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Celebrating 120 years of film in Sussex

PUBLISHED: 15:19 22 August 2016

Film-making outside Brighton Dome and Royal Pavilion in 1937. Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove

Film-making outside Brighton Dome and Royal Pavilion in 1937. Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove


Long before the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Sussex was at the pioneering forefront of film.

This year sees the 120th anniversary of two landmark events for the county with the showing of the first film outside London in March 1896 in Brighton and in August of the same year travelling showman Walter Cole presented his programme Electric Animated Photographs at the Pier Pavilion in Worthing. This was less than a year after the Lumière Brothers invented the Cinématographe for filming and projecting films and debuted their first public film show in Paris.

The cinemas

The south coast resorts attracted millions of holiday makers each year and they demanded a variety of attractions and amusements. Nearly 50 years after the introduction of the magic lantern show, film shows became so popular that they were hailed as “the sensation of the century”. In 1906 Worthing opened its first full-time cinema in the Winter Hall and a year later Brighton’s first permanent cinema, the Electric Bioscope, opened in a converted shop at 129b Western Road. Over the next few years many more cinemas opened – the Kursaal in Worthing (now Worthing Dome) in 1911 and the Picturedrome (now the Connaught) in 1914. Along the coast in Brighton a 3,000 seat cinema, The Regent, was opened in 1921. It was a lavish venue with a ballroom and restaurants – costing £400,000 it was described by the local press as “a local temple of the silent drama”.

The pioneers

There is a plaque to William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) in Brighton’s Middle Street marking it as the location where he first carried out experiments in cinematography. The Bristol-born photographer worked with magic lanterns to create moving pictures – patenting the chronophotographic camera in 1889. In Brighton – where he moved in 1905 – he explored capturing colour on film with his Biocolour system.

Before becoming a filmmaker George Albert Smith (1864-1959) was a showman, magic lanternist, psychic and hypnotist. He bought his own camera, started making films and built one of Britain’s first film studios in St Ann’s Wells Gardens in Hove. He developed a variety of film techniques such as editing, close-ups and double exposure. He also experimented with special effects and invented Kinemacolor – the first commercially viable colour film process.

Arthur Albert (‘Esmé’) Collings (1859-1936) was a Brighton-based photographer. In 1896 he started making films and that October his first exhibition of films was shown at the Empire Theatre of Varieties to great acclaim. He made at least 19 films in his Brighton series but only two have survived – Boys Scrambling for Pennies under the West Pier and Children Paddling.

James Williamson (1855-1933) became interested in film-making after meeting George Albert Smith and Esme Collings who bought chemicals for developing films from his pharmacy at 144 Church Road in Hove. As a result he became an accomplished film-maker and ran a successful film manufacturing company. He began making films in 1898, many of which were shot in the back garden of his home in Hove. He was one of the first film-makers to give direction by asking actors to behave naturally, thus making sure his films were more realistic.

Shoreham has an important position in the history of film-making as home to one of the earliest film studio complexes. In 1914 scenic artist Francis Lyndhurst (1878-1952) – grandfather of actor Nicholas Lyndhurst – started the Sunny South Film Company which produced eight films. A year later he launched The Sealight Film Producing Company near the Church of the Good Shepherd which included a glasshouse studio.

Film, Media & Cultural Studies lecturer at the University of Chichester Ellen Cheshire says of the pioneers: “Following the launch of moving pictures in 1896 people began experimenting with this new form and a group of experimenters in Sussex became known as the Brighton School. The contributions of George Albert Smith and James Williamson form part of the canon of early film-making pioneers as their work helped move these early films from limited single shots of real events or staged scenarios to longer films comprising two or more shots, moving between locations to tell their stories. It is believed that Smith was the first director to cut two shots together to progress a story – obvious now, but this was a big deal in 1899. He was also an innovative early user of the close-up in his film Grandma’s Reading Glasses (1900). Inspired by Smith’s two-shot film Williamson extended this to four and then multi shots to tell a story, Fire! (1901) which sees tension mount by cutting between the fire and fire brigade on the way”.


Although cinema attendance declined with the advent of television Sussex has always maintained a vital role in the UK film industry as a backdrop to a number of iconic films.

In 1947 the Boulting Brothers filmed the British classic Brighton Rock, starring Richard Attenborough, in Brighton with the premiere being held at The Savoy Cinema in East Street. Attenborough went on to use the same location for his ground-breaking directorial debut Oh! What A Lovely War in 1969. A decade later Quadrophenia was shot against landmark locations in Brighton which recreated the mods and rockers riots of the early 1960s. Recently 
Mr Holmes (2015) was filmed across several East Sussex locations including Hailsham Pavilion.

Still going strong

Sussex continues to have a prominent place within the film world, being home to a plethora of independent cinemas including the Duke of York’s – the oldest continuously running cinema in the world. One of Britain’s most innovative directors, Ben Wheatley, is based in Brighton along with his wife and editing partner Amy Jump, their most recent release being J G Ballard’s edgy dystopian tale High Rise (2016).

Brighton Film School which was established in 1996 was recently voted in the Top 10 UK Film Schools thus adding another cinematic accolade to Sussex’s credentials. Sussex regularly hosts many vibrant film festivals such as CINECITY – Brighton Film Festival now in its 14th year and the Chichester International Film Festival which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Here’s to another 120 years.


Kevin Brownlow on his obsession of silent film - With his seminal series Hollywood Kevin Brownlow reinvigorated interest in silent film. But it was in his hometown of Crowborough that he first developed an obsession, as Duncan Hall discovers.


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