A tour through Graham Greene’s Brighton

Brighton Rock - poster for the 1947 film

The latest film adaptation of Graham Greene's classic novel Brighton Rock sets the story in the 1960s Brighton of Mods and Rockers, while the seafront scenes were actually filmed in nearby Eastbourne.

With the film set to open in cinemas across the UK this week, University of Sussex historian Geoffrey Mead, who leads guided history walks across the city, revisits the 1930s Brighton that inspired Greene's darkly thrilling tale of gangs, urban squalor and damnation in a seaside town.

How much is Brighton featured in Brighton Rock?

Almost the whole of the story is concerned with locations in central Brighton, with forays out into the inner suburbs at Lewes Road Viaduct (now long gone, it was sited near Sainsbury's) and Brighton railway yards (also long gone, near another Sainsbury's!). Further out of town there are sections set at the Race Hill, in Saltdean and Peacehaven and possibly at Patcham.

Why did Greene set his novel in Brighton?

Brighton has long been a bolt-hole for London-based writers and the reputation of the resort (even before Brighton Rock) ensures there is always good material, with plenty of lowlife, rich and poor alike. The town is a great 'character' in its own right, too. Considering Greene's later work takes in Mexico, Sierra Leone and Vietnam, Brighton does well to play in the top flight of dangerous spots.

Did the representation of Brighton cause controversy at the time?

The local authority of the time, Brighton Corporation, was horrified at the picture painted of the resort, both in the book and later in the 1947 film, starring the University's former Chancellor, Lord Attenborough.  At the end of the opening credits there was a message on the screen to the effect that all of the events of the film took place a long time ago and Brighton was not like that now...

The new film is a remake of a Forties classic, part of which was filmed on Brighton seafront. Why do you think the story of Pinkie and his Brighton gang still has such appeal?

The emphases may have changed over time but the central tenets of 'boy meets girl' 'good versus evil' 'will he-won't  he' are perennials. The 17-year-old Pinkie trying his luck against the suave gang boss Colleoni, pushing against law and order in his confrontations with the local police, trying to control his 'turf' all feature in the life of much urban youth.

Why the Eastbourne setting for the new film? And why, do you think, have the film's makers opted for the Mods and Rockers era?

Eastbourne was used because so much of central Brighton, especially the seafront and pier, has changed considerably from the 1960s, let alone the 1930s. The Mods and Rockers era has established itself in the public mind as an era - the early 1960s - in a way that the earlier time versions did not. And of course the 1960s setting evokes the same period as one of Brighton's other cinematic triumphs, Quadrophenia. Greene's original novel has little in it to link it, socially or politically, specifically to the 1930s. The geographical settings in the novel are backdrops to the story and not essentially part of the plot: only the idea of the British resort as a vehicle for a shifting underclass with its veneer of sophistication is a constant.

There was quite a stir during filming for the Forties film - what can you tell us about that time?

Brighton Corporation was very unhappy about the original novel painting a picture of the most famous family resort as a world of criminal gangs, protection rackets, prostitution and general illegal activity. When the proposal to film in the town arose there was strong official opposition. It was only after lengthy negotiation that filming was allowed on the Corporation property of the Race Course and in the resort's streets.

What was gang culture like in Brighton back then?

Brighton suffers by being so close to the huge crime zone that is London. The infamous Hoxton Mob caused havoc with a major disturbance and gang fight at the race course in the late 1920s. The London gangs were dominated by Darby Sabini and he may have been the model for Mr Colleoni, the suave gang boss in the novel whose HQ was the 'Cosmopolitan', a location modeled on the old Bedford Hotel opposite the West Pier.

Did Greene's Brighton Rock give the city its infamously seedy reputation - or was that reputation already there?

It certainly helped by giving Brighton's seedy under-belly a national and indeed international viewing. It has certainly coloured all successive descriptions of Brighton's 'dark side'. In truth the image goes back much further. Each stage of Brighton history has given rise to crime, smuggling when a fishing town, gaming and sharping when a Georgian resort, prostitution when a Napoleonic garrison town, and the general level of crime that occurs in urban areas of a constantly shifting population, often low paid, in a community with vast contrasts in levels of wealth. As an entertainment town the use of recreational booze and drugs obviously breeds crime.

Can you explain a bit about the title of the book?

Brighton Rock is a short snappy title and one immediately understood by the British public (but not in the USA where they had to change the title to Young Scarface). Its meaning is emphasised in the book when Pinkie compares himself to the Rock 'with Brighton all the way through' in a parochial boast. The way down from the station along Queens Road was at one time lined with sweetshops and cheap souvenir shops (famously Rocco's was the pinnacle of tourist tat) all with signs outside stating 'Brighton Rock on sale here'; free advertising for the book and a factor that enraged the town authorities.

Brighton has been home to numerous artistic legends, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Terence Rattigan and Max Miller: what is it about Brighton, do you think, that attracts artistic interest?

In social geography terms Brighton is an 'open' community where freedom of approach and freedom to think in a radical way allow artistic and innovatory fringe talent to flourish. The flamboyant worlds of theatre and film find a natural home in Brighton and its proximity to the enormous artistic pool of London all helps in creating an atmosphere of artistic endeavour. Max Miller, of course, was born in Brighton in a very poor district in Hereford St and in spite of his considerable wealth never left the town.

Was Graham Greene's association with Brighton anything other than literary?

Greene may have lived in Brighton for a time (a flat in Embassy Court - once home of the author Keith Waterhouse - has been identified by some as a likely residence) as his locations are often obscure and would not be known by non-residents, but I have never ascertained where he lived! His favourite pub was The Cricketers in Black Lion Street, which now has a bar titled The Greene Room.

Is there any of the "old" Brighton left?

Yes! I lead guided walks, seeking out the very rare bits of old Brighton. There are bits in the Lanes and around Old Steine that have survived and one or two corners in the area east of the Valley Gardens as well as in the North Laine, where you'll find the odd ghost from the past.

Notes for editors


Geoffrey Mead is currently undertaking doctoral research into the changes that occurred in the inter-war suburban areas around Brighton, specifically in Patcham. He teaches Landscape Studies in the University's Centre for Community Engagement, covering Conservation and Agriculture, Physical and Human Landscapes and Industrial Archaeology. He also works within the University's School of Global Studies, leading local field trips for geography students.

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Last updated: Tuesday, 1 February 2011