Back Row Brighton: Cinema-Going in Brighton and Hove is the latest offering from Queenspark Books, a community publisher since 1974. Specialising in the reminiscences of local people, and writing and editing with volunteers, Queenspark has created a unique, alternate history of Brighton. It also provides a focus for aspiring writers with a number of ongoing courses, groups and workshops, and is used as a learning resource by schools in the area.
Given its cultural atmosphere and lively past, it is perhaps unsurprising that Brighton has played a part in the evolution of cinema, from the camera’s invention until the present day. In his essay, ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, Martin Payne notes that in 1896, Esmé Collings made ‘the world’s first blue movie’, a short entitled Woman Undressing, filmed at his workshop on Brighton’s Western Road. And in 1907, William Friese-Greene developed a process known as ‘Biocolour’.
Many films, ranging from blockbusters to flops, have been made or set in Brighton. The most famous is Brighton Rock (1948), based on Graham Greene’s novel about a teenage hoodlum, Pinky. More recent thrillers, like Mona Lisa (1986), Dirty Weekend (1993) and London to Brighton (2006) explore the dark underbelly of this seaside city.
The cult classic, Quadrophenia (1979) explores youth culture and hedonism in Brighton, while comedies like Genevieve (1953) and Carry On Girls (1973) celebrate the town’s fame among holidaymakers. The Adventures of Jane (1949), based on a Daily Mirror comic strip, may be ‘a remarkably awful film’ according to guest writer Frank Flood, but it is still of interest to historians, as it features many local landmarks that have since been demolished, including the Gaiety Cinema on Lewes Road, now replaced by the Vogue Gyratory system.
But Back Row Brighton is primarily concerned with the cinema-going, rather than film-making. Pinpointing the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s as the heyday of cinema-going, it focuses on the memories of older residents ‘who tell of the dancing, the excitement, the queues and the scale and beauty of these picture houses – all evoking a forgotten world…’
As Martin Payne observes, ‘any movie buff with stamina, and a Saver bus ticket, could spend an enjoyable day travelling the length and breadth of the city tracing the history of its films and lost cinemas.’
Some of those ‘picture palaces’ now stand empty, like the Astoria on Gloucester Place. In its prime, the Astoria boasted an Art Deco interior, with a bar and restaurant. ‘Above all,’ writes Frank Flood, ‘its fortunes seem to be tied up with that ultimate box-office draw, Gone With The Wind, which made its Brighton debut there in 1940, before returning for longer runs in 1942, 1968-69 and 1975.’
Many Brighton children attended the Saturday morning cinema, while their mothers bought weekend groceries on London Road. ‘The kids in East Brighton came from very poor backgrounds,’ recalls Bryan Moody, ‘so going to the town…was a huge mental step.’ In ‘The Big Screen’, Dave Huggins writes, ‘We would base our games on the adventures we had seen on the screen. I remember swinging on bits of clothesline from trees in the park, trying to imitate Tarzan’s call.’
Some theatres leave sadder memories, such as the Odeon Kemp Town which was bombed by a lone German plane one Saturday in 1940, killing a mostly juvenile audience. Many former cinemas have been rebuilt for other purposes, including the Prince’s on North Street, once part of a chain of theatres owned by local entrepreneur Miles Byrne, which is now a cinema-themed branch of Burger King. And Western Road’s Waitrose supermarket was once the Curzon cinema, while the Granada on Portland Road, Hove, was re-opened as a bingo hall in the 1970s, closing in 2003. Currently disused, the old cinema is now the subject of a legal battle between local residents and property developers.
Grandest of all was the Regent on Queen’s Road, a site now occupied by Boots. It was far more than a cinema, with a restaurant and orchestra, café and a sprung-floored dance hall. ‘Never again will a dance floor be so crowded with bodies against bodies, smooching to that favourite of the time, the Miller medley,’ recalls Ron Spicer, who met his future wife at the Regent. The young Roy and John Boulting, who would later produce Brighton Rock, were among the regular cinemagoers.
The last of Brighton’s old cinemas is also the oldest cinema in England, still running. Situated at Preston Circus, north of the city centre, the Duke of York’s is now primarily an arthouse cinema and cabaret venue, with a bar and niche clubs for children and the elderly.
‘During the war we used to go (to the Duke of York’s),’ Diana Meeton comments, ‘because we couldn’t afford heating and electricity…we’d go there for three hours before we went to bed and keep warm.’ Other cinemas, like the Dome and Pavilion, became hospitals for wounded soldiers.
‘We only stayed in one night a week,’ Leila Abrahams has recalled. ‘Other nights were spent going to the various cinemas…some of which we called ‘flea pits’, which showed only old films.’ When rival attractions like television and pop music exploded, cinema attendance declined. Several of Brighton’s smaller cinemas ended their days showing mainly exploitation flicks.
One contributor who worked at the ABC cinema in East Street (originally the Savoy) during the 1990s, recently wrote on the My Brighton and Hove website, ‘It was a lovely old cinema, it had gone to rot though, the main ballroom upstairs was still there, but the ceiling had partially collapsed and it was inhabited by pigeons.’ After closing its doors in 1999, the old cinema is home to Spearmint Rhino Rouge, a strip club, and Po Na Na, a nightclub.
Back Row Brighton is an impressive addition to a series of works on Brighton’s enduring connection with cinema, beautifully designed with many vintage photographs and an evocative, red-tinted cover showing the Duke of York’s interior. (Some pictures also feature in Queenspark’s 2010 calendar,Lost Cinemas of Brighton.)
What makes Back Row Brighton so distinctive is its wealth of nostalgia, and the detailed, quirky and often moving recollections of Brighton’s cinemagoers. Other works of note include A Refuge From Reality by Robert D. Elleray, Brighton and Hove Cinemas by Allan Eyles and Kiss & Kill by Nicola Coleby. The Terramedia website chronicles Brighton’s cinematic history, while Screen Archive South East is a treasure trove of regional film-making.