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City on screen
Hove, not Hollywood, was the birthplace of film towards the end of the 19th century.
Much of the invention was down to James Williamson, a chemist whose shop was in Church Road, and an entrepreneur called George Albert Smith.
Smith used St Ann’s Well Gardens, then privately owned, to shoot films, most of which did not last longer than a minute. In late Victorian Britain they were an exciting novelty.
He was also remarkably early in producing colour films in the first decade of the 20th century and was a true pioneer.
But as films progressed, so the part they played in their formation was largely forgotten.
According to historian David Fisher in a new book, it was not until 1945 that Brighton and Hove was put on the media history map in an essay by cinema expert George Sadoul about Smith, Williamson and their colleagues.
By this time, Williamson was dead and Smith was so forgotten that some were surprised to find he was still living in the area.
But before he died in 1959, at the grand age of 95, Smith’s contribution was being belatedly recognised and a plaque has been placed on his home in Chanctonbury Road, Hove.
Brighton was also ahead of most other places for watching films. One of the first ever film shows was at the Victoria Hall opposite the West Pier in 1896.
Fisher says there was one glimpse of the beach and adds, “Long before audiences were shown the sights of the Californian coast, for many around the world their first sight of the sea was not the surf of Malibu but the shingle at Brighton.”
Soon there were dozens of screens in the city and the great survivor is the Duke of York’s Picturehouse at Preston Circus, now more than a century old. It is among the oldest cinemas in the world.
But the great days of cinema were between the wars, when some of the largest and most opulent buildings were erected.
Pride of place must go to The Regent in Queen’s Road, which also had a much-loved ballroom next door, but there were others almost as grand.
The Savoy in East Street, on the site of Brill’s baths, was an impressive structure. Long runs were often given to the Astoria in Gloucester Place.
Most of the giant cinemas were owned by the big chains but independents flourished too. Among the owners was the curious Myles Byrne, whose empire included small cinemas in other towns such as the Rex in Shaftesbury and the Orion in Burgess Hill, as well as the Continentale in Kemp Town and the Embassy in Hove.
Byrne, who revelled in being called the meanest man in Brighton, was also something of a romantic and for many years he subsidised the loss-making Adeline Genee theatre in East Grinstead.
The big cinemas mainly survived into the 1970s when they were replaced by multiplexes.
Some of the buildings still stand, notably the Astoria, but it has been empty for years.
In a comprehensive book, Fisher also gives details of the huge number of films shot in Brighton, from Oh! What A Lovely War to Brighton Rock.
He even gives details of an abortive plan to build the British National Film Studios at Whitehawk.
- Cinema-by-Sea by David Fisher (Terra Media, £14.99)
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