Geographer Geoffrey Mead delivered a 45-minute talk without notes on Brighton’s theatre and cinema history, focusing on locations and people. This began with a tight tour of the Old Town bounded by East Street, North Street and West Street, before spiralling north towards Brighton Station, westwards to West Pier, along the seafront to the Palace Pier, Madeira Drive and Kemptown before swooping back along Edward Street and finishing on Grand Parade.
His main prop was a 1773 map of Brighton, at that time basically the old town around what is now known as The Lanes. It was fascinating to learn of the theatrical history of this densely packed area and of the expansion of theatre and, later, cinema in the whole area we now know as Brighton.
Amid a myriad of theatre and cinema names he showed the difference between theatre, patronised by the wealthy, and music hall which was for the masses. Music halls burned down frequently due to the conditions – wooden structures with gas lighting, charcoal burners for food, alcohol in the auditorium – whereas theatres had a much longer life with a better quality of structure and separate bar areas.
Brighton was a natural area for theatre and music hall, being connected to London by rail, attracting actors, stage managers, scenery builders etc. When cinematography came along in the late 1890s, this proliferation of theatrical expertise was a good source, leading to the area becoming the leading location for making films. The last studio at Shoreham continued as late as 1923, giving way to modern studios such as Elstree, Pinewood and so on with easier access to film processing in London.
Geoffrey also conducts theatrical tours during the Brighton Festival; listening to his talk today I am sure these would be equally interesting.