Detail

Theme Seaside

The history of seaside resorts and communities has been a defining feature of the South East of England since the eighteenth century. It began with the promotion of the alleged medicinal properties of sea bathing and the establishment of fashionable resorts at Brighton and Margate and then rapid expansion took place along the Sussex and Kent coasts from the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of the railways and new investment devoted to the creation of piers, hotels, theatres, restaurants, pleasure gardens and promenades. Our understanding of these seaside towns is still very determined by this Victorian legacy and by the knowledge that the twentieth century saw the gradual economic decline of most of these centres, especially with the rise of jet travel and holidays in the Mediterranean. Cultural and economic regeneration has become the vehicle for countering this dependency on the single industry of tourism. For example, Brighton began to re-define itself as a centre for higher education in the 1960s and it is now, as are Bexhill, Hastings, Folkestone and Margate, becoming a centre for the creative industries.

The Screen Archive South East collection represents many aspects of the region’s coastal history from the 1890s to the present through both commercial and amateur productions. By in large, however, these films only engage with the positive aspects of these coastal towns and therefore do not address the social and economic difficulties that many of these communities have faced and continue to face.

The films both complement and extend our understanding of this region’s seaside culture, especially when studied in the context of surviving photographs, postcards, paintings, graphic, publicity materials and newspapers as found in library, museum and record office collections. Generally, the films focus on holidays, day trips and tourism and therefore tend to emphasise the pleasurable experience had in these places and their distinctive architectural and geographical characteristics. These films represent many histories from the perspective of the seaside: architecture and design, urban planning, dress, gender, transport, tourism, the service sector and leisure. As such, these films can combine to signify the nation at play. As works of non-fiction, they fall roughly into three categories: publicity films, amateur records and holiday films.

Publicity film

Screen Archive South East’s seaside publicity films were made commercially and commissioned usually by local authorities in order to promote seaside resorts to potential visitors both nationally and internationally. Collectively, they present uncritical celebrations of such places and acknowledge the value of film as a modern advertising tool and therefore a natural ally of tourism. These representations of the seaside, as found in works that date from the 1920s to the 1970s, present resorts which enjoy sunshine and provide opportunities for visitors to experience good holidays. The earliest example is “Magical Margate”, a tinted and toned film of ca. 1925. It encourages the visitor to enjoy vicariously the pleasures of visiting this Kentish coastal town by spending an afternoon either at the beach or at tea dance within the Pavilion’s palm tree decorated ballroom. The sexualised nature of the seaside is often present in these films. For instance, the Ramsgate film A Holiday to Jump At (1954) emphasises the annual beauty contest and presents young women, such as the “Aqua Lovelies”, as icons of the town’s contemporary charm. Brighton (1957) takes us on a panoramic tour of the town, featuring the piers, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, amusements and the annual veteran car run. All Go Margate (1970) employed the television personality Michael Aspel to explore the town on the viewer’s behalf. Donkey rides, building sandcastles, bikini-clad sunbathers, entertainers such as Mike and Bernie Winters, performing dolphins, crazy golf, the Dreamland amusement park - these are the assets of this “family resort”. In the 1980s and 1990s, the seaside publicity film would be replaced by video productions and from the late 1990s they in turn were superseded by town websites.

Amateur records

In contrast with the corporate representations of place, amateur records of the seaside present views of everyday scenes and special events designed for both private and community exhibition. Often the work of residents, these films usually offer a sustained portrait of these coastal places and their communities. Enid Briggs made amateur films of Broadstairs and district for most of the 1930s. They reveal many aspects of public life in this seaside community and, as such, serves as a valuable social chronicle of this Thanet town. In a period when Broadstairs was a very popular holiday resort, her films reveal the summer crowds, community events such as the annual Dickens’ festival and, in contrast, the preparations of the Red Cross for war and winter storms. Her film, [Uncle Mack’s Minstels] of 1930 - 1931 presents the black-faced entertainer Uncle Mack, who performed with his troupe continuously on the seafront from 1895 to 1948. It introduces us to the minstrel show that was a distinctive part of the English seaside’s performance culture. Her collection of almost three hours of material represents the largest single collection by a woman film-maker in the Screen Archive South East collection.

The films made by the Bognor Regis Film Society provide a parallel portrait of a seaside town in the same decade. The Society’s films were modelled on national newsreels as they present local events as found across the year, each event prefaced usually with explanatory intertitles. For example, Bognor Regis Review of 1929 - 1930 presents King George V and Queen Mary, Mahatma Gandhi, a parade of Freemasons, new fashions from Eve’s Holiday Wear, the high-kicking dance routine of the Jack Allan Express Girls and Arthur Lang - the World Yo-Yo Champion. Later films made by the Society document Alan Cobham’s Air Circus and the presence of the German Graf Zeppelin in the Sussex sky.

Amateur records also offer us the seaside as seen from different perspectives. John Mitchell’s film, The Palace Pier (1961) revels in the material detail of this famous seaside attraction from the Helter Skelter, the Penny Arcade, the painted signs (“Thrills without Spills”), the Ghost Train and the candy floss. A Day’s Outing (1949) presents staff and children from Chailey Heritage in East Sussex, a centre for the “the assessment, treatment and care of children with complex physical disabilities”, enjoying a daytrip to the beach at Worthing [or Eastbourne?]. Extreme weather conditions at the seaside can challenge instantly the tourist-friendly and stereotypical view of the seaside. Herne Bay in Kent is seen coping with the floods of 1953 (The Great Storm) and witnessing the rare occurrence of the sea freezing during the winter of 1963 (Herne Bay on Ice).

Holiday films

These amateur films are the work of holiday-makers and day trippers who used film to capture the beauty and excitement of being by the sea with loved ones. The resulting films also served as a very modern form of the souvenir. Although they are personal documents, their content is often quite similar to the generic seaside publicity films. Bathing Beauties (1929) is a good early example of the seaside holiday film. Made by Ralph Staley at Bognor Regis, it presents his view of his wife and daughter on the beach. The women wear swimsuits and bathing caps and are seen together against a backdrop of beach huts, deck chairs and other visitors. The pleasure of this experience is captured by shots of Pam dancing on the sand and playing leapfrog. Like the seaside films found within the Emberton collection, this film represents both a personal and a gendered view of the seaside. Ralph Stalley employed this new technology (a 16mm camera) to represent his family and their shared experience, both mother and daughter being very conscious of being filmed by ‘Dad’. Many other films of a similar nature are found in the Screen Archive South East collection and they all draw attention to the prominence of the holiday film as a specific genre within the history of the home movie.


References

Corbain, A., The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, Polity Press, 1994.

Fisher, S. (ed.), Recreation and the Sea, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.

Gilbert, E.W., Brighton: Old Ocean's Bauble, Flare Books, 1975 (first published 1954).

Walton, J.K., The English Seaside Resort: A Social History 1750-1914, Leicester University Press, 1983.

Walton, J.K., The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century, Manchester University Press, 2000.