Brighton: It rocks

DANIEL SCOTT
Last updated 05:00 04/05/2014
brighton rock film
FAMED THUG: Richard Attenborough in character as Pinkie, the nasty Brighton gangster, in a stage adaptation of novelist Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

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Although few Kiwis would fly 20,000-odd kilometres to shiver beside the grey-green English Channel on a mound of pebbles, 648 billion of which line its 6-kilometre seafront, Brighton is nonetheless England's most popular seaside destination for overseas visitors.

And to those, like me, who grew up in landlocked London in the 1970s and 80s, Brighton was the seaside, the escape route from urban grind.

Brighton was where I was whisked when the summer holidays dragged on, where I "romanced" my inaugural girlfriend in a Fawlty Towers-like seafront hovel, and where I first saw Genesis, when lead singer Phil Collins was not yet naff.

As a young adult it was also where I scurried when everything went to crap, as if the sea air could, as doctor Richard Russell had claimed back in 1750, turning Brighton overnight into a fashionable resort, cure all ailments - including middle-class neurosis and writer's block.

In that respect, I have something in common with novelist Graham Greene, whose best-known work, Brighton Rock, is set in the city.

"In the old days when I was stuck," remembered Greene in 1986, "I always went to Brighton to get on with a book."

Although Greene's visits were four decades earlier than mine, the same sleaziness and criminality that attracted him to Brighton remained, loitering around the bohemian fringes of its wholesome seaside image.

As a child I heard of clashes in Brighton between moped-riding mods and quiff-sporting rockers.

In 1979, I was captivated by the dramatisation of those stoushes in Quadrophenia, filmed in the city.

A year later, Brighton opened "Britain's most accessible" nudist beach, east of the pier, attracting much unwelcome attention.

Then, in 1984, the IRA made its most audacious attack on British soil at the seafront Grand Hotel. The Brighton bomb narrowly missed then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but killed five, including two leading Conservatives.

In the years before Greene wrote Brighton Rock, in 1936, the town was rocked by reports of two dismembered female bodies discovered in trunks.

One (unidentified) corpse, found at Brighton station, was dubbed "the girl with the pretty feet" by newspapers. The other, found in the killer's lodgings, was a criminal's prostitute girlfriend.

As with much of Greene's fiction, where imagined plots and characters are transposed into real locales, from Clapham to Vietnam, these macabre stories prompted the writer to probe Brighton's underworld.

So in Brighton Rock, Greene weaves the tale of ruthlessly ambitious teenage gangster Pinkie Brown, his manipulative relationship with innocent waitress Rose, and several mob-related murders, into the seaside resort's familiar fabric.

I've returned to Brighton, as Phil Collins nears pensionable age, on a visit inspired by Greene's novel.

Who better to lead me on this journey than ex-policeman Julian Clapp, a Brighton bobby for 32 years? I meet Clapp, appropriately, at Brighton pier, having, like Fred Hale, the haunted newspaperman with whom Brighton Rock opens, travelled from London by train:

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"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him . . . anybody could tell he didn't belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen's Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour . . . "

It is a glorious summer's day, not a cloud in the sky.

The streets are thick with families, deckchairs are arrayed on the beach and promenade, and southern England's alabaster-skinned youth is reddening in the sun. I spot the tall, angular Clapp among the crowds, holding up a poster for Brighton Rock, the 1947 movie.

Clapp's tour is mostly dedicated to that film, co-written by Greene and Terence Rattigan, and starring young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, as his henchman, Dallow.

"The movie was made by the Boulting brothers from nearby Hove," Clapp tells me as we begin the tour outside Sea Life, once a dance hall where Pinkie takes Rose, "who wanted to use local settings".

They also wanted authenticity, a Brighton gang member acting as consultant and dialect coach - posh BBC accents being in vogue.

"He advised on everything," says Clapp, "from the way Pinkie walked, to how to carve people up."

Brighton's local authority was aghast at the resort's portrayal, insisting that a disclamatory statement be shown after the opening credits: "Brighton today is a large, friendly seaside town in Sussex . . . But in the years between the wars, behind the Regency terraces and crowded beaches, there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums . . . This is a story of that other Brighton, now happily no more."

Today, as we stroll along the promenade, it's hard to connect with the unsettling underbelly in the book and film.

The beach below is a bustling playground, complete with brightly painted bathing huts, and, back across the road, the architectural melange - including some 60s monstrosities - achieves an overall elegance.

As we head west towards Hove, that impression is underlined by the stately white Regency houses marshalled along the seafront and by the Grand Hotel's imposing Italianate presence.

The Grand was home to the 1947 movie's cast during filming. It is now back to its opulent best.

Further along the seafront, opposite the West Pier's skeletal ruins, stands a breeze-block Holiday Inn where the Bedford Hotel once stood. The Bedford was Greene's model for the refined Cosmopolitan hotel, headquarters to louche gang boss Colleoni in Brighton Rock.

Behind the seafront we pass the art deco Savoy cinema, which staged the movie's premiere and is now a casino. Beyond, we enter a web of medieval "lanes", known, in Sussex dialect, as "twittens" and "catcreeps". Originally narrow passageways between fishing cottages, they are the ideal setting for a novelist's dark imaginings.

Greene's visits to Brighton often found him writing at his "favourite resort", the Cricketers pub, dating to 1547, in the central Lanes. It is fondly mentioned in his novel, Travels with my Aunt:

"When I wrote that we had dinner at the Cricketers it would have been correct to say we had a substantial snack. There were baskets of warm sausages on the bar and we helped ourselves and washed the sausages down with draught Guinness. I was surprised by the number of glasses my aunt could put down and feared a little for her blood pressure."

The pub acknowledges the association in the Greene Room bar upstairs, displaying some of his letters.

Greene described Brighton Rock as a morality tale in which the seashore forms the "dangerous edge of things", so it is apt that Clapp's tour ends back at the Palace pier, extending into the murky Channel.

Although the Victorian pier did not figure in the 2010 remake of Brighton Rock, starring Helen Mirren, filmed in nearby Eastbourne, it was pivotal to the original movie.

The murder of newspaperman Hale on "Dante's Inferno" ghost train and its climactic scenes were shot here.

Such was Brighton's disquiet following the movie's success that, during the 1950s, it invented "the Promettes", six models hand-picked each summer to disseminate smiles and tourist leaflets on the promenade.

Labelled "walking information bureaux with sex appeal", they appeared in newsreels shown across the globe, becoming symbols of the town.

As I return to my seafront accommodation, its name - Room with a View - inspired by another English novelist, I buy a stick of rock, the teeth-ruining treat that featured in childhood visits.

Although the original movie's title was changed to Young Scarface in America, its nuances were clear from Greene's novel, in which Pinkie likens himself to the baton-like confection "with Brighton all the way through".

With seagulls wheeling and screeching above, I bite through the shiny exterior and into a whirl of intrigue at the core of this very English seaside resort.

The writer was a guest of Visit Britain and A Room with a View.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Brighton is an hour by train from London Victoria. See Nationalrail.co.uk.

Staying there: A Room with a View has rates starting at £59 ($106) a night. Deluxe king-sized rooms overlooking the seafront are from £155 online. 41 Marine Parade, see aroomwithaviewbrighton.com.

Eating there: Riddle & Finns II on the beachfront is an excellent seafood eatery behind Brighton Beach, 139 Kings Rd Arches, see riddleandfinns.co.uk. GB1 Bistro, The Grand Hotel, 97-99 Kings Rd. Open daily, lunch and dinner. The Cricketers and Greene Room, 15 Black Lion St, see cricketersbrighton.co.uk. Touring there: For Julian Clapp's Brighton Rock walk, see brightoncitywalks.com. More information: visitbrighton.co.uk

- Sunday Star Times

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