Working men's clubs have been a bastion of the British entertainment scene for 150 years, blooding young comedians and crooners before unforgiving audiences and setting them on the long hard road to stardom or the short cut to obscurity. But now there are fears the clubs themselves are facing an even tougher audience – their creditors.
Fondly lampooned by Peter Kay in the series Phoenix Nights, they are struggling to compete in a world of DVDs, cinema multiplexes and arena concerts – and not even their reputation for a cheap pint is enough of a draw. Last week, one of the oldest working men's clubs in the country brought down the curtain for the last time.
Coventry Working Men's Club first opened its doors in 1862 and enjoys the reputation of being the only such club ever to receive a visit from the Queen, who went there in 1977 as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations. Now the working men of Coventry will have to go elsewhere for their entertainment, after the club's committee blamed a combination of debts, cheap supermarket booze, the smoking ban and the credit crunch for its demise.
Graham Shields, the club's secretary, went to the High Court in May and persuaded a judge to give it more time to clear its £26,000 debt. But the management was unable to turn its fortunes round in time.
"It is a tragedy," said Mr Shields. "Years of history have disappeared at the stroke of a pen. We've had dire times before but we have always managed to pull something out of the hat... Finance is more important than history, it seems."
A similar fate has befallen many other clubs in the UK, with as many as two closing every month. The Working Men's Club and Institute Union has seen its number of affiliate members halve from a 1970s heyday of 4,000 to 2,300 today.
Kevin Smyth, general secretary of the union, said the Coventry club's problems stemmed from the post-war rebuilding of the city when people were rehoused away from the area.
Clubs were closing all over the country, he said. "The movement is in decline and it's very sad. Where will working people go to socialise? Will they become confined to their homes?"
Dr Ruth Cherrington of the University of Warwick, who is researching the subject, said the effect of closures on communities was devastating: "If you are old and you have been going to one of these clubs all your life, you have nowhere else to go. They were also places which brought the generations together."
Dr Cherrington said the clubs developed because the working classes did not feel there was anywhere for them to go, so set up places where they would be in charge. "They were owned and run by the men themselves and, because they were private members' clubs, the police could not simply barge in," she said. "They also fulfilled a charitable function before the emergence of the welfare state."
But the invention of television and the erosion of the working class itself have helped put paid to a long tradition. "I'm sad to say this, but we're likely to see many more closures," said Dr Cherrington.