party trick was to escort visiting dignitaries around Prague pubs. Photographs in bars showing him and the likes of Bill Clinton having a jolly good drink are now tourist attractions with – Havel, at least – having a jolly good time.
According to a source at Radio Prague, he once bunked off an official function in America to drink beer before heading for a John Cale rock concert. One of his plays – the one-act Audience – is based on the period in 1974 he spent as a labourer in the Krakonos brewery in East Bohemia. Its most repeated stage direction is “Maltster opens another bottle...”
He says: “I suppose drinking beer in pubs has had a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society. Beer contains less alcohol than, for example, wine, vodka or whisky, and therefore people’s political chat in pubs is less crazy.”
An additional 1980s Thatcher barb came in the explanation from an aide as to why she had the nickname Daggers Thatcher (along with Her Maggiesty and Attila The Hen). An interviewer asked: “Is that because she has a reputation for stabbing colleagues in the back?” “No,” he said, “it’s because she’s three stops past Barking.” (Dagenham is three stations on from Barking on the London Underground). Laugh? We nearly congratulated ourselves with an ideological and vainglorious posture.
Maggie’s End opens at the Gala Theatre in Durham on October 16 and runs until October 20. Box office: (0191) 332-4041.
Waiting For Gateaux is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, between September 24-26. Box office: (0870) 905-5061.
The first-ever South Shields Campaign For Real Ale beer festival is at the Masonic Hall in Ingham Street (behind Asda) until tomorrow (12 noon-10pm today and Saturday). Details: www.camra-angle.co.uk
The Duke of Wellington, High Bridge, Newcastle, beer festival is also in full swing with 40 ales being given the runaround – many of them “special guests”. Details on (0191) 261-8852.