Backstage Brighton: Theatre-Going in Brighton & Hove (2010) is the latest offering from Queenspark Books, Brighton’s community publisher, specialising in oral history. It complements their previous book, Back Row Brighton: Cinema-Going in Brighton & Hove (2009.)
In 1900, Brighton had more theatres than any city outside London. The Theatre Royal, on New Road near the Pavilion, still thrives in its original condition. The Marlborough Theatre in Princes Street (off Old Steine) is a smaller venue, situated above a pub of the same name. The building is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lucy Packham, the pub landlady who was killed by her husband in 1900.
Sir Laurence Olivier was one of many famous actors who came to live in Brighton, and it is said that the local railway station tailored its train schedule and dining-car menu to Olivier’s needs. Sir Donald Sinden, best known for his comedic roles, grew up in the Sussex village of Ditchling and made his debut at the Brighton Little Theatre in 1941, while he was still a teenager and working as a joiner in Hove.
Among the many international stars to appear at the Theatre Royal is Marlene Dietrich, who brought her one-woman show to Brighton during the 1960s. The management had her dressing-room refurbished before her arrival, and were momentarily alarmed when Dietrich immediately asked for a scrubbing brush. Apparently, she liked to scrub floors to relax before performing.
One writer shares a bawdier anecdote about the Theatre Royal. On one occasion when the male dancers complained that their hair gel was unsuitable, a production assistant was sent to Boots’ for KY jelly (which, being water-based, washes out quickly.) Her innocent request to the chemist for ‘enough for seventeen men, twice a night for two weeks’, has become something of a local legend.
Backstage Brighton also covers smaller theatres, no longer in use. The Alhambra on King’s Road (facing the seafront) was demolished to make way for the popular, if unsightly, Brighton Centre in the 1960s. In its heyday, the turn of the last century, the Alhambra was a music hall venue, attracting 250,000 visitors each year.
The Hippodrome on Middle Street (in the South Lanes) began as an ice rink in 1887, and was transformed into a variety theatre in 1902. Stars from Laurel and Hardy to the Beatles trod the boards. In 1965, the theatre closed and was thereafter used as a casino.
A local man, Bill Patterson, recalled that he was at the Palace Pier Theatre one night in his teens, when a girl asked him to walk her home to Rock Gardens. Thinking he was onto a sure thing, Bill agreed. However, the girl merely left him at her front door, saying, ‘ta for that, love’. The young actress was Betty Driver, who would later find fame as Betty Turpin in TV’s longest-running soap opera, Coronation Street.
Backstage Brighton is lavishly illustrated with vintage photographs. It is rather short on oral testimony, perhaps because so few people who remember theatre’s golden age as a popular pursuit are with us now. Each chapter is written by a different contributor, and some are, perhaps inevitably, more prone to ‘luvvie-dom’ than others.
This book is an excellent general history and could be used as a starting-point for further research. Perhaps due to its brevity, though, I felt that for all its entertainment value, Backstage Brighton didn’t tell me as much as I would like to know about Brighton’s unique impact on theatrical history.
Given the sheer depth and diversity of Brighton’s theatrical past, the more recent annual arts festivals, and its future possibilities as a creative force, there must be more to tell – but that’s another story.