Local social media channels fizzed last month upon learning pop poppet turned actual actor Harry Styles and his TARDIS had landed in Powis Square. Filming for Amazon’s “My Policeman” (the novel about a gay bobby in 50s Brighton) was afoot. Locals of all ages and genders grabbed their cameras and offspring, gathering for a game of ‘Where’s Harry?’
This Hollywood incursion shouldn’t surprise, given how important the area is for cinema. Take the Western edge of Whistler Country, St Ann’s Well Gardens, which predates Hollywood by over a decade as a moviemaking centre. From 1897-1904, the pleasure gardens’ owner George Albert Smith, arguably the most important of the Brighton [Hove Actually] School of pioneering filmers, made movies here.
[Dear readers: I will ignore William Friese-Greene in this article. Not just due to minimal Dials links. A plaque in Brighton’s Middle Street says he invented cinema there. No he didn’t. The first moving pictures were shot in Leeds by a French dude. Friese-Greene was primarily London-based at cinema’s inception anyway. I’ve made an entire YouTube video about how full of lies that plaque is. WFG mythology denigrates the achievements of the real Hove cinema pioneers. It. Must. End. Grrr.]
The much more pleasingly acronymed GAS, meanwhile, has many cinematic firsts to his name. First colour moving images? Check. Editing between different angles? Using cutaways from an establishing shot? A title card? Copyright notice? Yes to all of the above. Smith’s sheer volume of output (35 short films in 1897 alone) might be a factor in how many key elements of the language of movies he established.
Initially basing his studio in the Pump Room [which was demolished in 1935 after the well spring dried up], GAS was mindful that clear coastal daylight made Hove rather than smoggy London a cinema hotbed. In 1901 a glass walled studio was built to house faux interior sets. Some of Smith’s innovations (eg primitive colour footage) came after he’d upped sticks to Southwick three years later. Filmmaking ended at St Ann’s Well soon after. The council acquired it as a public park in 1908.
Fast forward 40 years and the south eastern edge of Whistlerland housed the grandly named Brighton Film Studios, operating from 1948-1966 in a former sunday school and auction house at 51 Centurion Road.
Despite its longevity it struggled. In 1950 not a single movie was produced in Brighton & Hove. Fifty years earlier, dozens (albeit of much shorter duration) were shot in St Ann’s Well Gardens alone.
Advanced cameras and lights, with the accompanying move to primarily indoor shooting, meant seaside towns no longer had any advantage. Brighton’s provincial set-up couldn’t compete with edge-of-London titans like Pinewood and Shepperton. The sun (or lack of reliance upon it) has sadly set upon our local film industry.
What would Esmé Collings, bitter rival of William Friese-Greene [you said we wouldn’t mention him – Ed] make of it all? In 1896, while living at what is now 56 Dyke Road, Esmé directed the world’s first ‘adult movie’. Of course “A Victorian Lady In Her Boudoir” was tame by modern sensibilities, offering a brief glimpse of bare ankle at its, er, climax.
That said, we suspect the crowd gathered a stone’s throw away in Powis Square recently would happily eyeball far less (a gloved hand or flash of side-ear perhaps) belonging to Mr Styles. With ITV returning soon for more Grace TV movies, the area is back in the film spotlight for tales of spice, vice and police at least. Welcome to life in the West Hills of Diallywood, folks x