The screen star of Sussex
This week, a new film of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock turns the spotlight once more on this cinematic city by the sea. Simon Calder takes a tour
Wednesday 02 February 2011
You step from the train beneath the magnificent curve of steel and glass of Brighton station, and on to a film set. The remake of Brighton Rock is released on Friday. Graham Greene's dark tale of wasted life and love is merely the latest of dozens of movies shot in and around the Sussex city by the sea. Although Eastbourne's seafront stood in for Brighton's during this latest film, Brighton & Hove is a place that should satisfy the most demanding location scout. It is also more than a sometimes-pretty face; the fishing village that blossomed into a royal resort was also at the birth of the cinema industry.
"Once upon a time, before there was such a thing as 'Hollywood', Brighton and Hove were among the world's leaders in the production of animated photographs, indeed films." So says Frank Gray, the director of Screen Archive South East at University of Brighton.
"There were two film-makers here with their own studios and the means to make a camera shoot film and process it and deliver that film print to exhibitors around the world. It was a very active and prominent film centre."
For this new medium in which life is rendered to screen – and gains dramatically in the translation – Brighton and Hove possessed both the process and the perspectives. Brighton station is stranded high above the Channel, and the walk down Queens Road to the seafront provides an excellent introductory tracking shot. Flickers of sleaze and sophistication start to show why the city appeals to the creative mind: in a land where towns regress towards the banality of High Street brands, Brighton has retained much that is unique (though not, sadly, the first Virgin Records outside London – the location beside the grandiose clocktower, where hippies once smoked and sprawled on cushions beneath a blanket of Pink Floyd, is now a Boots).
Wish you were here? You may well, next time you see the big sea on the big screen. At the foot of Queens Road the clutter of Victoriana and late-20th-century mistakes leaves your frame of vision, which is promptly lured to infinity as the beach tumbles down to a steely sea beneath the broadest of skies that takes over where England leaves off.
Whether the horizon is a scar or a mere smudge, it is an uplifting sight. "It's no different from what captivated Turner and Constable in the 1820s," says Dr Gray. "It's the sea and sky and being able to confront that – God's beautiful creation – on the Brighton seafront, and it's how that expansive natural backdrop is used by so many film-makers, whether it's Richard Attenborough, Neil Jordan, the first Brighton Rock or the new Brighton Rock."
Man's contribution to the panorama can be seen to left and right: the pleasures of Palace Pier, and the shattered skeleton of the West Pier – whose superstructure went up in smoke along with any hope of renaissance. As shells go, there are more impressive ones down on the beach among the shingle.
To evade the bitter breeze of winter, infiltrate the Lanes – the kernel of fishermen's cottages from which Brighton grew. The maze of alleyways at the medieval heart of Brighton has been surrendered to a rash of upmarket shops and themed restaurants.
Yet you can still find nooks with appeal to film-makers: beneath the sign for Long Tall Sally on East Street, and beside the Rasa Brighton on Little East Street, you find the entrance to an alleyway that provided release for a pair of lovers in perhaps the greatest cinematic celebration of Brighton, Quadrophenia. Wistful visitors who wish to be transported back to the two-wheeled tussles of 1965 (coincidentally the era for the remake of Brighton Rock) have named the location "Quadrophenia Alley" and daubed it in graffitti: "We are the Mods – Simon and Gail, 20-11-10," reads one, while "Beebs from Weston-super-Mare" adds with a sting : "Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned."
Sand is in short supply in Brighton, but surprises are everywhere – such as the plaque opposite the Synagogue in Middle Street announcing: "It was here that the inventor of cinematography, William Frieze Greene (1855-1921) carried out his original experiments which led to a world-wide industry." So why does Hollywood have all the glory, rather than Brighton? It can't just be because of cinematic crimes such as the 1971 film set in the resort, Carry on at Your Convenience?
Simon Fanshawe, comedian and long-time resident of Brighton, blames the uncertain climate. "If only the weather had been nicer," he maintains, "instead of Hollywood there would have been a big sign saying H O V E up on the Downs."
"The early phase and history of Brighton as a production centre, does fizzle out by about 1910," says Frank Gray. "It's not Hollywood, in that there were never studios here. To be a 'Hollywood' the city really needs that production centre."
Middle Street is today the centre of a thriving production community, including the company that makes films for The Independent, Maverik Motion Pictures.
The eccentricity squeezed out of the Lanes has reappeared elsewhere. East in Kemp Town, every day is 1930 at a new venture called Metrodeco which specialises in Art Deco furniture. While you muse on the sleek lines of the furniture and the ugly look of your bank account, you can sit on the stock – Metrodeco doubles as a café. Its strong suit is speciality teas, including a bitter Graham Greene with Chocolate.
What could follow tea and tranquility in the Thirties, or rage and revolution in the Sixties? Perhaps an intensity of glamour that is rarely found in European seaside towns. Brighton was where Abba stepped on to the world stage in 1974; the Swedes won the Eurovision Song Contest in the city with Waterloo. The exact venue was just right: the Dome, which was completed in 1805 as the most elaborate royal stables in the world. It was an adjunct to Britain's finest palace, the Royal Pavilion and connected to it by an underground tunnel.
In 1783, the Prince of Wales sought a location away from the wagging tongues of London. The nearest seaside was seven hours' carriage ride due south from the capital (today's trains take 51 minutes). At first he rented a modest farmhouse, but as Prince Regent he could indulge his taste for excess. John Nash imported ideas from India, laced them with themes from China and created an elaborate Oriental palace. Outside, the twirling domes resemble the Sussex franchise of the Taj Mahal, while inside it is mostly counterfeit Chinese with touches of ersatz Egyptian.
Queen Victoria was not amused, and the pavilion served as tea room, hospital, concert hall, radar station and ration office before its hallucinogenic properties were restored as a monument to indolence. This is a film-set waiting for a director, a celluloid hero seeking a cause.
Frank Gray says the palace sums up the soul of Brighton: "To stand in the Pavilion Gardens and to look at the Pavilion – that's one and very particular and quite fantastic view of Brighton. Because it's a bauble, it's something that shouldn't be there."
Just a flamboyant flourish away is the Brighton Museum, housed in part of the Dome, and until 20 March location for a fascinating exhibition entitled Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder – curated by Frank Gray.
Dr Gray knows better than anyone the role Brighton has played in cinema, and vice-versa. But one thing puzzles him: "I can't name a single film set here which is just about the simple pleasures of being here".
A day return from London to Brighton costs £25.90. The closest airport is Gatwick (half an hour by train).
Brighton Museum (03000 290900; www.bit.ly/ekh58Q). Open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free.
The Royal Pavilion is open daily 10am-5.15pm from October to March and 9.30am-5.45pm April to September; admission £9.80.
Metrodeco: 38 Upper St James Street (07878 508719; metro-deco.com).
Brighton Tourist Office: 01273 290 337; visitbrighton.com
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