The Pub Joker Who Made Headlines

The opening of the Bannaventa pub in 1975 had an explosive effect on the social fabric of the locks. Nevertheless, the big new pub was largely avoided by folk from the main village, where the Plough had closed some years previously. And most of the boaters, who moored in the Marina or passed by on the Grand Union canal, did not frequent it. They preferred the more modest and picturesque taverns waiting to be discovered along the banks of the waterway. But for those who became regulars, including people from the many small businesses scattered around the locks, the new place was a revelation, a haven of cosmopolitan life and conviviality. Other drinkers and diners popped in from all over the county and beyond. Whilton Locks was no longer a sleepy little hamlet!

The pub was the brainchild of Marina creator David Steele and he expected it to flourish. It certainly did so in its early days. But there soon appeared a darker side to the story. Thatcher’s recession years struck a fatal blow to many businesses and jobs. There were vigorous drink-driving campaigns and cheap booze in the big new supermarkets. Pubs were struggling and closing everywhere in a process that still goes on now, with the added problem of the smoking ban.

Inside, the Bannaventa resembled a big city pub, bright and well furnished, with several bars and games rooms and an upper banqueting room seating 150. Its exterior, however, was somewhat gaunt and unwelcoming. One critic said it looked like a blacking factory. Clearly the style of architecture did not help, and as the recession deepened, Mr. Steele’s dream of creating a magnet for the upper crust of the county began to fade.

His well-patronized Sunday markets on the car park boosted the pub’s customer numbers for a while. A succession of managers and tenants tried many different ideas to improve trade. In one period the pub attracted jazz lovers from a wide area with bands that included talented soloists and a remarkable male singer whose eyes continually swivelled from side to side, like synchronized metronomes, in time with the drumbeat.

Another attraction was a nightclub, set up in the area originally reserved for banqueting. For a while it drew hordes of teenagers from all over the Daventry area (they suddenly disappeared when an even trendier spot opened elsewhere). The pub’s core problems, reflecting an economic disaster that killed off locals throughout Britain, were evident in the rapid turnover of managers and licensees. Among its occasional patrons was Fred Housego, the London cabbie who became an instant celebrity on winning TV’s Mastermind contest. One of his fans was Pat Freeman from Whilton village, who often remarked that if he ever came to be selected for the Mastermind contest his specialized subject would be “Managers of the Bannaventa.”

The managers and license holders were a mixed bunch. Some had had no previous experience of running even a small pub. There was the young Scottish couple that got the job and soon lost it. Homeless, they squatted for months on a huge broad-beamed fiberglass river-going catamaran, the Knightliner, whose wealthy owner had abandoned it near the bottom lock. There was Bet Harrison, who lived in a farm cottage near Brockhall with her husband Jack, a noted local horse-coper. She was a true countrywoman whose homely cooking delivered tasty treats in mammoth platefuls. There was Tony Dixon, a former marketing executive who had been based in Africa for a big-name British food company. Locals fondly remember his impersonation of Basil from Faulty Towers. He now lives in Daventry and occasionally enjoys a drink at the White Horse pub in Norton.

The Bannaventa’s unusual name, a reference to the area’s long-vanished historic Roman garrison township, was eventually changed by Ken Gane, its final and perhaps most successful host. It became The Locks for several years before closing in 1991, reopening a year later as a thriving carpet and flooring emporium. Ken sometimes wowed customers by jumping on a table, in straw boater and cricket blazer, and leading a rousing singsong. He recently celebrated his eightieth birthday with a party at a posh golf club to which his daughter Kelly invited many former regulars including Whilton’s Tom Treacy, proprietor of a pub supplies business.

I suspect that one reason for Ken’s decision to change the name was the risqué reputation the Bannaventa acquired when landlord Barry Baker fell victim to the cavortings of two lady striptease “artistes” At that time, strippers were popular in city pubs as a (perhaps desperate) way of building custom. Barry felt they might buck up his trade, and several “gentlemen’s nights” were advertised. At the last of these events, the well-built blondes discarded gauzy veils and performed graceful dances in front of some 60 customers. When their act ended they were persuaded by the circulation of a hat into which donations were thrown, to provide a special “encore.” This included postures that could then be classed as indecent and illegal – though in present times many late-night Channel 4 films are far raunchier.

The extra performance, at any rate, was grimly observed from the back of the room by a policeman and policewoman in plain clothes. They called a halt to the show and proceeded to locate and charge the licensee. When they found Barry he was lying prostrate in bed with the ’flu, totally unaware of what had been going on in the big room below. This made no difference to the law. He alone was responsible, as licensee, for maintaining an orderly house.

He duly appeared before Daventry magistrates and the fine and legal costs amounting to some £600 was a cruel blow. The strippers and their minder/manager – the real culprits, some might argue – escaped penalty and probably benefited from the publicity.

My favourite Bannaventa story concerns jovial Ken Gray, a Coventry factory owner who loved good food and had long yearned to run his own pub. When he took over the “Banny” he was assisted by his daughter and her fiancé, who had both received professional training in catering. Unfortunately they took over in midwinter, when the effects of the recession and drink-driving laws were worsened by a long spell of heavy snows. Trade became almost non-existent – until it was miraculously revived by Ken’s favourite pastime. He enjoyed telling quick-fire jokes, and possessed an enormous repertoire. He was happy to take up a suggestion that he could cheer up his customers by giving away a free joke with every pint of beer they ordered.

News of this offer got around like magic. Newspapers saw it as a wonderful anti-depression story. It made headlines as far away as Australia. BBC TV crews arrived to film Ken serving a crowd of chuckling drinkers with beer and gags. Business boomed to such an extent that within a few days he exhausted his repertoire and was forced to repeat one-liners he had delivered at the beginning of the operation. He was thus able to remain solvent, with laughs all the way to the bank!

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