For a decade and a half Brighton—or more particularly Hove—was one of the principal centres of film production, not just for the UK but for the world. Britain developed a thriving export market, especially to the United States, that survived throughout this period. Indeed, it might have continued longer but for the efforts of Thomas Edison and others to undermine sales of European films to American cinemas.
Film-making began in Brighton and Hove in July 1896 when Robert W Paul shot a film on Brighton beach to include in his 'celebrated animatograph' programme that began a run at the Victoria Hall on King's Road on 6 July. He was followed by his colleague Birt Acres in August. The first Brighton film-maker was the photographer Esmé Collings, who made at least 12 films in Brighton and a further 13 elsewhere, mostly in London and Portsmouth. He seems to have lost interest in moving pictures very quickly as his film-making barely overlaps with that of two great names in early cinema, George Albert Smith and James Williamson, whose film careers began in Hove in 1897 and continued for many years. Both were running businesses in Hove, both built studios there and both are now regarded as having made a major contribution to the early development of the film medium.
By the end of 1900 at least 176 films had been made in Brighton and Hove, plus a number more shot elsewhere by local film-makers. Mostly these were single-shot films lasting no more than a minute. Any moving picture could excite an audience at that stage. By the end of 1904 the total had risen to 288 (these totals being based on this listings on this site). Although some single-shot actuality films were still being issued, the sophistication of production advanced rapidly during this period. Editing techniques were added to the developing repertoire of trick shots, such as superimposition, double-exposure and running film in reverse. Work being done in Hove at this time had an influence on other film-makers, notably in the United States.
Although that phase of activity is now well recognised by film historians, the following period, which could be characterised as the first colour film era, is less well known and still in need of further research. The first successful colour test films were shot by George Albert Smith at Southwick in 1906, the year in which he patented the system that was later dubbed Kinemacolor. By the end of 1910 a total of 61 colour films had been shot, around 35 of them in the Brighton area. In 1910 Charles Urban's Natural Colour Kinematograph Company took over James Williamson's 'film factory' in Cambridge Grove, Hove as a precursor to the astonishing output of more than 200 Kinemacolor films that were released by 1912. Many of these were shot in Hove.
Even after film production ceased to be a significant activity in Brighton & Hove at the end of the Edwardian era, the city (as it now is) played host to numerous productions. Apart from being a convenient and familiar seaside site within easy reach of London, it had a widespread reputation for its Regency connections, its leisure and illicit sex and even for its crime, including gruesome murders.
Its reputation extended even to Hollywood. Who would have expected that the musical that gave the world the hit songs Night and Day and The Continental—The Gay Divorcee—was partly set in 'Brighton'? (Actually, it was set in Brightbourne, but we all know that does not mean Eastbourne!) In 1945, RKO made a film in Hollywood that was supposed to be set in Brighton, although the depiction owed more to the imagination of RKO's art department than topographical research.
And Brighton is distinctively Brighton. Whilst Leeds or Liverpool can be made to stand in for Moscow or New York, the usual locations in Brighton are usually too visually familiar to be anywhere else. (But see Left for Dead.) No more than a third of the feature films made in the city actually feature Brighton as a specific location, but only a couple are 'native' to Brighton: Brighton Rock and Jigsaw. Most of the others use Brighton asa a place to visit, usually from London. Films like Genevieve, Quadrophenia, Mona Lisa and Carry on at Your Convenience fall into this category, the first two being essentially road movies about the journey from London to Brighton. And, of course, in the short film category there have been two versions of the famous four-minute train journey. Brighton has been used recently as a place to hide out: The Fruit Machine and London to Brighton, although one—Ashes and Sand—is about trying to get away from Brighton.
Murder is a regular theme (perhaps not as frequent as in Midsomer)
An interesting recent development is a spate of low-budget films, both feature-length and shorts, made by directors, producers and cast with links to Brighton. The advent and acceptability of digital video has fuelled this spurt and may even lead to the development of a sustainable local production industry for the first time since the Edwardian era.
This listing is divided into five: the silent films that happened to be made in Brighton & Hove because that is where the film-makers lived. The sound films that chose to use Brighton as a setting in its own right are dived between two pages with 2000 as the breaking point. A fifth page includes short films, plus there is a list of films where the setting is Brighton but the shooting was done entirely elsewhere, except for the use of stock shots to establish the scene.