From a distance they would have looked like little more than derelict huts: small, rickety wooden structures, held together with corrugated iron. There they sat, for three summers, on the otherwise deserted space of Shoreham-by-Sea’s beautiful, windswept beach. A stranger to the town could have been forgiven for thinking that they were perhaps makeshift homes for the less fortunate. But the local residents knew better. They would have watched, with growing excitement, as glamorous figures – decked out in often elaborate costumes – emerged from these structures, taking their places in front of rolling cameras. What they were witnessing was the birth of the UK’s film industry.
Shoreham’s “Bungalow Town” developed on the beach between 1918 and 1921, just next door to The Church of the Good Shepherd. It proved to be the perfect open space in which to make movies. But this community of actors and directors was in fact part of the second phase of Sussex’s rich film heritage.
It all began way back in 1897 with two men from Hove, James Williamson – a chemist – and George Albert Smith, who had previously worked as a hypnotist and became manager of the St Ann’s Well pleasure gardens. The pair were friends and, independently, began to make films.
“What’s very intriguing about these men’s work is that by 1900 they were making edited fiction films,” says Dr Frank Gray of Screen Archive South East. “Smith and Williamson were world pioneers and we can credit them with the creation of film editing.
“Yes, there were their American contemporaries – who were making films for the Edison Company of New York – but these films did not have edited features. This is something very special to Sussex and Britain.”
Before this, the first films made in the UK, and indeed around the world at this time from 1896 to 1900, were all about one minute in length. Smith and Williamson transformed this by literally gluing each shot together to produce an edited sequence. This, explains Gray, was revolutionary.
“Thanks to these men, films immediately started to become longer. Multiple shots were used and stories could then be told because you could not only move from scene to scene, but – in the case of Smith’s work – also within a scene. He was responsible for creating edited sequences that could involve a close-up – so you could move from a view of a grandmother and a child playing with a magnifying glass and then cut to the shot from the viewer’s eye: a move from an objective to a subjective point of view and an insight into the experience of a fictional character.”
The “Hove pioneers,” as they became known, were soon making both comedies and contemporary dramas. One of Williamson’s most successful movies, 1901’s Fire! depicted a house fire and the ensuing rescue of its occupants.
By the early 1900s, both men expanded their businesses by constructing studios. These were like oversized green houses, housing interior sets, illuminated only by natural light. Exteriors were shot in Brighton and Hove’s streets and further afield in the Sussex countryside. Smith continued making films until 1903 and Williamson until 1909. Williamson’s films were distributed not just in the UK, but also Europe and the U.S.
“In their separate ways both of these men became part of this new international industry,” says Gray. “Even though they were both Hove residents it’s a mistake to see them as just making movies for Hove; they were making films for the whole world.”
Hollywood by the sea
Shoreham’s Bungalow Town was the next chapter in Sussex’s film history and came some nine years after Williamson had stopped making pictures.
“There was a small film studio that was set up just before the First World War in 1914,” says Gray. “It made just two or three short comic films. But after the war, the Manchester based company Progress Films were looking for a location in the south of England to start a studio and found it on Shoreham beach.”
Between 1918 and 1921 Progress made 17 feature films in Sussex, most of which were derived from either famous or contemporary English novels. The most notable of these was Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
“Sussex was perfect for filmmakers, largely because it had more sunlight than other parts of the UK,” says Gray. “There was very little on Shoreham beach, so it was ideal for location work. The town was also used and they shot up in the Downs.”
The Shoreham story is particularly interesting in that it was not a fulltime studio. It had a summer season only and the rest of the year was blocked out around this.
The Progress studio was largely shaped by the work of Sidney Morgan, who not only wrote the scripts, but directed and produced the films: “a massive undertaking”, acknowledges Gray.
“At the start of the year he’d write the scripts and prepare, then he and his cast and production team would assemble in Shoreham and live together on the beach in converted railway caravans. Imagine the beach as a studio setup with accommodation, a workshop and other facilities to create the sets and prepare the costumes.”
After completing a film, Morgan would go to London where he’d edit it and prepare for the trade shows, which were scheduled for the end of the year. Films would open just before Christmas. But despite having some commercial success, these films, Gray explains, neither met the artistic standards of movies being made in Europe, or attracted the huge audiences that flocked to cinemas in the U.S.
“The difference was that in the earlier period of Sussex’s film history, circa 1900, there was a real buzz. Smith and Williamson were trying out new things. There was a great sense of experimentation about the period, whereas you could not call the films made in Shoreham in the late teens and early twenties experimental in anyway. They were conservative in comparison with the new filmmaking found in Germany – I’m thinking of German expressionism. They certainly were not avant-garde and were not really that far away from the theatre of its day.
“They played quite well – Little Dorrit was particularly popular, but the anxieties of the English film industry – that they’d never be as good as the Americans – proved to be the case. This was the era of the great Charlie Chaplin and British films were slower in pace, lacked imagination and certainly didn’t have the visual comedy found in Hollywood. But they were nevertheless still worthy.”
Filmmaking during the great silent era of the teens in Hollywood didn’t stop because of the war and cinemas in the UK didn’t stop showing films, but what changed was that there was a dearth of English productions throughout the war years. This was the death knell of Sussex’s once burgeoning film production.
“You have to remember,” Gray points out, “that the first UK cinemas didn’t start to open until about 1910. Across the teens, there were brand new cinemas, but unfortunately for the British, they were largely showing American content, and so the movement started to die out. It could not compete with America.”
A fire of 1924 badly damaged the Progress film studio, but by that time production had pretty much stopped forever. They had enjoyed three glorious years. Walking across Shoreham’s beach today, and looking out to the sea, through a blazing sunset, you can understand why those brave pioneers were drawn to this corner of Sussex – and perhaps even feel something of the ghosts of those beautiful twenties starlets, waiting patiently for their close-ups.
Film pioneers flocked to Sussex in the late teens and early 1920s. Alex Hopkins traces their hopes and dreams