Don’t worry, be hoppy!

Open for business: the Plume’s new interior
Open for business: the Plume’s new interior

Christine Conlin meets TV star Neil Morrissey in a Barlaston pub

Staffordshire lad turned TV star Neil Morrissey was back on home turf last month to unveil his latest business venture, the re-launch of the ‘Plume of Feathers’ pub at Barlaston. “I can hardly believe it’s happening, this is a dream come true,” he told the Gazette.

Neil, who played Tony in ‘Men Behaving Badly’, Rocky the biker in ‘Boon’ and deputy head Eddie Lawson in ‘Waterloo Road’ also nurtures a passion for quaffing and brewing real ale.  At the Plume’s March 5th re-opening, he was in his element welcoming guests and pulling pints behind the bar.

Neil is the ambassador for the Plume, the first pub to be opened by MSW, the new pub company owned by him and business partners James Waddington and Richard Slingsby.  MSW has taken a 10-year lease on the Plume from existing owners Punch Taverns, who put up 75% of its £400,000 make-over.  A 50% tie allows MSW sell their own choice of real ales alongside Punch Tavern brews.

Ten real ales are currently on tap, notably Morrissey’s Blonde and Plume Bitter, brewed to Neil’s own recipes by Wolf Brewery in Norwich.  A long list of other real ales includes Blue Monkey Infinity, Purity Mad Goose and Joules Pale Ale.  With passing boaters in mind, a beer takeaway service is available as well.

The food, locally sourced and prepared by award-winning chef duo Gary and Kate Peill, is designed to soak up those ales, with affordably-priced steaks, burgers, pies, sausages and faggots dominating the menu.  And for starters, ‘Neil’s Nibbles’ include Battered Staffordshire Black Pudding and Staffordshire Oatcake Rarebit.

All hands to the pump: Neil pulls a pint of his own brew, ‘Morrissey’s blonde’
All hands to the pump: Neil pulls a pint of his own brew, ‘Morrissey’s blonde’

“I’ll be popping back from London once a month to check how everything’s going,” Neil assured invitees at the well-attended launch. He has put his stamp on the Plume, though, from his biography boards and outtake photos decorating its walls to its sleek yet cosy décor. “Punch Taverns gave us a free hand to do what we wanted, and I chose everything down to the last details,” he explained.

The bar has been moved nearer the entrance and the main feature is now a homely brick chimney with a double-sided log burner. Gone is the pool table, while plush sofas, club chairs and honey-glow lighting give the pub a warm and intimate feel. “I loved the old quarry tiles though, so we gave them a good scrub and polish to bring them back to life,” Neil explained.

Folding doors open onto the dining area which overlooks the patio and the bowling green at the back. “But people will be able to eat anywhere in the pub, as we want to keep things relaxed,” said Neil.

It’s an ideal venue for the family celebrations and local community events which the ‘Plume’ is aiming to be part of.  “I want to have family fun days, celebrity barbecues, and a ‘Plume’ beer festival as well,” Neil enthused.  We want to put the ‘Plume’ firmly back in the heart of the village.”

It was ‘Plume’s canal-side location, its accessible location, plentiful parking  and its underused potential which made it a front-runner of the many pubs MSW considered taking on, Neil’s business partner James Waddington explained. But what finally tipped the balance were Neil’s Staffordshire links.

“Just being here brings back happy childhood memories,” Neil reminisced. “I remember there was a girl from Stone I used to fancy like mad.  I spent ages psyching myself up to give her a ring and ask her out, but Stone was a posh place for the likes of me and she was way out of my league!”

Stone – posh? Out of his league? Well maybe yes, for a lad like Stafford-born Neil, who was taken away from his parents at the age of 10 and spent most of his childhood in a Penkhull children’s home.  A childhood he nevertheless insists was happy.

That he passed his ‘A’ levels at Stoke Sixth form college, while acting at Stoke Rep, Stoke Schools Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival, then gained an unconditional offer to the Guildhall School of Music and Dance, the foundation of his acting career is a tribute partly to the friend’s family who took him in as an older teenager but also to Neil’s own sunny disposition. He just puts bad stuff behind him and moves on. “At least I don’t have parental problems!” he jokes.

The 2011 BBC2 programme “Neil Morrissey, Care Home Kid” which brought Neil face-to-face with the social worker who had removed him from home, produced a flood of invitations to visit childrens’ homes as a role model, Neil revealed.

“You may have to fight not just against stigma, but sometimes over-protection as well. Treat your experience as a weapon, not a burden,” he tells them.

Advice which Neil himself had to take to bounce back from setbacks in his business career.  The ‘Plume’ is by no means his first pub venture; his previous forays into pub and hotel ownership having led to a very public financial failure in 2009.

But instead of resorting to bankruptcy, Neil opted for an IVA (Individual Voluntary Agreement) to pay off his creditors in full. “I was horrified at having let down people who had trust in me,” he confessed. “From that time on, I took on every acting job going and me and the missus lived off sausages.  Mind you, it led to me playing a few nice gigs like Fagin in ‘Oliver’ DC Morton in the TV police thriller ‘Line of Duty’ and a West End part playing the butler alongside Rory Bremner, Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin in Noel Coward’s play ‘Relative Values’.”

After four and a half years, he cleared the debt in August 2014. “I can still hardly believe it!” he says.

Let’s hope this china’s local ….yes, it is - by Churchill!  
Let’s hope this china’s local ….yes, it is – by Churchill!

So Neil has not let business failure put him off –  but what lessons has he learned this time round? Work with trustworthy people, make sure they deliver what they say they’re going to and that they leave a paper trail, is Neil’s prompt reply.

But for now, he’s just happy with things the way  they are – supping a beer while considering half a dozen scripts his agent has sent him on his mobile phone. “I can’t name names at this stage, but I’m hankering after a nice part in a TV series, another guest appearance in “The Dumping Ground” CBBC series and hopefully more work in the West End,” he confided.

Between Neil’s return visits, patrons can keep up with his doings at the Plume’s monthly “Where’s Neil?” quiz sessions, when Neil will tweet what he’s up to.

We’ll drink to that!